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  January 22, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

All About Saul
by Matthew Price

James Atlas' long awaited biography of Saul Bellow was arguably the most anticipated literary event of the fall season. Ten years in the making and many times postponed, Bellow: A Biography(Random House) sharply divided the critics. Unfriendly reviewers complained of Atlas's hostility to ideas and his schoolmarmish disapproval of Bellow's tumultuous love life. But Atlas also had his champions, who vigorously praised him for his hard labors and prodigiously researched inquiry into Bellow's life.

Critic James Wood led the charge against Atlas in his long review for The New Republic. Atlas was a muckraker, Wood charged, more obsessed with Bellow's amours than his art. Lavishing fulsome praise on Bellow—"Joyce is his only obvious twentieth-century rival"—and noting his profound influence on American letters, Wood dismantled Atlas for his unprofound take. "He writes of Bellow as if were writing a life of Joyce Carol Oates or Richard Ford, some middler who oddly managed to bag the Nobel prize...[his book] has the tone of a Vanity Fair profile.."

In an even more venomous notice in The London Review of Books, Richard Poirier pulled no punches. "His sense of the life is on the whole censorious, flat minded and peremptory. Errors and confusions abound, as do misreadings of passages from Bellow's correspondence." Keith Gessen, the book columnist for Feed, was no less kind, ridiculing the 686 page tome as "this list of crimes, this page-turner of pop-toaster psychological explanations." "Despite his tremendous archival work and excellent ear for the witty quote, " Gessen went on, "Atlas seems unwilling, in the interest of lame reportorial objectivity, to distinguish between the essential and the irrelevant, between insightful critique and malicious gossip."

Meanwhile, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the waspish Fredric Rapahel managed to condescend to both Bellow and his biographer, likening the former to a "tenant marooned on the top floor of a cultural rooming house, all of the other stories of which have collapsed," and Atlas "to a lonely elevator boy, asking for an encouraging word on the way up."

Luckily for Atlas, there were a few passengers in the up car willing to give the poor kid a tip, and some kind pats on the back. John Gross, reviewing in Commentary, praised the book as "lively, intelligent and readable as it is thorough. Its judgements, more often than not, are persuasive." In the Chicago Tribune, Todd Gitlin saluted Atlas' dogged research and archival efforts. Atlas, Giltin writes, is "a devoted haunter of libraries, a collector of letters. He is literate and writes breezily, so his book is that seductive achievement, a 'good read.'"

And if that wasn't enough emollient to sooth the hurt inflicted on him by Messrs. Wood, Poirier, and Gessen, Atlas could no doubt take comfort from John Leonard's tribute in The New York Times Book Review. "A biographer more scrupulous than Atlas is hard to imagine...I could no more stop reading this biography than I could stop reading Saul Bellow," Leonard swooned.

Matthew Price


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