Sons of famous fathers rarely eclipse their parent. Although there are some notable exceptions (JFK and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes come to mind), the singularity of purpose, the ruthlessness that lead to lasting renown, as well as the perks and vicissitudes that come with fame, none of these reward excellent parenting nor allow children the same crucible to ignite a flame that might burn brighter than their parent’s. That children of the famous write memoirs is common; that they have insight is less so.
This comes to mind because on April 25, Writers Bloc presents “Saul Bellow & The Holocaust: Gregory Bellow With Rabbi David Wolpe,” on the occasion of the publication of “Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir” (Bloomsbury). The event will take place at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.
Gregory Bellow (or Greg, as I’ll refer to him), lives in Redwood City, Calif., and has been a practicing therapist for some 40 years. In a recent phone conversation, he described himself as a “contemporary psychoanalytic therapist” who was much influenced by the work of psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, who developed self-psychology. As he explained: “Most theories of the self seem to have two components: a more inner-directed and a more outer-directed self.”
His approach in writing his memoir was much the same: to reveal the inner Bellow, the one the public never saw, and contrast him with the public figure. “I was definitely attempting to write a narrative that was emanating from the inside out,” Greg said. “I try to understand myself and my father and our relationship as deeply as I could.”
The public Saul Bellow accomplished great things: Following his first two novels, “Dangling Man” and “The Victim,” Bellow burst forth with “The Adventures of Augie March,” which took the 19th century bildungsroman and rendered it in 20th century vernacular, its prose dancing to a Yiddish nigun in a distinctly American way. Before “Augie,” American Jews writing fiction were not considered worthy; Bellow opened the doors. Back then, Greg recalled, “Jews did not belong in the literary firmament. Saul and his brilliant friends proved them wrong.”
Bellow continued to produce vexing, challenging and wildly pleasurable novels throughout his long career; even his late novellas, such as “More Die of Heartbreak” and “Ravelstein,” had their pleasures.
But Saul Bellow, the man, was a more complex matter. Born into a Yiddish-speaking home and able at an early age to recite long passages from the Torah in Hebrew, he escaped getting his hands dirty, literally, in the family coal business, by writing. In his 20s and 30s, he was imbued with leftist politics (he actually paid his respects to Leon Trotsky’s body in a Mexican morgue) and distanced himself from Jewish observance and identity. He spent the 1940s so completely focused on his writing and his self that he paid little attention to the fate of the Jews in Europe, for which he expressed great guilt later in life.
However, after Israel’s Six-Day War, which he witnessed as a correspondent, Bellow reaffirmed his Jewish identity. In the years that followed, as the American far left abandoned Israel, Bellow became increasingly neoconservative in keeping with his fellow University of Chicago faculty, which included Milton Friedman and Allan Bloom.
“Going to see Israel and witnessing the war firsthand was absolutely pivotal,” Greg said, “When I speak in L.A., I’m going to embellish on that. I’m going to advance a hypothesis about what was going on or what may have been going on.” He promised “a literary psychological hypothesis that I’m going to keep in suspense until the event.”
Saul Bellow’s private life was equally complicated. He married five times, had numerous affairs, bore four children — each from a different wife (the youngest born when Saul was 84). Greg gives portraits of all of the women in his father’s life, but the pain his mother endured still reads fresh.
“Everything was secondary to writing in my father’s life,” Greg said. “And that was the way it was.”
In 1976, Saul Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first American to win since John Steinbeck in 1962, and the first -Jewish-American to receive the honor. After that, in Greg’s telling, his father was “thought of more by what he wrote than who he was.”
Nonetheless, at his father’s funeral in 2005, Greg was struck by all those who knew Bellow as a literary figure, but saw themselves as his son. The title of his memoir’s introductory chapter, “Awakened by a Grave Robbery,” explains how that made him feel. At a panel later that year, Greg spoke about his father and began to feel he had something to say. He was further encouraged by a “long heart-to-heart conversation” with Janna Malamud Smith, Bernard Malamud’s daughter, also a psychotherapist, who wrote a perceptive and well-received memoir of her father (“My Father Is a Book”) that, Greg said, “was pivotal in my decision.”
He said he wanted people to understand something “about my father’s complexity, his humanness,” adding, “and I don’t think anyone else is in a position to make that case but me because I knew him so long, and I knew him so intimately, and I knew him in the way that I knew him.”
Although the book reveals things that Greg is sure his father would not have wanted made public, Greg felt it was his turn to speak about the man so many others claimed as their own.
“My father was a very complicated man,” Greg concluded. “He was definitely difficult to live with at times. I make that very clear in the book. I make it very clear that it took a toll on me, but I don’t think I’m doing him any harm.” When he finished the memoir, Greg’ gave it to his wife to read. Her review: “The love comes through on every page.”
This love, however, in true Bellow fashion, is a most complex affair.