Bellow — up close and personal

Nonfiction • Author's son looks back in search of 'emotional truth' of his family's life.
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Saul Bellow was one of America's most autobiographical novelists. From The Adventures of Augie March, through Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Humboldt's Gift and Ravelstein, old friends and enemies, ex-wives and lovers rise and fall like buoys in a current of memory. Never reluctant to make public statements, Bellow fueled our fascination with his art and life, and James Atlas' massive biography, published in 2000, opened up that life for a new generation of readers.

Greg Bellow, Bellow's eldest son has responded to this cache of criticism and biography in a new memoir. Part biography, part personal reflection, Saul Bellow's Heart is less a book about the making of a writer, or even the making of a father, than it is a search for a person.

Greg is acutely conscious of the ways in which his father had become a famous writer. He writes deftly of the growing split between the man he knew and the persona he was taking on. Movingly, he notes the estrangement that came from that persona: "By cultivating a literary persona that included the notion that he was tutored only by the great writers, Saul ignored the support and criticism he received from friends, colleagues, family, and even strangers."

Thinking back on his father's life, the son reflects: "I was troubled by the ways he revised the personal side of his early career."

This book, therefore, offers a corrective to the self-creation of the Bellovian persona and the self-presentations that made their way into Atlas' biography. Now a practicing psychoanalyst, Greg Bellow relies on his training to get at what he calls the "emotional truth" of his family's life. At stake is less a litany of facts than it is a narrative of inner feeling. Lovers of Bellow's novels will find familiar things illuminated in a different light.

This is a book of nuances. And for a writer who looms as large as Saul Bellow, we can value its insights.