When he began to work, about 13 years ago, on the project that would ultimately become "Bellow: A Biography" (Random House; 686 pages; $35), James Atlas could hardly have foreseen that his subject would father a daughter (at age 84) in late 1999 and produce a best-selling novel the following year. Atlas' book is thus considerably less conclusive than he surely intended. Among his many remarkable achievements, Bellow has outlived his own life.
The biographer's telling of the story so far proceeds smoothly enough but also quietly, since Bellow, like great authors in general, has spent his most adventurous and significant periods alone in rooms, filling up blank pages. The youngest of four children, growing up in Chicago, he decided that he would become a writer and proceeded, with relentless determination, to do so. His early novels attracted critical respect but little money; he was nearly 50 before Herzog (1964) produced his first big payday. As his fame grew, he attracted what seems like zillions of awards, including the 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Bellow's reputation is now so immense that younger readers may not realize how unlikely his success once seemed, at least to others. Atlas is good at portraying the obstacles the literary establishment placed in the path of a Midwestern Jew. When Bellow graduated from Northwestern University, the English-department chairman told him, "I wouldn't recommend that you study English. You weren't born to it." And this was intended as friendly advice. Bellow later resented being labeled a Jewish writer, not because he abjured his faith but because he found attempts to pigeonhole him and his work offensive. He did not join the mainstream of American lit; he rechanneled it.
The private life has not always followed the same glittering arc of triumph as the public one. Atlas rehashes Bellow's four failed marriages and argues that they can all be traced back to the death of the author's mother when he was 17, a loss that left him feeling abandoned and needy for a woman's protective, all-forgiving love. "Bellow," Atlas remarks, "wasn't a nurturing person." On the evidence presented here, it does seem more pleasant to be Bellow's reader than his spouse.
Atlas' attempts to show that he is not cowed by his subject sometimes take a prim, censorious tone. He mentions the feminists "who were offended, justifiably, by the way he (Bellow) depicted women in his novels." That "justifiably" skates over an extremely complex and contentious issue. Can anyone who knows Bellow's fiction, as Atlas manifestly does, really believe that the work would have been better without its politically incorrect characters?
"The record will show," Bellow said in 1994, "what the 20th century made of me and what I made of the 20th century." That task remains to be done, but this book is a useful and timely step in the right direction.