Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 19th, 2018

An awkward utilitarianism

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Two decades ago, the critic James Wood published a scathing review in The New Republic of James Atlas’s biography of Saul Bellow. Wood acknowledged that the book was “very diligent,” but he found that it suffered from at least two fatal flaws. The first was that it was insufficiently reverent toward the novelist whom Wood considered “the greatest writer of American prose of the twentieth century,” a shortcoming that he framed in amusingly petty terms: “[Atlas] writes of Bellow as if he were writing a life of Joyce Carol Oates or Richard Ford, some middler who oddly managed to bag the Nobel Prize.” And a page or so later: “Atlas proceeds as if he were writing the life of Stanley Elkin, not the unfolding of a will-to-greatness.” His second objection was that Atlas had paid undue attention to the unpleasant details of Bellow’s personal life. After quoting from a speech that Bellow once gave at his birthplace—“We are people capable of freedom, and some of us are even willing to take chances for the sake of freedom”—Wood made an extraordinary argument:

A biographer should write the history of this passage to freedom, should see that a superior soul with superior gifts has to be accounted for. It is an elitist assumption, no doubt; but without such an assumption the biography of a great writer leaks away its rationale. Bellow’s “sins”—how he treated his wives, and how self-regarding he was—were committed in the process of creating an imperishable body of work. It is not so much that they should be “forgiven,” whatever this means, than that they must be judged in the light of the work of which we are the beneficiaries. An awkward but undeniable utilitarianism must be in play: the number of people hurt by Bellow is probably no more than can be counted on two hands, yet he has delighted and consoled and altered the lives of thousands of readers.

It’s fair to say that the final sentence—which could be applied equally well to, say, James Levine or Roman Polanski—probably wouldn’t fly today. But it’s worth looking at some of the “sins” that caused Wood to recoil so strongly. He doesn’t cite any specific passage from Atlas’s biography, but he must have been thinking of moments like this, which concerns Bellow and his second wife Sondra Tschacbasov:

On Labor Day, Bellow came to pick up [his son Adam], but Sondra wouldn’t let him go. Bellow alleged that she tore his clothes and “bruised” him. “He beat me up,” Sondra countered, claiming she was “bedridden for a week. Did I give him a slap? I did. But he retaliated violently—more than once.”

This doesn’t make for pleasant reading, regardless of your feelings toward Bellow himself. Just two years ago, however, the scholar Zachary Leader published the first bulky volume of The Life of Saul Bellow, a massive undertaking that was widely seen as a respectful corrective to Atlas’s work. (The second half, which covers the last four decades of Bellow’s life, is due later this year.) In the course of his research, Leader was allowed to read an unpublished memoir by Tschacbasov, in which she gives a graphically detailed version of the same incident: “He was spoiling for it, I could see his tense lip and twitch that always telegraphed a simmering rage…I slapped him and he grabbed me by the ponytail and swung me around punching me with his other hand. I was bruised for a week and took out a restraining order.” And in a letter that Tschacbasov wrote to her lawyer shortly afterward, she describes her injuries as “severe bone bruises behind one ear, cuts on my left temple and left eyelid, and a bad bruise on my left breast. My scalp is a mess of lumps and bruises.”

As Principal Skinner once said to Superintendent Chalmers: “Oh. That’s much worse.” And remember, this is from the biography that was supposed to rehabilitate Bellow’s reputation. (It also includes an account of an incident of which Tschacbasov wrote to Bellow: “As you know, you dragged me from the car by my hair across the lawn, kicked me and whipped me with your cap.”) Leader spends much of his discussion of this episode parsing whether Tschacbasov’s slap—which she didn’t mention to her lawyer—could be “mistaken for an attack,” and he concludes: “Both parties were shading the truth.” He also apologetically explains that he’s only bringing up these accusations at all “because they are part of the life Bellow lived as he wrote Herzog.” In the finished novel, which is clearly based on the end of Bellow’s marriage, Herzog merely fantasizes about beating up his wife Madeleine, who is leaving him for another man:

Herzog…pictured what might have happened if instead of listening so intensely and thoughtfully he had hit Madeleine in the face. What if he had knocked her down, clutched her hair, dragged her screaming and fighting around the room, flogged her until her buttocks bled. What if he had! He should have torn her clothes, ripped off her necklace, brought his fists down on her head.

“In early versions of the novel, Herzog uses physical force on Madeleine,” Leader writes, referring us in a short footnote to another study of the most autobiographical of American novelists—and then he just moves on. As far as I can tell, none of the reviews of Leader’s biography, and there were a lot, dealt with this material at any length. Of course, that was two years ago, and if we haven’t gotten around to Bellow yet, like André Gide, it’s because it hasn’t occurred to us. He can get in line. Which is a form of utilitarianism in itself.

And I’d like to think that James Wood might have second thoughts now about his “awkward but undeniable utilitarianism,” or at least about its undeniability. Learning to deny it is largely what the events of the last six months have been about, and it matters what our most prominent literary critic thinks about our greatest novelist, even—or especially—if their relationship was even closer than they let on. In The Shadow in Garden, James Atlas’s book on the art of biography, he refers to Wood as one of Bellow’s three “nonconsanguineous” sons, and he notes of the critic’s negative review of a memoir by the novelist’s actual son Greg Bellow:

At least Wood was upfront about his partisanship: he mentioned that he had co-taught a course with Bellow at Boston University. And if you looked back at a tribute in The New Republic Wood had written eight years earlier, just after Bellow’s death, it emerged that they had been close friends: their daughters had played together; Wood and Bellow had played piano (Wood) and recorder (Bellow) duets. And they grew still closer toward the end: “In the final year of Bellow’s life, as he became very frail, I would read some of his own prose to him.”

It’s hard for anyone to acknowledge the worst about a man whom he loved—but it’s equally true that if our current moment can’t force James Wood to rethink Saul Bellow, then it might not be worth as much as we hope. It can’t just be an excuse to find more reasons to hate Brett Ratner. We have to look closely at the men who might be our fathers. It’s worth noting that along with Wood, Atlas lists two other men as Bellow’s three surrogate sons. One was Martin Amis. The other was Leon Wieseltier, Wood’s editor at The New Republic, who was accused last year of decades of sexual harassment, and who also wrote admiringly after Bellow’s death: “I always had the feeling about Saul that he was inwardly at war, that he breakfasted with his demons.”

Quote of the Day

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The equal sign in the formulas of the physicist is a basic metaphor used by many artists. While physicists demonstrate that A equals B or that X is the same as Y, artists often choose signs, symbols and allegories to equate a painterly image with a feature of experience. Both of these techniques reveal previously hidden relationships.

Leonard Shlain, Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light

Written by nevalalee

March 19, 2018 at 7:30 am

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