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Bellow: A Biography

Atlas, James

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ISBN 10: 0394585011 / ISBN 13: 9780394585017
Published by Random House Inc, Westminster, Maryland, U.S.A., 2000
Condition: Fine Hardcover
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Fine/Fine Unread Copy. Protected By Archival Brodart Cover. Size: 8vo - over 7¾" - 9¾" tall. Bookseller Inventory # 001309

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Bellow: A Biography

Publisher: Random House Inc, Westminster, Maryland, U.S.A.

Publication Date: 2000

Binding: Hard Cover

Book Condition:Fine

Dust Jacket Condition: Fine

Edition: First Edition.

About this title

Synopsis:

Masterly, original, Bellow: A Biography is an extraordinary achievement, the brilliant and long-awaited biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author of Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March, and other bestsellers. National Book Award nominee James Atlas here gives the first definitive account of Bellow's turbulent personal and professional life, as it unfolded against the background of twentieth-century events--the Depression, World War II, the upheavals of the sixties--and amid all the complexities of the Jewish-immigrant experience in America, which generated a vibrant new literature.
          Saul Bellow's parents fled Russia in 1913 and settled with relatives in Canada, where Saul was born. Bellow's boyhood in Quebec and Chicago, marked by his family's transient existence and struggle for economic survival (his father was a bootlegger for a time), provided inspiration for many of the memorable characters and scenes that animate his fiction. It was in Chicago that Bellow came into his own, discovering his unique voice and encountering many of the women, as well as the writers and intellectuals, who were to populate his novels and his life. Atlas draws upon Bellow's vast correspondence with Ralph Ellison, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Robert Penn Warren, John Cheever, and many other luminaries in this rich and revealing account of one writer's experience of America's twentieth-century intellectual and literary history.
          As talented as he is enigmatic, Bellow has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award (three times), and, in 1976, the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his eighties, he published a new novel, Ravelstein, and, with his fifth wife, celebrated the birth of his fourth child.
          Detailing Bellow's volatile marriages and numerous tempestuous relationships with women, prominent intellectuals, publishers, and friends, Bellow: A Biography is a magnificent chronicle of the life of one of the premier writers in the English language.

Review:

James Atlas is a little self-conscious about having spent 10 years writing Bellow: A Biography, but it's hard to imagine how the job could have been done any more quickly. Clearly Bellow, in addition to being one of the 20th century's most acclaimed and prolific novelists, was also one of the most peripatetic. Not the least of his maneuvers were his efforts to dodge biographers, though Atlas's determination eventually wore him down ("He realized that you weren't going away," Bellow's son tells Atlas). The result is a full-scale biography in the tradition of Richard Ellmann's James Joyce--in other words, the biography that a writer and cultural figure as important as Saul Bellow deserves.

Bellow fans won't be surprised by the details of Bellow's life, many of which are familiar from his novels and essays: youthful Trotsky clubs; waiting to be called up into WWII; lifelong enthusiasm for anthropology, philosophy, European literature, and other Great Books; sarcastic wit that verges on the malicious; friendships and rivalries with Delmore Schwartz, Isaac Rosenfeld, Edward Shils, Allan Bloom, Ralph Ellison, and other literati; innumerable wives, lovers, divorce lawyers, child-custody battles, and alimony struggles; big-shot brothers who disparage intellectuals; and of course, his beloved city of Chicago. Atlas, himself a Chicago native from the generation behind Bellow, covers all of this with patience and considerable authority, balancing Bellow's lively, fictionalized accounts with a helpful amount of historical background.

Atlas is also very good at establishing parallels between the tone of Bellow's novels and his mood at the time of writing them. Often the two are so closely intertwined it's not clear which came first: the freewheeling style of The Adventures of Augie March, for example, or the exhilarating period in Bellow's life that accompanied it. ("The book just came to me," Bellow wrote. "All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it.") Similar parallels include the Flaubertian perfectionism of the early novels, the cuckold's outrage that inspired Herzog, the fame and loss that pervade Humboldt's Gift, the despair of The Dean's December, and the senescent recollection of The Actual and Ravelstein.

In a preface, Atlas, who is also the editor of the Penguin Lives biography series, describes the most discerning biographies as those "imbued with a profound sympathy for their subject's foibles and failings--imbued, to put it plainly, with love." One suspects that Atlas began this biographer-subject marriage with more love than remained when he finished; his disappointment with Bellow's character flaws (such as Bellow's tendency to portray himself as a blameless victim and his stubbornly anachronistic attitude toward women) is palpable. But his criticism of Bellow the man is always measured, and it has the nice effect of placing some of the more unsavory elements of Bellow's fiction in a kind of context. Bellow might not inspire a complete rethinking of Bellow's work, but it's a compelling reminder of its many pleasures. --John Ponyicsanyi

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