Reviews for Bellow : A Biography


Booklist Monthly Selections - #1 September 2000
Nobel laureate Bellow has frustrated the efforts of previous biographers, but Atlas, author of a highly regarded biography of poet Delmore Schwartz and founding editor of the Penguin Lives series, has succeeded masterfully in chronicling and interpreting Bellow's thoroughly literary life, difficult personality, and powerful work. Sharing his subject's Jewishness, devotion to literature, and intimacy with Chicago (the city, he observes, that Bellow has immortalized just as Joyce defined Dublin), Atlas writes forceful and fluent prose driven by his need to understand the man behind Bellow's controversial novels, notorious promiscuity, five marriages, and stormy friendships with men (including his boyhood comrade and rival Isaac Rosenfeld, the creepy Jack Ludwig, and Allan Bloom, the inspiration for Bellow's most recent book, Ravelstein [BKL F 15 00]). As Atlas traces the complexities of Bellow's Jewish-Russian-Canadian-American heritage, he argues convincingly that feelings of alienation and unworthiness are the fire that feeds Bellow's prodigious drive to write in order to heal his wounds, redress wrongs, and even exact revenge. Atlas also analyzes Bellow's fascination with the gritty side of life, mordant wit, perfectionism ("Bellow routinely threw out work that was better than what most novelists published"), academic experiences, conservatism, endless money and legal troubles, uneasy fatherhood (Bellow has one son by each of his first three wives and a baby daughter, born in his eighty-fourth year), and "jaunty vigor" in the face of self-created adversity. Book by book, relationship by relationship, prize by prize, Atlas portrays Bellow as a dapper and combative whirlwind of a man and a writer of "moral depth and commanding vision," tremendous artistry and chutzpah. Copyright 2000 Booklist Reviews

----------------------
Choice Reviews 2001 March
For years Saul Bellow frustrated the ambitions of prospective biographers by refusing access to his private papers (correspondence, drafts and revisions of works in progress) and interviews of his relatives or friends, but he finally acquiesced to Atlas, biographer of a close friend (Delmore Schwartz, CH, Apr'78). Atlas's impeccable research and lucid prose make for an accessible, rich account of Bellow's intellectual and emotional development as he emerges from the Yiddish-speaking immigrant milieu in Montreal and Chicago to become heir to Faulkner as the most significant US novelist of the 20th century. Atlas provides both biographical events and informed readings of Bellow's published works, setting the novels within the context of the resilient novelist's life. One serious qualm: Atlas's distinctly judgmental point of view results in his frequent citation of Bellow's moral failings, particularly his treatment of wives and friends. Though these matters have a place in biography, their reiteration leaves the reader with a sour taste of personal animosity and shifts attention from esthetics to ethics, from artistic achievements of the novelist to the value system of the biographer. That said, this substantial work of literary scholarship--complete with extensive bibliographical references--will undoubtedly be the necessary biography of Bellow for years to come. All academic and public collections. Copyright 2001 American Library Association

----------------------
Kirkus Reviews 2000 September #1
The definitive life of one of the century's great novelists.Atlas--a prominent journalist, editor, biographer (Delmore Schwartz, 1977), and cultural critic (Battle of the Books, 1992)--abandoned a projected biography of Edmund Wilson and turned to Bellow, whose "utterly distinctive voice" had long captivated him. (Bellow cooperated with Atlas but did not "authorize" his work.) He introduces the 22-year-old Bellow, freshly fired (for absenteeism) from his brother's coal-yard, and sketches the family's Russian-Jewish lineage (his father, who had fled to Canada in 1913, became a baker) and complete lack of interest in literature. Despite his environment, the future Nobel laureate was an extremely bookish boy, fiercely determined to become a writer in the faceof enormous contrary pressures. "In his own family," Atlas claims, "Bellow wasn't taken seriously." His struggle for success consumes the most compelling pages of this remarkable portrait. We're introduced to Bellow's literary heroes (Russians are prominent), his writing routines (five hours every morning, with "compulsive" revisions that essentially rewrite each book many times over), and his life-long love affair with Chicago. Each major work is examined in detail (with a précis, a summary of its critical reception, and a brief analysis). Like many literary biographers, Atlas is adept--perhaps too adept--at identifying the real-life counterparts of fictional characters, and he quotes a number of people who resented Bellow's portrayal of them. And he doesnot flinch from Bellow's prodigious reputation for womanizing--in fact, he positively leers at it (e.g., on an African river cruise, Bellow was "more interested in a Danish woman on board than in the wildlife"). Sometimes with sympathy, sometimes with opprobrium, Atlas describes some of the less appealing aspects of Bellow's personality (racism, narcissism, and misogyny)--but he also points out how the author, at 84, fathered a daughter and published a novel (Ravelstein, 1999) of "great originality."An unsparing but also affectionate portrait of the artist--with vivid splashes of scholarship, insight, and intuition.Author tour Copyright 2000 Kirkus Reviews

----------------------
Library Journal Reviews 2000 June #1
Atlas took on the difficult Delmore Schwartz and got a National Book Award nomination for this troubles. Now he takes on Bellow. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

----------------------
Library Journal Reviews 2000 October #1
Atlas's chronicle of Saul Bellow's life contains all the excess of contemporary literary biography. Yet, in the midst of the recordings of Bellow's arrogance, sexual insatiability, and peevish complaints to publishers and friends, Atlas provides a portrait of an exceptional writer who has immeasurably enriched American literature. Enlivening his narrative with interviews, letters, and reviews of the novelist's work, Atlas (Delmore Schwartz) traces Bellow's life from his birth in 1915 through his student years to his mature development as a novelist. Although Bellow's first two novels had disappointing sales, his dogged belief that he was meant to be a writer and his fiery persistence resulted in The Adventures of Augie March, which won him his first National Book Award and was hailed by many as the "great American novel." With remarkable critical acumen, Atlas engages in close readings of Bellow's novels, providing glimpses of the ways in which the novelist's art and life have often mirrored one another. Atlas also generously covers Bellow's relationships with Lionel and Diana Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Robert Penn Warren, and many other icons in American literary history. This exceptional and definitive chronicle of the life and work of one of our most eminent men of letters is highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/00.] Henry Carrigan, Lancaster, PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

----------------------