Books: Bellow the Word King

A biography of literary triumphs and private pains

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...

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