Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir
- Greg Bellow
- 228 pp.
- Reviewed by Sara Mansfield Taber
- June 6, 2013
The literary lion’s son reveals the human being within.
A memoir is always a search for understanding. Psychologist Greg Bellow’s quest was to comprehend his brilliant, extremely difficult, Nobel prize-winning father. In Saul Bellow’s Heart, which weaves memories and feelings with a discussion of Bellow’s novels, the son sets out to reveal the human being concealed inside the literary lion. The memoir accomplishes this beautifully.
But was this human being someone we would have wanted to know? In the first sections of the memoir, I was so repelled by Saul Bellow, the man, that it made painful reading. The man depicted is a self-centered, five times-married “epic philanderer,” expert at contorting logic to convince himself of falsities, justify his actions and free himself from guilt. “His career as an artist,” he believed, “entitled him to let people down with impunity.”
Bellow’s account of his father’s upbringing explains the writer, but does not inspire whole-hearted sympathy. Saul’s father, Abraham, had an “unseemly” attraction to women not his wife, beat his sons regularly and pitted them against each other. The father and sons regarded themselves as superior in every way: better looking and more intelligent than other people, as well as above the rules applicable to lesser mortals. Above all, Abraham abhorred softness. Abraham saw Saul as an emotional weakling because of the bullying he received from his brothers and peers; he sneered at Saul’s interest in literature. Saul defended himself against this father who would never love him with intellect and a lashing tongue, and developed into a defiant young man who sought solace from tender women whom he later rejected.
Despite his blistering upbringing, Saul took great pride that, when he was five, his job was to venture outdoors on winter mornings to crack the ice on a barrel and get pickles for his impoverished family’s meal. This experience of belonging instilled in him a belief in self-sacrifice out of “family feeling,” and became his relational ideal. Though he later wielded this belief to manipulate others, it was from this philosophy, that he was able to construct a nest of the sharp twigs his father tossed him.
Saul’s own son was devastated, at age eight, when Saul left the family. Greg became the latchkey child of a depressed mother, spending his days longing for his father. That father, meanwhile, considered himself a starving artist who shouldn’t be troubled with such trifles as alimony.
When Greg attended the University of Chicago, where Saul was a faculty member, his idealization of his selfish father faded, and he turned rebellious. Greg became a committed socialist repelled by the trappings of Saul’s fame, and rowed with his father over the Vietnam War. The son, pessimistic about relationships due to his father’s marital history, adopted the Bellow defense of feigning untouchability, and began to flounder academically. Only when Greg decided to major in psychology did his life turn around. His psychotherapy training gave him a perspective opposite to that of his father: “a deep appreciation for the unvarnished emotional truth … Rather than fight my soft side, as my parents did, I eventually came to … see its value in my life, and to use it in my work.”
The conflicts that arose while Greg was in college began a 30-year war between father and son. Saul was threatened by his son’s choice of profession and, in response to the social turmoil of the 60s, changed from “a young man full of questions to an old man full of answers.” “The optimism and hope I loved and admired in ‘young Saul’ were buried under pessimism, anger, bitterness, intolerance, and preoccupations with evil and with his death, which lasted for the rest of his life.”
Transformed into a judgmental man with contempt for contrary opinions who demanded obedience as an elder, Saul spewed aphorisms such as, “The good thing about children having straight teeth is that they leave a clean mark when they bite the hand that feeds them.” His son was appalled.
Greg coped with this critical, controlling “old Saul” through geographical and psychological distance, but repeatedly tried to repair the “tattered relationship.” Saul “chose a life of singular literary purpose and a lifelong pattern of selfish conduct,” expecting everyone around him to sacrifice for him and his art out of “family feeling.” The author’s “greatest personal flaw,” the son concludes, was “an inability to give and take love freely.”
Despite his father’s incapacity for reciprocal love, the young Greg, like that very father, was able to cobble together a loving father and anchor from the scraps his father handed him. He recalls “honest, direct, psychological conversations,” on golden childhood visits with his father during which, when Greg expressed sadness, such as about his father’s always-imminent departure, his father could be tender, and Greg felt a deep connection. Never mind that Greg’s suffering was often, at least in part, due to his father’s actions. Sons can make nests of a few stray twigs. “Saul’s warmth and vulnerability was central to my ability to love … and was the glue that kept the pieces of my personality in place.” Greg Bellow notes, in passing, that his father bestowed upon him as well the ability to “relate to boys with broken hearts.” To me, that seemed Saul Bellow’s most obvious legacy.
Greg Bellow describes his father as a man “who surrounded his heart with a thicket.” Far from persuading me that Saul had a soft heart, this convinced me that Greg himself was the soft-hearted one, driven to forgiveness. The book portrayed for me, profoundly, that children have an undying need to love their parent, no matter how they are treated. The book might be an inquiry into Saul Bellow’s bristled heart, but it is perhaps to an even greater degree about the nature of a child’s heart: it must love. This book is about sons’ broken hearts — hearts broken by fathers — and how those sons find love in little crumbs, and make their way in life. This book is about how we human beings necessarily piece together nourishing versions of our pasts.
Saul Bellow’s life raises the old question: Can one be a great and a good man? To me, Greg Bellow is the great human being here. Unlike his father, he writes, “I created family for myself everywhere I went by being loyal to people I cared about.” Sometimes a memoirist isn’t aware of the deeper story he’s revealed. Maybe a feather of hope to soften our nests, from this tale of difficult fathers, is the demonstration that a family pattern of selfishness and emotional denigration can end if the offspring of a difficult parent takes the time to seek psychological understanding and insight.
As a psychologist myself, I found the father-son tale most intriguing, but lovers of Bellow’s fiction will find much to fascinate them here: the link, denied by the author, between the life and the stories; the account of Bellow’s relationship to Reichian analysis; the exploration of his marriages; and more.
In the end, I propose that perhaps this engaging and well-composed memoir should be retitled “Greg Bellow’s Heart” or, better yet, “Men Who Break Their Sons’ Hearts.”
Sara Mansfield Taber is the author of Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy’s Daughter. She has also published Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf, and Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia. Her essays, memoirs and cultural commentary have appeared in literary journals such as Southwest Review and newspapers, including the Washington Post, and have been produced for public radio. Website: sarataber.com, Blog: sarataber.wordpress.com