The Life of Saul Bellow

Zachary Leader

June 10, 2015 
Saul Bellow was born today in 1915. The following is from the first volume of Zachary Leader’s The Life of Saul Bellow which traces Bellow’s roots, his childhood, and his first three marriages. Leader is Professor of English Literature at Roehampton University and author of Reading Blake’s Songs, Revision and Romantic Authorship, and The Life of Kingsley Amis, a 2008 Pulitzer Prize finalist.


A story is told in the Bellow family about a moment of violence in the life of Abraham Bellow, the novelist’s father. In the summer of 1923, in Montreal, Abraham was in trouble. Deep in debt, with a wife and four children to feed, he had failed in a succession of jobs: as farmer, baker, dry goods salesman, jobber, manufacturer, junk dealer, marriage broker, insurance broker. Now he was a bootlegger on a small scale, pursued by agents of the revenue (in part because he was too poor to pay bribes). He and his partner, determined to make a killing, borrowed money to rent a truck, loaded the truck with crates of bootleg whiskey, and at nightfall headed for the border. Their plan was to sell to rumrunners up from New York, serious criminals. They never made it to the border. They were hijacked on the road, everything was taken, the liquor, the truck. When Abraham tried to resist, he was beaten, tossed in a ditch, and left to find his way back home on foot.

The whole family knew of the planned sale, even eight-year-old Saul, who helped to paste fake labels on the whiskey bottles. When morning came and Abraham had not returned, Saul’s oldest brother, fifteen-year-old Maury, was sent to find him. He ran to the partner’s place of work and waited. Eventually, he saw a figure in the distance, running “like the demons of hell were following him.” It was his father, in torn clothes, bloody, in tears. Reaching out to him, the boy said, “Pa, Pa! What’s wrong?” In the version of the story told by Maury’s son, “then my grandfather just beat the shit out of my father.”

To explain this moment one must know something of Abraham’s history. He was born in Russia in 1881, the first son of Berel and

Shulamith Belo (from the Russian byelo or bely meaning “white”). Berel was remembered by his children and grandchildren as a man of great learning and fierce temper. He was a traveling salesman for a wholesale grocer. He had red in his beard, “like all the men in our family,” drove a hard bargain, and was alleged to have been one of only seven men behind the Pale of Settlement, the area of czarist Russia to which most Jews were restricted, to know the Talmud by heart, a story of dubious authority told also of the narrator’s grandfather in Humboldt’s Gift (1975), where the number of such men is ten not seven. In “Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son,” a thinly fictionalized autobiographical novel begun and abandoned by Bellow (after 172 typed pages) in the first half of the 1950s, around the time of The Adventures of Augie March (1953), the Berel figure is described as “a famous Chassid.” Hasidism, a movement of pietistic enthusiasm among Orthodox Jews, particularly poor Jews from Eastern Europe, was associated with dance, song, storytelling, mysticism, and scholarship. In the novel, when the Abraham character, Jacob Lurie or “Pa,” has a drink, a rare occurrence, he is said to “lay his head on one shoulder and snap his fingers and dance a few Chassidic steps.” Abraham’s mother was the daughter of a flax merchant from Druya, the town where Abraham was born, on the border of Belarus and Latvia.

Druya was a small town, a shtetl rather than a village. Abraham went to cheder or Hebrew school in Druya, where he learned his alphabet (“Aleph, an ox. Beth, a house”) and how to read the prayer book and the Bible. Once the alphabet was mastered, “without further waste of time, the book was opened and you read Bereshith boro Elohim—the old story. God created heaven and earth.” For boys who were willing and talented, yeshiva followed, where one studied the Torah (the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses) and Talmud (rabbinical and other commentary and disputation concerning Jewish laws, customs, ethics, history). Abraham was sent away to yeshiva at a very young age. There he froze and starved, was infected with lice, and was soon back home. The family moved around, at some point settling in Dvinsk (Daugavpils), the nearest big town, thirty-six miles west of Druya. In the “Memoirs” manuscript, Abraham’s fictional alter-ego, Jacob Lurie, is said to have been at yeshiva till he was eighteen, though Bellow later has him brag that “at thirteen I was a young man. At fifteen I earned a living. At seventeen I had my own business in Kremenchug [in central Ukraine].” It has also been said that Abraham pursued rabbinical studies in Vilnius (Vilna), “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.” He was vain of his knowledge of the Talmud and disdainful of fellow Jews who had not attained some level of yeshiva education. One of his granddaughters remembers him dismissing the Jewish learning of an acquaintance with a Yiddish phrase, lernen ken er vi di vant, “his learning is as flat and featureless as a wall.” She also remembers him conversing knowledgeably on Talmudic matters with her maternal grandfather, an ordained rabbi.

Abraham was not one for the life of learning. He was restless, a traveler, “a good raconteur,” quick to anger, very loving one minute, very angry the next. In a 1990 interview Bellow described him as “violent, strong, authoritarian. He seemed to us as children an angel of strength, beauty, and punishment. His affections were strong, too. He was a passionate person.” Though neither a big man nor especially muscular, he was hot-blooded or ungehapteh (Yiddish), fighting with everyone. Bellow admired his father’s bravery. “He was a very feisty man, enviably I think. . . . He was just willing to fight.” In an undated letter to Irving Halperin, a professor of humanities at San Francisco State University, Bellow described his father as “a furious man, whirling with impatience. . . . a heavyweight tyrant following the example of Grandpa Bellow.” The oldest son, Maury, bore the brunt of Abraham’s hot temper, which he inherited, and Maury’s son, Joel, is understandably tough on his grandfather. “He liked tumult, he liked to cause a lot of hell.” He was “unmannerly, undisciplined, a troublemaker.” What Joel remembers hearing of Abraham’s time at yeshiva is a story about mixing pepper in the rabbi’s snuff. He also remembers his grandfather having fistfights in the street, into his sixties, after he’d become a prosperous Chicago businessman. If the old man was crossed, “he’d go at it physically.” There was a fistfight over the next door neighbor’s wife, with whom he was carrying on. He was hot-blooded in several senses. “I suspected he had his adventures,” Bellow told an interviewer, “must have had.” (“It’s an exceptionally smart man who isn’t marked forever by the sexual theories he hears from his father,” declares the narrator of Bellow’s story “A Silver Dish.” Bellow, of course, was an exceptionally smart man.) “He was a dude,” Joel concludes of Abraham, “Very important. Very important to all the boys. A tough guy. Tough emotionally? I don’t think so.”

Like Maury, Bellow was beaten by his father, but he was loved by him, and loved back. In the novella A Theft (1989), the narrator, Ithiel Regler, describes watching a television program about child abuse:

Most of what they showed was normal punishment in my time. So today I could be a child-abuse case and my father might have been arrested as a child-beater. When he was in a rage he was transformed—he was like moonshine from the hills compared to store-bought booze. The kids, all of us, were slammed two-handed, from both sides simultaneously, and without mercy. So? Forty years later I have to watch a TV show to see that I, too, was abused. Only, I loved my late father. Beating was only an incident, a single item between us. I still love him. Now, to tell you what this signifies: I can’t apply the going terms to my case without damage to reality. My father beat me passionately. When he did it, I hated him like poison and murder. I also loved him with a passion, and I’ll never think myself an abused child.

This was Bellow’s own attitude to his father, whose capacity for love and affection he recalls as vividly as his impatience and rage. The sixteenyear-old narrator of “Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son,” Joshua Lurie, is the oldest child in the family. Like Maury, he is fat and most frequently in the line of fire. “I never could do much to please my father” is the novel’s first sentence. The middle son, Willie, is asthmatic, quiet, like the middle Bellow son, Sam. Willie keeps a low profile, gliding in the firstborn’s slipstream. The youngest, Ben Zion, is described as watchful, intelligent beyond his years, dreamy, his father’s favorite. He is seven when the novel opens and is called Bentchka, as Bellow was called Schloimke in his family, an endearing diminutive of Schloimo, Yiddish for Solomon. When Joshua doubts his father’s love, it is the mother who reassures him: “Loves you? He loves all his children. Only his troubles are sometimes too much for him. You must understand that.” When she describes how his father kissed Joshua’s head the day he was born, as he kissed the heads of all his newborn infants, Joshua feels the kiss “in my scalp, under my hair and even in the mouth, the palate.” When she upbraids the father for berating Joshua, “Pa would end up by being astonished that she should think he didn’t care for me. ‘Why,’ he’d say. ‘I love all my children. My children are everything to me.’”

Though learned in Jewish lore, Abraham was not particularly Orthodox. It was his wife who was Orthodox. He had been disaffected, Bellow said, as a Yeshiva Bocher, a young Talmudic scholar. Religious practices were “an impediment . . . He didn’t turn his back on them but neither did he recommend them to his children.” What religion impeded, Abraham thought, was business, which has no time for finer or ineffable feeling, for beauty, wonder, love. In business, one has to be sharp, alert, self-interested: “You must be sure that you get the better end of the deal, that you don’t get the dirty end of the stick.” This seems to have been Berel’s view as well as Abraham’s. Before Bellow’s parents married, his mother’s wealthy brothers agreed to pay a dowry of 10,000 rubles. When the money was not immediately forthcoming, Berel threatened to call off the wedding. The brothers paid up. Abraham could be comparably hard, an apostle of self-interest. At his grandson Joel’s Bar Mitzvah, Joel’s father, Maury, by now extremely wealthy, invited a number of non-Jewish friends and business acquaintances. Abraham was well aware they’d been invited. After the grandson’s reading, Abraham stood up to give a speech. He had advice to bestow, as well as congratulations: if ever Joel was in a position to do a favor for someone, and had a choice between doing it for a Jew or a non-Jew, “he should remember where he came from and do it for a Jew.” Maury and his wife stood up and left the room.

Abraham was smart as well as feisty, with a fine head for figures and a sharp tongue. His movements were compact and precise, he was handsome, well dressed, a dude (“Papa was, he still is, such a dude,” declares the narrator of Bellow’s 1987 novel, More Die of Heartbreak, “and I resemble him, inevitably”; “I’ve noticed,” says Ravelstein to Chick, in Ravelstein [2000], “that since your marriage your dress standards have dropped. You once were something of a dude”). Like Berel, Abraham went into business, though little is known of his early years. In Herzog (1964), the narrator’s father has an education almost identical to Abraham’s. After yeshiva he enters into business: “He shaved. Became a modern European. He worked in Kremenchug for an Aunt as a young man” like “Pa” in “Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son,” who moved to Kremenchug at thirteen, ran his own business at seventeen. How closely Abraham’s immediate post-yeshiva years resembled those of his fictional alter egos is impossible to say. What is known is that in 1905, at the age of twenty-four, he had done well enough to marry Lescha (from Elisheva, the Hebrew form of Elizabeth) Gordin, a pretty girl from a family wealthier than his own, one affiliated with a rival strand of Judaism. Lescha’s father was Misnagid, anti-mystical, anti-Hasidic, suspicious of religious enthusiasm. In a letter of May 25, 1984, to an Israeli correspondent, Hanna Shoshana Friedman, Bellow reflected on the more tolerant relations between strains of Orthodoxy at the turn of the century: “Post-Holocaust Judaism is markedly different, and when Herzog’s parents were married it was possible for a shadchen [marriage broker] to arrange a match between an orphan girl whose father had been a mishnagid and a lively young man from the Yeshiva whose father, although a Hassid, did not turn up his nose at a substantial dowry.”

Lescha Gordin was no orphan, though whether her father, Moses (Moishe, Movsha), was alive in 1905 is unclear. He was no longer alive three years later, when Maury (also Moishe, Movsha) was born, since Jews do not name sons after living relations. What is known of Moses Gordin is that he was born sometime in the 1840s and that his wife, Sara, born four years later, outlived him, at some point moving in with her sister, Rachel, and her family, first in Dagda, a small town some twentysix miles northeast of Druya, then in Riga. According to her death certificate, Lescha was born in Dagda “about 1883” (she knew neither her birthday nor the year of her birth); Russian records suggest an earlier date, either 1877 or 1879. The number of Lescha’s brothers and sisters is also uncertain. Bellow and his sister, Jane, thought their mother one of twelve siblings, but only seven are named in official records, and no one in the family remembers the names of all twelve. The records also complicate family lore in respect to Moses, thought by some members of the family to have been a rabbi in Vitebsk. He may have been at one time, but in police files from Vitebsk, compiled in 1889, he is listed as a merchant, and the only reliable census from the period, taken in 1897, lists him as the owner of a bakery specializing in Russian bagels or baranki. According to family testimony, the bakery and other businesses were managed by relatives—grown children, in-laws—while Moses devoted his time to serious study. Family testimony also records that at one point Moses rented a large and profitable farm, with at least eighty milking cows plus other livestock, which, again, he did not himself manage. As Bellow puts it, studious Moses “never did a day’s work in his life, except the very hardest.” In 1897, the family was living in Lipushki, a small village twenty-five miles north of Dagda. The house the family lived in is described as built of wood and covered by hay.

By 1905, the year of Lescha’s wedding, the family was back in Dagda, living in state. In addition to owning a bakery, they ran the local post office, employed servants and a governess, and had a dacha in the countryside. Two of Lescha’s brothers contributed significantly to the family’s wealth: Nota or Notka (later Nahum) and Rafael (later Robert). These brothers figure prominently in the early life of Abraham. Notka was born in 1872, Rafael in 1876. In 1891, at fifteen, Rafael ran away to South Africa, made a fortune in diamonds, and became Robert. Family legend has it that he returned to Dagda in time for Lescha’s wedding because he’d had a dream that his father was dying. When he returned, he brought or bought a gold necklace for his mother and helped with Lescha’s dowry and the cost of the wedding. “He was a very good boy,” Bellow told an interviewer, “except for running away from home.” Notka also contributed money to the family. The 1897 census lists him as twenty-five years old and on reserve military service in the Russian army. According to the youngest of his eight sons, Notka had all his teeth knocked out by Moses expressly to render him unfit for active duty. By 1905 Notka was living in St. Petersburg, outside the Pale of Settlement, and had become Nahum. What made the move possible was his marriage to a “Czar Nicholas widow,” whose husband’s rank and death in service allowed her certain privileges. Chief among these privileges, as far as Nahum was concerned, was the right to continue living in St. Petersburg with a new husband who lacked papers of residence. In St. Petersburg, Nahum owned property, a six-story house, a twelve-bedroom apartment, and three kosher restaurants in or around Nevsky Prospect, the city’s grand boulevard, several streets north of its Jewish district. He also traveled widely, living for periods in London, where he had commercial interests, and Germany, where he became involved in the furniture business, eventually importing German furniture to St. Petersburg. After the widow’s death, he married a much younger woman. He had four sons from each marriage. The youngest son from the second marriage knew nothing of the first family, including of the fate of his half brothers.

The wedding of Lescha and Abraham was attended by Abraham’s nephew Louis Dworkin, but all that is remembered of his accounts of it is the wrangle over the dowry. In “Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son,” the Lurie wedding is held in the woods and said to have lasted a week, with daily banquets and music. Eminent rabbis came, twelve of them, “each more wonderful than the one before.” Abraham told his granddaughter Lesha Bellows Greengus (named after her grandmother, whose name is spelled “Lescha” throughout this chapter, as in at least one official document) that after the wedding the bride’s brothers helped him to purchase a “license” (forged) to live and work in St. Petersburg. There, from 1905 to 1913, the new family prospered. Three children were born in quick succession: Zelda (later Jane) in 1907, Moishe (Maurice, then Maury) in 1908, and Schmuel (Samuel) in 1911. Shloime/Shloimke (later Solomon, then Saul) was born in 1915, after the family had fled to Canada. Abraham set up business as a self-employed “produce-broker” (Bellow’s term), presumably the occupation he pursued behind the Pale. Nahum, with his restaurant connections, may have helped him do so. “In Petersburg,” writes Bellow in the “Memoirs,” Pa Lurie “had made a handsome living. He dealt in produce and traveled widely. He was the largest importer of Egyptian onions and Spanish fruit,” as well as in Turkish figs. His business took him everywhere in Russia. Here is his fictional alter ego, Lurie, greeting guests from the Old Country:

They never came from a place so remote that he hadn’t been there. “I’ve covered Russia from end to end,” he’d say. “I know your town very well. It’s twenty miles from Tula. I visited the wonder Rabbi there. The richest Jew in your town was Kolya Warshavsky. He owned a mill and three stores. Also, he was a forest merchant. He had two sons, Abraham and Yonah.” “Itzhak was the younger son, not Yonah,” the wondering visitor might correct him. But Pa was always near enough; his memory was prodigious and he wowed everyone. “But how do you know all this, Mister Lurie?” people would say. “Oh,” answered Pa, “I know Russia as well as my own house.”

Ruth Miller, a student of Bellow’s in Chicago in the late 1930s, recalls meeting Abraham and being grilled by him, much to his son’s irritation and embarrassment: “Who was my father? My grandfather? Where did they come from? What was the name of the town in Lithuania? What did my father do for a living? What business were my uncles in? When did they come to America? How old were they when they came? Do I know the name of the ship?”

Abraham’s intensity—recalling Bellow’s descriptions of his father as “whirling with impatience,” “furious,” “passionate”—derived in part from his experiences in Russia. The long history of Russian anti-Semitism is marked by periods of exceptional virulence. One such period began with the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, the year Abraham was born. Alexander’s twenty-six-year reign was relatively tolerant of the Jews. Disraeli called him “the most benevolent prince that ever ruled in Russia.” The reign of his successor, Alexander III, began with a wave of pogroms, as agents of the state spread rumors associating Jews with the assassination. The hated reactionary Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827–1907), chief procurator of the Holy Synod and a fanatical anti-Semite, was put in charge of the government. He blocked all measures to improve the conditions of the Jews and initiated new measures to worsen them. The 1882 May Laws called for the forced removal of Jews from villages to towns and hamlets. As most Jews worked as shopkeepers, small merchants, publicans, artisans, and moneylenders—there was virtually no Jewish peasantry or nobility—the effect of the laws, especially within the crowded towns and hamlets of the Pale, was increased joblessness. According to the historian Salo Baron, “It has been estimated that in many communities up to 40 per cent of the entire Jewish population consisted of families of so-called luftmenshen, that is, persons without any particular skills, capital, or specific occupations.”

The movements of Lescha Gordin’s family, from shtetl, to village, to town, were likely a product, either direct or indirect, of discrimination. Nahum Gordin’s missing teeth certainly were. Nahum was born in 1872. From 1827 to 1874, Jews who were drafted into the army, some as young as twelve, were subject to a twenty-five-year compulsory tour of duty. After this barbaric length of service was reduced, they were still systematically disadvantaged, even in reward for loyal conduct. The aim of such treatment was to force Jewish soldiers to convert to Russian orthodoxy. “The chief benefit to be derived from the drafting of Jews,” wrote Czar Nicholas I in a confidential memo, “is the certainty that it will move them most effectively to change their religion.” If Nahum Gordin avoided active duty in the army by losing his teeth, his father did so by losing his name. Official records confirm the story Bellow was told about Moses Gordin’s name: that it was originally Imenitov. What Bellow seems not to have known (no one in his immediate family ever heard him speak of it) is that Imenitov is not a Jewish name. According to genealogical records compiled by relatives from Russia and Israel, Moses’s father, Nota Imenitov, was the son of a graf or count, the largest landowner in Rezekne, in Latvia. He was not Jewish. At some point, so the story goes, Nota fell in love with a Jewish girl from Rezekne. The girl’s father, unmoved by his prospective son-in-law’s titled family, wealth, and threats, would only consent to their marriage if Nota converted, which he did. Nota’s father, the graf, promptly disinherited him. To support themselves, the couple went into business, running an inn, which seems to have prospered. “Educated and quick of mind” is how Nota is described in a memoir by his great-grandson, Moshe Gordin.

The Imenitovs, Nota and his wife, Selda, had three sons: Popa, Moshe, and Wulf. To avoid being conscripted into the army, Moshe, the middle son, was adopted by a family named Gordin, which had no sons. Being adopted in this way was usually a financial transaction, a common practice of Jews in Moses’s situation. As the sole Gordin son, Moses could not by law be conscripted. When Moses himself became a father, however, he was either unable or unwilling to arrange a similar adoption for Nahum, or to find and hire a substitute, something the conscription laws also permitted. Substitutes were inevitably the children of the very poor and socially outcast, families desperate for money. The number of recruits conscripted from each community was higher for Jews than non-Jews, and what one historian calls “the macabre job of selecting recruits” was left to the Jewish communities themselves, exacerbating divisions of religious practice (Hasidim vs. Mitnagdim), kinship, and class.

That Nahum and his brothers, like Abraham, went into business rather than the professions may also be attributed to anti-Jewish discrimination. The May Laws restricted educational opportunities for Jews in several ways. A numerus clausus or quota system was established limiting to 10 percent the number of Jewish students allowed to attend secondary schools inside the Pale, to 5 percent outside it, and to 3 percent in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The effect of the law was severely to limit the number of Jews capable of competing for an already limited number of places in universities and professional schools. In “The Story of My Dovecote” (1925), the first of two childhood sketches dedicated to Maxim Gorky, Isaac Babel thinly fictionalizes his experiences in 1904 as a ten-year-old Jewish schoolboy in the Odessa province. This was the year Babel was to take entrance exams for Russian secondary school and the numerus clausus for his school “was harsh, only five per cent” (even though Odessa was inside the Pale). When Babel received topmarks in his class, the wealthy parent of a classmate, also a Jew, bribed the teacher to reduce his marks. The wealthy child got the place. A year later, like the boy in the story, Babel tried again and this time there was no interference. In the story, to celebrate the fictional son’s triumph, his father threw a party, inviting all his friends:

grain-dealers, estate brokers, and itinerant salesmen who sold agricultural machines in our region. These itinerant salesmen sold machines to everyone. Both muzhiks [peasants] and landowners were afraid of them, as they could not get rid of them without buying something. Of all Jews, the itinerant salesmen are the most worldly and cheerful. At our feast they sang drawn-out Hasidic songs made up of only three words, but with many funny intonations. . . . Old Lieberman, who taught me Hebrew and the Torah, also came to our house that evening. . . . He drank more Bessarabian wine than he should have . . . and he called out a toast in my honor in Hebrew. In this toast the old man congratulated my parents, and said that by passing this examination I had won a victory over all my foes, I had won a victory over the fat-cheeked Russian boys and the sons of our roughneck rich. Thus in ancient times had David, King of the Jews, won a victory over Goliath, and just as I had triumphed over Goliath, so too would our people, through its sheer power of mind, triumph over the foes that surround us, eager for our blood.

A month into the new school year, a pogrom broke out in Odessa and the boy’s beloved granduncle (referred to as “Grandpa”), a fishmonger, was murdered by rioting townsfolk: “Two perches had been shoved into Grandpa—one into his fly, the other into his mouth—and although Grandpa was dead, one of the perches was still alive and quivering.” A pigeon the boy had purchased that morning for his prized dovecote was grabbed from him by a local Russian peddler, a cripple in a wheelchair (“the boys from our street bought cigarettes from him, the children liked him”). With the pigeon still in his hand, the cripple, frustrated at being unable to join in the looting, knocked the boy to the ground. The pigeon was crushed against the boy’s temple, its innards “trickling down the side of my face.” “Their seed must be stamped out,” cried the cripple’s wife, “I cannot abide their seed and their stinking men!” The tale ends with the boy reunited with his parents, hiding from the pogrom.

The Odessa pogrom was one of hundreds to occur throughout Russia in 1905, the year Abraham and Lescha married and moved, with forged papers, to St. Petersburg (as Babel himself did in 1916). What sparked the pogroms was a massacre in St. Petersburg. On January 22, 1905, later known in Russia as “Bloody Sunday,” troops guarding the Winter Palace opened fire on a huge procession of demonstrators intent on delivering an antigovernment petition to Alexander III’s successor, Nicholas II (who reigned from 1894 to 1917). Hundreds of demonstrators were killed (figures range from two hundred to a thousand). Thus began the so-called 1905 Russian Revolution, a year of political unrest resulting in the execution of 14,000 people and the imprisonment of 75,000. The government identified the Jews as leaders of the unrest, as some were, and fomented anti-Jewish feeling throughout the empire, tacitly supporting “patriotic” demonstrators such as those Babel describes running amok in “The Story of My Dovecote.”

In the period the Belos lived in St. Petersburg, according to Kenneth Trachtenberg, the narrator of Bellow’s late novel More Die of Heartbreak (Kenneth’s specialism is “Czarist culture in its final phase”), the city was “a mixture of barbarism and worn out humanist culture.” Its atmosphere is brilliantly evoked by Andrei Bely in his novel Petersburg (1916), described by Vladimir Nabokov as one of the four great masterpieces of twentieth-century prose (the others are Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and “the first half of Proust’s fairy tale In Search of Lost Time”). Bely’s novel swarms with conspirators, terrorists, suspected terrorists, police informers, and double agents. It opens in 1905 and closes in 1913, the exact years the Belos lived in the city. Its central characters, aside from the variously personified city itself (with its living statues, louring mists and clouds, and ominously expanding spheres, presaging explosion) are Apollon Apollonovich, an obvious figure of the hated Pobedonostsev (also of Tolstoy’s Alexei Karenin), and his son, Nikolai, a character straight out of Dostoyevsky. Nikolai, a student of philosophy, has become entangled in a terrorist plot to blow up a high government official: his father (as Kenneth puts it, “he didn’t really want to be a parricide. An apparent ethical logic drew him on. But by and by it . . . crumbled away”). Nikolai’s chief contact among the plotters is an impoverished radical named Alexander Ivanovich Dudkin, who, like many a radical or suspected radical, is resident in the city on forged papers. Several scenes involving Dudkin are set in restaurants on or around Nevsky Prospect. Almost all the characters in the novel are frightened of something: discovery, betrayal, disorder, assassination. As a consequence, their movements and reactions are extreme, immoderate. In their translation of Petersburg, Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad offer an explanatory note for the sentence “Apollon Apollonovich opened the door to his office.” It reads: “This is one of the rare instances in the novel when a door is simply opened. As in Dostoyevsky, they usually fly or swing open (or shut) with some violence.”


From THE LIFE OF SAUL BELLOW. Reprinted with arrangement with The Wylie Agency, published Knopf. Copyright © 2015 by Zachary Leader.

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