In a self-interview published in 1975, Saul Bellow approvingly quoted John Ruskin’s remark that, ‘No reading is possible for a people with its mind in this state. No sentence of any great writer is intelligible to them.’ What Bellow was lamenting was in part the decline of the literary world in America, the dominance of what he called the ‘grossly political’, along with a disregard for fundamental human truths. For Greg Bellow, writing about his father, this was the man whose early radicalism had given way to a new conservatism, who had rediscovered his Jewishness, supported the Vietnam War and expressed hostility towards black radicals and militant feminism (‘The only thing you women’s liberationists will have to show for your movement in ten years will be sagging breasts,’ he remarked to a graduate student). But then Greg confesses to a thirty-year cold war with his father even as he sets out to offer a more intimate and, he implies, truer account of a man who dominated postwar American fiction than any other available.
Saul Bellow’s Heart is a book in part about ownership. It begins with Greg’s sense of indignation that Martin Amis, rather than he, spoke at his father’s funeral, as if a British writer were the true son. Then there were the biographers and memoirists, with their own acts of appropriation,