Mark Harris

Start Free Trial

James Atlas

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

From the subtitle on—the reference is to a poem by Robert Frost—["Saul Bellow; Drumlin Woodchuck"] is surely one of the most eccentric biographical works since A.J.A. Symons' "The Quest for Corvo." I call it a biographical work because Mr. Harris has written more a quest for Bellow than a conventional biography. "For specific facts you must go to a certified public accountant," he declares, and his indifference to facts in this research-dominated age is an act of sheer bravado: He "believes" that Bellow is associated with the Committee on Social Thought; introduced to one of Bellow's girlfriends in a restaurant, he fails to catch the name: "Stat or Stats or Stap or Staps." After a decade of purported research, he writes the novelist: "I date this letter your birthday. It is one of the hard facts I have about you." Wrong again, he discovers: "His birthday was not July 10 but June 10."

But then, Mr. Harris isn't really a biographer by temperament. He is a novelist and, like so many other contemporary novelists, self-obsessed. The main character in this curious narrative, it seems at first, is the biographer himself, a grievance-prone academic brimming with self-contempt and in perpetual competition with his subject….

Like Rousseau, Mark Harris is shameless; like Boswell, digressive: He reports on a telephone conversation with Richard Ellmann (because he is a biographer?), intimates sexual adventures memorable only for their ineptitude; lures Bellow to a party where, deserted by the wily novelist, he finds himself at two in the morning driving home an old girlfriend who lives somewhere in the Indiana Dunes. How painful this man's life must be! (p. 3)

Yet this odd biographer has managed to capture Bellow despite his preoccupation with himself. It was in "the details of daily life" that character stood revealed, Johnson maintained; and those details are here in abundance….

The table talk recorded here sounds just like Bellow—or just like Bellow ought to sound, anyway: Whittaker Chambers, he claims, "did more harm as an editor of Time than he ever did as a Communist."…

Bellow even shows through in his biographer's style. The novelist Richard Stern, with whom he stays on his pilgrimages to the Bellow shrine of Hyde Park, "wore moccasins and a somewhat ill-fitting overcoat sent to him by his father, who had inherited it as the result of a mistake in a restaurant cloakroom." (p. 35)

There are scenes in this biography that only seem to be from a Bellow novel: Bellow at a dinner party on the North Side of Chicago with an assortment of minor politicians and Chicago figures; Bellow attended by numerous girlfriends; Bellow on the Purdue campus having his Mercedes repaired ("I'm going back to Chicago tonight if I have to run all the way"). Like his tortured, sensitive, honorable, but on occasion ill-tempered protagonists, Bellow is too available to life; he succumbs to it, finds himself in impossible situations…. Yet it is just this susceptibility to experience that provides the material of Bellow's fiction. (pp. 35-6)

A lifetime of failure and disappointment have made [Harris] humble—despite an occasional lapse. "This book," he writes Bellow (a letter that goes unanswered, of course), "is going to be interesting, reliable, unique, kind, loving, appreciative, sound, intelligent, and artistic." And so it is. (p. 36)

James Atlas, "The Quest for Bellow," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 16, 1980, pp. 3, 35-6.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Robert Wilson