Richard Stern | The Nation

Richard Stern

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Richard Stern

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


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In the Acknowledgments section of his biography of Saul Bellow, James Atlas quotes a somewhat greater biographer, Samuel Johnson: "We know how few can portray a living acquaintance, except by his most prominent and observable particularities, and the grosser features of his mind, and it may be easily imagined how much of this little knowledge may be lost in imparting it, and how soon a succession of copies will lose all resemblance of the original."

Johnson knew few of those whose lives he described and none nearly as well as Boswell knew him. (Would he have been as pessimistic about the unreliability of history and biography if he'd read Boswell's book? Probably more so. The truer the portrait, the more repellent to such a subject.)

I'm not as pessimistic about discovery as Johnson was. So, for instance, well as I knew Bellow before reading Atlas's biography, I think I know him better now.

Know him?

I mean that I know more about the places he lived, what his parents were like, what others thought of him, what he said about many things, including me. (To my surprise, I learned that I was once mentioned in his will and that, perhaps after one of our arguments, I was removed from it.) It doesn't mean that my view of Bellow now is Atlas's. By no means.

Atlas also knows Bellow and was helped by him in the course of writing his book.1 He writes that he immersed himself in Bellow's records and acquaintances far more than he'd done in work for his prizewinning biography of Delmore Schwartz (whom he'd never met). Atlas wonders, though, if familiarity and labor have produced a better book. I think this is a better book, largely because Bellow is a more brilliant and interesting man than Schwartz was. (Indeed, his version of Schwartz in Humboldt's Gift is more interesting, amusing and touching than the one in the Atlas biography, which was--we learn in the new book--inspired by it.)

Better, truer; more interesting, more touching.

The first two distinctions don't matter in works of fiction. So the uproar over Bellow's Ravelstein and the real Allan Bloom doesn't bear on its power as a novel or, on the other hand, on the pain it gave and gives some who saw themselves "portrayed" and/or "betrayed" in it. They do matter, however, for biography. Would Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson be as good a book if it were a work of fiction--if, say, the Johnson in it hadn't lived or been a totally different man? It would not be. The understanding a biographer establishes with his readers includes the sense that he is telling as much of the truth as he's been able to gather about actual people and events. If that understanding is compromised, it constitutes an aesthetic betrayal different from--and, in my view, worse than--the "betrayal" of a fiction writer's acquaintance in his fiction.

I'm one of the many Bellow friends Atlas interviewed and whom he cites in Bellow: A Biography. Much I know and feel about Bellow is not in the book because I didn't tell Atlas about it. Some of it would have somewhat altered his portrait of Bellow; none of it would have altered it significantly.2

Most of the book's citations from me are from letters Bellow wrote me or I him.3 Such citations constitute the sort of record biographers and other historians have drawn on for the two or three hundred years in which history has been assessed as a function of it. If I'd given Atlas access to my diaries, he would have found another source of Bellow matter that would have expanded--if not deepened, let alone altered--his view of his subject. The subject of every biography has had millions of thoughts and experiences that have never--thank God--been recorded. It means that the gulf Johnson wrote about is an uncrossable one.

The difference between modern history/biography and, say, what constituted their equivalent in Thucidydean Athens or seventeenth-century Europe is enormous. Scholars don't believe that Pericles delivered the magnificent oration that Thucydides attributed to--that is, wrote for--him, though he probably delivered a speech that resembled it. Our problem with a presidential speech today is not the actuality of the words pouring from the presidential mouth but who wrote and even who conceived them. We're content that our conception of Periclean Athens is to no small degree that of Thucydides' interpretation of it, but the historical standard is different for modern events and people, those who leave their tracks in letters and diaries, interviews and film.

Atlas uses such archival materials and such biographical techniques as interviews, and he is far more aware of the hazards as well as the advantages of such usage than, say, Vasari was in his verbal portraits of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists, some of whom he knew. An experienced journalist, Atlas has a nose for bias and such vested interest as the desire of ordinary people to be part of the record of extraordinary ones. (This is probably a trait of most biographers.) He also raises the question of how his long biographical labor affected his book. Did he, like his mythical namesake, get so weary of "holding up" the "bewilderingly complex" Bellow world that the exasperated weariness created a portrait as far from actuality as Thucydides' Pericles was from the "actual" Pericles?

I've known Bellow for almost forty-five years. For many of those years, we've been close friends and have said things to each other we may not have said to other people. We have also quarreled, disagreed and not seen each other for months and even years at a time. Our politics have been different, and the difference counted--perhaps more for him than for me. Nonetheless, we are close enough so that a few days before I write these words, we could tell each other on the phone--the first time we'd spoken since my wife and I stayed with him and his wife in their Vermont house two years ago--that we loved each other. We are old men now, and I believe that we both thought it possible that we wouldn't see each other again. In that conversation, I told Bellow that I'd read much of Atlas's book and that he shouldn't be concerned about it. I said that Atlas had built a crate large and secure enough to deliver the marvelous sculpture within.

A few hours later, I finished the last 100 or 150 pages of the book. In them, I detected the kind of weariness Atlas himself mentions, but I saw it as a weariness complicated by judgmental anger. Atlas had interviewed many people who'd been hurt--or said they'd been hurt--by Bellow. Partly as an attempt to maintain his independence of and objectivity about Bellow, partly from exasperated weariness, partly from his sense that he'd surrendered--his verb--his life to another man, a man whom he'd been seeing in part through the angry eyes of others, Atlas became harsher and harsher in his assessments. So I wrote Bellow telling him that although what counted--the portrait of a remarkable person becoming over decades ever more remarkable--was intact, I believe that it was deformed by Atlas's querulous anger, if not by sanctimonious contempt, and that he and Janis (Bellow's wife) would do well not to read it. "Hector and Andromache," I wrote, "Don't need to know Thersites' version of their lives."

This was perhaps as unfair to Atlas as I thought he was, at times, to Bellow, but then Atlas writes that I am Bellow's "old and loyal friend," the "Boswellian explainer of the great man to the general public," so any unfairness to him has been--clairvoyantly?--subverted.

Very well. As friend of subject and author,4 I am disqualified from reviewing this--I'll risk two adjectives--fascinating and sometimes brilliant book. I will instead talk about Johnson's concern, the gulf between actuality and its representation in biography, conversation and history.

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.

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.)

I myself have written about Bellow as a man simpler in many ways than other people, one who very early in his life discovered his own powers and let them set his course. More important than what happened to him--and I'm persuaded by Atlas that such things as the death of his mother help explain much later behavior--were these exceptional powers, an extraordinary memory, an extraordinarily acute and cultivated sensorium (visual, musical, olfactory, tactile) and--let's call it--emotional power (unusual ability to empathize, sympathize, love, hate and also, be detached). Like most of us, Bellow is many things, but unlike most of us, he's more of a piece and has been that way a very long time. The piece is stamped "writer," indeed "great writer," and the pressure of that stamp isn't like most other professional pressures; but this is something that is talked about ad nauseam meam, and I'll not add to the nauseating complex here.

What I've mostly wanted to hint at is the difficulty of writing, reading and being the subject of other people's descriptions of oneself, and to spell out what Johnson said was the distance between the real, the remembered and the written version of reality, the deformation of the "was" in the "is."

Yet such versions are what we have of the past, the history and biography with which we're left. One work of history can challenge or even refute another, or it can add, refine or subtilize it. Even memories rub against one another. Yet I do not subscribe to the notion (of, say, Peter Novick's splendid book That Noble Dream) that tries to dispose of the actuality of objectivity. I don't think we should abandon the recording of actuality as an ideal or ever think that there's no crucial difference between what we believe is actual and what we know we've made up or lied about. Nonetheless, what we get when we describe something or someone is, at its driest and purest, metamorphosis.

The greatest--at least the most delightful--investigator of such metamorphoses, Marcel Proust, claimed that only in what he called "involuntary memory" does the past ever re-emerge with its original--and even more than its original--power. (Beckett's comment about this was that Proust showed that the only real paradise was a lost one.) That sensuous, unsummoned memory is clarified as reflections in a clear pool are, free of the dust particles and blinding light that make what's reflected almost impossible to see.

Atlas's Bellow is a work built around voluntary, elicited and recorded memory. It is a version of actuality that may be read, sometimes with shivers of remembrance, by its subject and his acquaintances. It has a truth of its own, somewhere between the original actualities, the complex feelings and memories of those who supplied the author with data, and the author's own gifts and feelings. The portrait of the great man who is its subject will be difficult to dislodge. Luckily, the man has left a far more powerful self-portrait, that of the mentality behind his beautiful books.


1. Although Bellow recently told me that he "opened himself" to Atlas, who, lately, seemed to have turned away from him. I said that Atlas probably didn't want his work to be compromised by affection. After I wrote him not to read the book, he answered that he wouldn't, that there was "a parallel" between it "and the towel with which the bartender cleans the bar." This image of biography as the soak of spilled drinks is the sort of thing Bellow has invented for most of his 85 years.

2. One description of me there is so peculiar--"the Oblomov-like Stern"--that I actually wrote Atlas to ask what it meant. When I told Bellow, he said that Atlas had probably not read the wonderful Goncharov novel. When I questioned the adjective in a letter to Atlas, he replied genially that Oblomov "is a sympathetic character and so are you."

3. Most of our letters are filed in the Special Collections of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago.

4. Cf. Atlas's well-done interview with me, originally commissioned by George Plimpton for the Paris Review, in Chicago Review, Fall-Winter, 1999.

5. No one seemed more different from his work to me than Samuel Beckett, whom I saw about once a year between 1977 and 1987. Cf. the portrait of him inOne Person and Another (Dallas: Baskerville Books. 1993).

6. A book dedicated to me in which I play a minor role.

7. We both remember Bellow's early portrait of the terrific Chicago con man, Yellow Kid Weil.

8. One of John F. Kennedy's "girls" is said to have described the relationship as "the greatest thirty seconds of my life."