Until into his senior years, Greg Bellow abided by his towering literary figure of a father’s rule that any connection between his novels and the family’s real life were not be discussed outside the home – or even in it, for that matter.
At 68, the son has published a memoir of Saul Bellow, the Montreal-born Nobel Prize winner, finally “having my say,” as he put it during a recent appearance at the Jewish Public Library (JPL).
Bellow is the eldest of the writer’s four children, born to the first of his five wives, social worker Anita Goshkin.
“I owed it to myself and to my mother to break the taboo,” he said.
Born in 1915, Saul Bellow lived in Lachine until the age of nine, when the family moved to Chicago. He died in 2005.
Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir is an intimate look at the writer before he became revered, an aspect Greg felt was important to show in contrast to the public persona.
According to the younger Bellow, this father was a very different man before achieving the heights of the last 20 or 30 years of his life, much more of a “humanist, more vulnerable” – hence, the title.
His son maintains that his father’s novels are “deeply autobiographical… I can link up the books with events in his life.”
Greg said he found the courage to write the book after another famous author’s child, Janna Malamud Smith, published My Father Is a Book, about Bernard Malamud. There was a similar code of silence in the Malamud household.
It took Bellow, a retired child psychotherapist living in Redwood City, Calif., five years to write the 240-page book.
The elder Bellow published his first novel, Dangling Man, in 1944, the year Greg was born, but when he was growing up his father was still struggling to establish himself.
Bellow spent some of his childhood in Paris where his mother worked for the Joint Distribution Committee, helping orphans of the Holocaust after the war.
At the JPL, Bellow avoided talking directly about his relationship with his father. He did emphasize how significant the early years in Lachine were for his father, and how fondly he looked back despite the poverty and a charming, but often brutal, father. (In the 1980s, Lachine named its public library for Bellow, an event he attended.)
While in Montreal, the younger Bellow had a chance to meet for the first time descendants of the Bellow and related Gameroff families living here.
“He treasured those years and often spoke wistfully about them… It was like Eden without the evil for him.”
He told his son stories about these Russian immigrants trying to scratch out a living, his father, Abraham, trying everything from junk dealing and bootlegging to matchmaking while in Lachine.
“Living on the edge drew the family closer – everyone had to pull their weight. At five, my father had the job of breaking the ice on the pickle jar. He took pride in this shared responsibility,” Bellow said.
Bellow believes there are many similarities between the fictional Moses Herzog’s father and Saul’s own dad.
Bellow refers to the women his father married after divorcing Goshkin as “all my mothers,” with the possible exception of the last one Janis Freedman, who was 43 years younger than Saul, and about 15 years the junior of Greg.
“My father was most pessimistic about the relationship between men and women,” he said.
“All of his wives had an immense strength in their own way. My mother was formidable, tough as nails.” She had to be. In their 15 years of marriage, the couple had 22 addresses.
“At the beginning of each marriage, the romance was great, but when the women started to assert their will, he chafed at any control… He was still complaining about my mother 20 years after their divorce.”
One way that Bellow senior changed over the years was in his political views. “Scholars could argue for 300 years about my father’s politics. He wrote for a Trotskyite newspaper when he was in university,” but he grew much more conservative if not cynical.
Asked what Judaism meant to his father, Bellow replied: “I can give a superficial answer, but it deserves four or five books.”
His father was brought up in a traditional home, studied the Torah and had a bar mitzvah.
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He fell away from religion in his youth. Bellow recalled that on one Yom Kippur his father asked his grandfather if he could borrow his car to visit his Communist friends.
“In his literary development, he [at first] felt it was constraining to be thought of as a Jewish writer… In order to be a great writer, he felt he should not be seen as an immigrant kid from Chicago.
“I was brought up by a man who was not practising… I had no bar mitzvah. My left-leaning parents asked me if I wanted one, and I said no… They were very permissive. Later on, I felt it was a terrible mistake to let me get away with that.”
The elder Bellow’s attitude changed when he visited Israel as a journalist during the Six Day War. The experience “transformed his identity as a Jew… He realized that war could have been another Holocaust.”
The son thinks his father’s subsequent novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, is “a confessional book” reflecting that change of heart.
“After that, he stopped complaining about being called a Jewish author.”