Reviewing the second volume of Zachary Leader’s two-volume biography of Saul Bellow, which covers the time from the publication of Herzog until his death in 2005, Jeffrey Meyers writes:
James Atlas’s biography, published in 2000, was unremittingly negative, even condescending. Zachary Leader’s work, though superior to Atlas’s and better than his first volume, still has some serious flaws. He swallows Keith Botsford’s absurd claim that his subject “is a direct descendant of Machiavelli” and misses [many of Bellow’s learned] allusions.
Leader constantly tries to connect every person and event in Bellow’s life to his or its fictional counterpart instead of emphasizing [the author’s] imaginative transformation of experience. In a typically sinking and superfluous sentence he writes of a minor novella The Actual: “Bellow identified Herb Passin, a friend since high school . . . as the model for Harry Trellman; Marilyn Mann, the second wife of Sam Freifeld . . . as the model for Amy Wustrin . . . and Freifeld himself as the model for Amy’s second husband, Jay Wustrin.” As Bellow wrote of a friend’s mediocre work, “It has too much extraneous data . . . too many lists of names. . . . So much lavish documentation makes the reader impatient.” . . .
Bellow punctured the pretentious, unmasked the delusions, and deflated the reputations of several intellectual phonies, blackballing LeRoi Jones, Edward Said, and Susan Sontag for MacArthur fellowships. He was severely condemned for his provocative but hilarious challenge: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” But no one ever answered his attack on cultural relativism and he did not apologize. . . .
Leader defines Bellow’s recurrent themes as “the relative claims of life and work, the intensity of childhood experience, [and] sexual insecurity.” He could have added Jewish life and identity, the perils of matrimony, and the defects of modern civilization. Bellow vividly defines his settings and characters by minute particulars. In a frail and aged man, “only the pacemaker under his shirt had any weight.” An oppressive character “wouldn’t put you in his fish-tank for an ornament.”