cover image Bellow


James Atlas. Random House (NY), $35 (704pp) ISBN 978-0-394-58501-7

Long promised and much postponed, this first major biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author proves to be well worth the wait. Atlas's vigorous and incisive portrait grows out of thorough research and intuitive understanding, yielding a sharp-edged provocative portrait. Born in 1915 in a small town near Montreal, Solomon (later Saul) Bellow, the youngest son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was nine years old when his family settled in Chicago. Capturing succinctly the drab but vital essence of the Jewish neighborhood of Humboldt Park, destined to be the touchstone of Bellow's fiction, Atlas charts Bellow's book-obsessed boyhood, his fraught relationships with his overbearing father and older brothers, and the death of his mother just after his graduation from high school. But when Bellow settles down seriously to become a writer, the biography finds its center. Atlas's depiction of Bellow's haphazard, self-absorbed personal life - his five marriages, his four children, his many lover, his wandering progress from Chicago to New York to Europe to various college campuses and back again - is tart yet sympathetic. He is at his best in describing Bellow's development as a writer and intellectual. Friendships and rivalries - with high school friend Isaac Rosenfeld, the Partisan Review crowd, Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago - and the polemics and passions of postwar literary America spur on the prolific Bellow. His first, more cerebral novels were followed by the sprawling, exuberant Adventures of Augie March, then by his three triumphant H-novels - Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Humboldt's Gift - among others. From here on in, the business of celebrity and the gradual narrowing of Bellow's vision occupy Atlas; he has a gimlet eye for the ravages of time and fame. This is an accomplished, compassionate but unsentimental life. Agent Jeff Posternak, Wylie Agency. 6-city author tour. (Oct.)