Reviewing the second volume of Zachary Leader’s biography of Saul Bellow, which covers the Nobel Prize-winning novelist’s life from 1965 (the year after the publication of Herzog) to his death in 2005, Abe Greenwald explores Bellow’s philosophical and ideological commitments. Greenwald praises Leader for producing a “sprawling anthology of Bellow’s ideas—politics, metaphysics, love, and more—and a treasure map to these ideas in Bellow’s life and fiction.” This is particularly important since
it is neither Bellow’s personal nor fictional explorations in the realm of the physical that are the most compelling elements of his life. Arguably, it’s his perpetual search for transcendence, for large systems or explanations that account for man’s existence. It’s what loaned his art a touch of the numinous and fueled the childlike sense of wonder he retained throughout his life. [The first volume of the biography] covered Bellow’s earlier flirtation with the radical and pseudoscientific psychology of Wilhelm Reich, and [the second] relays a particularly fascinating episode pertaining to his more earnest interest in “anthroposophy,” the mystical teachings of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925).
The episode is fascinating because it perfectly captures the intersection of some key Bellow traits, [among them] his desperate pursuit of the spiritual. . . .
Yet for all the value Greenwald finds in Bellow’s engagement with the philosophers, he also agrees with the critic Seymour Epstein’s biting comment on the novelist’s handling of the issue in much of his fiction (in this case the 1975 novel Humboldt’s Gift): “the novelist who has raised important questions owes us the integrity not to trivialize those questions by repetitive improvisation on a theme, no matter how adroit.” Greenwald concludes:
While Bellow possessed a preternatural gift for description—an ability “to call all things by some name,” as Bernard Malamud described it—his work was frequently stretched out of shape by circular, noncommittal musings on abstract notions. This was an indulgence he never tamed.