‘Every life has a theme’, wrote Isaac Rosenfeld in an essay on Gandhi. The theme of his own life, and of this biography, was failure. Rosenfeld was born in Chicago in 1918 and with the publication of his novel Passage from Home in 1946 was pronounced a golden boy of American letters. Yet almost nothing followed – critical essays, some short stories, true; but mainly page after page of unfinished manuscripts. Ever increasingly, Rosenfeld was overtaken by his Chicago friend-turned-rival Saul Bellow, who took his crown. Rosenfeld died of a heart attack in 1956, aged thirty-eight. Even the novel Bellow wrote about him, Charm and Death, remained unpublished, an excerpt ‘Zetland: By a Character Witness’ salvaged to appear as a short story. Even poor Delmore Schwartz did better, in that other Bellow novel of a friend’s failure, Humboldt’s Gift.
‘Yes, I knew the guy. We were boys in Chicago. He was wonderful,’ wrote Bellow of Rosenfeld’s precociousness in ‘Zetland’:
At fourteen he had already worked out and would willingly tell you how everything had come about …
It went like this: First the earth was