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Son's portrait of Bellow insightful, if plodding

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In the years after his death in 2005, Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976, has enjoyed, posthumously, a revival of sorts.

Some would argue that his signature novel is Herzog (1964); however, although he continued after 1964 to write some of the very finest fiction in English, the later 20th century was not consistently kind to his reputation. His first son Greg Bellow's affecting, if somewhat plodding memoir offers one plausible, if partial explanation for why this might be so.

The father of three sons (Gregory, Adam and Daniel) from three marriages, Bellow as a young man -- indeed, into early middle age -- was a womanizing, free-thinking and rebellious artist who strove to break free from his Jewish roots, his stern father and cloying mother, his brash and materialist businessmen brothers, and his immigrant background.

(Bellow was also broken free from his birthplace in Lachine, Que.; the family moved to Chicago, long identified as Bellow's literal and fictional home ground, in search of better opportunity when Bellow was a boy.)

More to the point for Greg, his father Saul -- the "Young Saul," as he calls him -- largely hid his perennial softer side, his intuitive, emotional, psychologically sensitive self from public view, and, sometimes, as a father as well. This son's portrait of the father reveals, as its title advises, the heart; but the father's tenderness was often concealed, available only to his son and to his immediate family and close friends, and then only fitfully, inconstantly.

But the Young Saul of this memoir is a far more attractive figure than the Old Saul, the dyspeptic, increasingly intolerant Bellow who decried what he perceived as the lax permissiveness of the '60s and the subsequent general decline of Western culture; Bellow's last full-length novel, Ravelstein (2000) is his homage to his friend Allan Bloom, author of the famous polemic The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Greg documents the painful quarrels and long breaks in their bond that he and the Old Saul endured as, increasingly, their values clashed. Clearly, Nobelist Old Saul became a less sympathetic, less accessible, less attractive figure -- or father -- to his son, now himself a man.

Bellow junior, by profession a psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapist for 40 years and a PhD, is painstakingly and unflinchingly honest in his portrayal of these frictions throughout his memoir, and his analysis of his famous father is as insightful as it is forthright.

But unlike either the Young or the Old Saul, the son is not a gifted writer, and his striking perceptions of his father's foibles are not always well served by an occasionally leaden prose.

James Atlas's masterful biography Bellow (2000) remains the definitive portrait of the writer many see as the finest American novelist of the last half of the 20th century. Greg's heartfelt rendition of the father behind the writer does add an intimate -- almost too intimate -- coda to Atlas's monumental study.

It may well be that writing this short but intense memoir was therapeutic for its author; that is well and good. Ironically, for many of its other readers, however, Saul Bellow's Heart may prove at once too psycho-clinical and too personal.

Better to read Old Saul's masterpieces, such as Herzog, or The Victim, or Dangling Man, The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Mr. Sammler's Planet, or Humboldt's Gift -- or any of his other novels, novellas, or fine short stories -- because therein lies an artist's truer heart.

Canadian literature scholar Neil Besner is provost and vice-president, academic and international, at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 J7

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