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What Is What Was? | The Nation

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What Is What Was?

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I've read a number of books and hundreds of articles about people I've known. There are few, though, from which I've not learned often surprising, even shocking, facts, none in which I haven't felt at least some distance between what was written and what I knew. At times, as in the case of Bellow, my complex admiration for the central portrait has complicated and deepened my admiration for the friend portrayed. Reading remarks Bellow made or wrote years before I met him made me realize even more how remarkable a person he was and is.

About the Author

Richard Stern
Richard Stern's tenth novel, Pacific Tremors, will be published in 2002; his others include Golk, A Father's Words and...

Twenty-odd years ago, the day after I finished reading the manuscript of Humboldt's Gift, I had lunch with its author and said to him that it was difficult for me to think that the man across the table was the same man who'd written that profound, delightful and beautiful book. The man eating a sandwich and drinking tea talked with me about ordinary as well as extraordinary things, but nothing out of his mouth came close to the depth and beauty of what was on its best pages, and I said something like, "Yet there's less distance between you and your work than between any writer I've known and his."5

Atlas's biography has narrowed that distance for me. For all the schmutz that accumulates about and spatters the central portrait, it emerges as that of a very great man becoming great in the course of a long life of activity, acquaintance, introspection and expression. There is more original power in the intelligence recorded here than in 95 percent of biographies. Atlas does not have the mimetic power of Boswell or of a writer he rightly praises here, Mark Harris, author of a delightful Bellow book called Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck;6 he does not have the stylistic or analytic gifts of Samuel Johnson or Richard Ellmann, but what he does have is access to hundreds of brilliant Bellow observations and analyses outside of Bellow's books. Atlas's Bellow is like a match, Atlas's contribution being the assemblage and, perhaps, the wooden stem, Bellow's the sulfur that, rubbed, ignites and fires the wood.

The day the galleys of this book arrived in the mail, I saw my sister-in-law, who, days earlier, on a trip with her husband to Israel, had swum in the Dead Sea. She said there were all sorts of perils there, the crystalline spears one dodges to get to the viscous water, which deposits a salty scum on one's skin, and the water's semi-impenetrability, so that if one somehow managed to dive into it, ascending would be dangerously difficult. I felt an analogy to the perils of biography. The subject is himself almost impenetrable, guarded by fearful suspicion and his own complexity; even after getting access to him, the progress is difficult, and biographer-readers are left with the scum of his resistance to their penetration.

I've thought and talked about Bellow--and now this biography--with a few friends who also know him. Each sees Bellow in a somewhat different way; all condemn Atlas's version more than I. (I credit Atlas for collecting and organizing the materials that enable us to know more about Bellow; they blast him for his inability and/or unwillingness to understand him.) One friend, a first-rate novelist, thinks Atlas not only misunderstands Bellow's radical independence but resents it. So he sees a politically correct Atlas piling up criticism along familiar--to Bellow critics--misogynist, conservative and racial lines. He thinks that Atlas is shocked by Bellow's anarchic "cocksmanship," and when I suggested that Bellow had a grand streak of bad boy, if not outlaw, in him, he found a different way to express his own view: "He's a transgressive monkey. And a great con man."7 He makes Bellow into a version of a favorite character of his own fiction, a brilliantly anarchic, half-crazed sexual adventurer.

A former woman friend of Bellow's talked of his powers of devotion and charm. She detests Atlas's portrait, especially the account--to which she feels one of her letters has contributed--of his lovemaking.8 "He made me feel wonderful. I still love him." (She hasn't seen him in ten years.)

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