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In Bellow's shadow
New biography takes on legendary literary figure
(CNN) -- James Atlas doesn't think twice about the fact that he just spent a good part of the past decade writing a book on author Saul Bellow. Ten years? That sounds about right.
"Biographers, we're weird," says Atlas, 51. "For whatever reasons of conditioning, our temporal sense is different from other people's, and I knew it would take 10 years. And that's just the way it is."
And guess what? After all that work, Atlas says his subject, though he was supportive of the project, probably won't even crack the covers of the book bearing his last name.
"If I had to put my money on it," Atlas says, "I'd say he's not going to read it. He might leaf through it. He's not going to sit down and read it."
The pages will still turn in the life of this biographer, though. Not only has Atlas completed this long-term project, it's receiving solid praise.
"Bellow: A Biography" (Random House) takes on the legendary literary shadow cast by the author of a small library of classics that includes "Herzog," "The Adventures of Augie March," and "Humboldt's Gift." Bellow, born in Montreal, raised in working-class Jewish Chicago, shed his humble beginnings to build a remarkable career that has seen him win the Pulitzer, three National Book Awards, and the 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature.
At 599 pages, Atlas' "Bellow" takes an encompassing look at Bellow's life, melding together details of his work and his personal life. There's Bellow's stagger-steps through school; his interview at a Hearst newspaper that ended with the interviewer telling Bellow he might as well forget about writing; his flirtations with Socialism and Trotsky politics; his penchant for searching out new places to live; his friendships with fellow writers; his five marriages.
Atlas, who was nominated for a National Book Award in 1978 for his biography "Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet," considered a biography on Bellow for many years before committing to the work. He had reservations -- among them, could he write a definitive biography on a writer who was still living and writing -- and writing near the top of his game? (Bellow most recently released "Ravelstein," which received critical raves and rode the best-seller lists earlier this year.) And would Bellow be forthcoming with information about his personal life, which has endured its share of turmoil?
'This was amazing'
In the end, Atlas' wife, Dr. Anna Fels, set him on the 10-year path to this point.
"She's a very conservative person and has exceedingly good judgment," says Atlas. "Usually, she's telling me, 'Don't do this! Mistake.' And this time, she said, 'I really think you should write this book, whether he wants you to or not.' To me, this was amazing. And she was right."
Atlas had other reasons to do it, as well. Born in Evanston, Illinois, he grew up in that shadow of Bellow's accomplishments. Not only did Bellow spend his formative years in Chicago, but he attended Northwestern when Atlas' parents were there.
"In writing this book I'm writing about my own life, a generation removed," Atlas says. "But in the larger sense ... it was my discovery of Bellow's work, his voice that became for me the inspiration for this book. I was always fascinated by his life and wanted to know more about it."
A life of extremes
Along with the biographies on Schwartz and Bellow, who were literary colleagues, Atlas is a journalist who has written for publications like The New Yorker, the New York Times and Vanity Fair. He has also penned a novel titled "The Great Pretender."
But it's his gifts -- and "temporal sense" -- as a biographer that are on display here. In his research, Atlas received access to Bellow's letters to wives, lovers, friends and rivals. The book reads like an encompassing novel, with characters like Ralph Ellison, John Cheever and Robert Penn Warren entering and exiting.
Atlas doesn't pause at the bedroom door, either. Bellow was known for his sexual appetite, and with this justification Atlas serves us commentary on the author's love-making skills.
We learn that Bellow was "the-put-in-in-and-take-it-out type," according to one of his conquests.
"I had no reports which described him as a stud," Atlas quotes another source.
But what keeps the pages turning is the constant swaying of Bellow's emotional states. His is a life of extremes, according to Atlas.
"He describes himself as a mild depressive, and he goes through just terrible suffering, much of it self-generated," says Atlas. "And yet he's also an extremely buoyant person who finds a great deal in life to entertain and instruct and amuse him. He has a kind of vivacity about him. He's very funny, and he's very obsessed with certain themes."
He's also a writer who has battled self-doubt throughout his life, says Atlas.
"He's someone who experiences a certain amount of bafflement about his talents," Atlas says. "How did it happen? How did he become who he is? It's a great mystery to him. He really persuaded me that, at his level, it's mysterious. It just kind of came to him."
'I haven't lived in vain'
Atlas also claims that the reflections of Bellow's life are available for all to see in Bellow's novels. It's a theory that he admits has received criticism.
"If I could answer a critic, people like James Shapiro in the New York Times say that I extrapolate the life too directly and explicitly from the work," Atlas says. "But I don't really think that's true, and as I say very clearly -- page 190 -- one of the most interesting things about Bellow's work is the way in which it isn't autobiographical. By which I mean, he takes events from his own life and transforms them into literature.
"He himself has said you can follow the patterns and real events in his life by reading his books, which doesn't mean you can figure out his life by reading his books. Simply that the events in his life are the starting points for the books that he writes. But that's just the beginning," Atlas says.
" 'Augie March' is about his growing up; 'Seize the Day' is about his midlife crisis; 'Herzog' is about his second marriage," Atlas says.
During the research for the book, Atlas met with friends and colleagues of Bellow. He followed Bellow's life to places like Chicago and Paris. He also spent some time with Bellow, and in the end felt comfortable enough to tell him, "You're a good subject."
Bellow replied, "I'm glad I haven't lived in vain."
And it appears Atlas hasn't worked in vain. Reviews and book sales aside, he says he will treasure this experience.
"I've had such an adventure," he says. "Not only have I traveled all over the country and even to Paris, but I've met all kinds of remarkable people. And on an even deeper level than that, the experience of me negotiating my relationship with him and with his friends and lovers and wives and becoming involved with his children, and at the same time struggling to retain my distance and objectivity -- all these complications, emotional and psychological -- are fascinating. Those are the materials with which the biographer works. It's been amazing."
Saul Bellow Society and Journal
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