This second volume of The Life of Saul Bellow opens with Bellow at 49 having won wealth and acclaim for his work, achievements that will only continue as he churns out more great fiction and wins major awards from the Pulitzer to the Nobel. Meanwhile, his non-writing life is in tumult, with controversies over his positions on social issues and family relationships marked by strife and instability.
This is a superb biography ... [Leader] has managed to write a sympathetic, judicious, 700-page second volume here, which one can recommend on its own merits. I even came to admire Bellow more at the end than the beginning. How on earth did Leader do it? ... I found myself reading for the reappearances of [Bellow's sons] Gregory Bellow, Adam Bellow and Daniel Bellow, who are richly realized as characters and emerge as thoughtful commenters on their father’s life ... Equally vibrant are the characterizations of the adult women who intersected with Bellow ... Leader finds Bellow out in his letters, unpublished manuscripts and published books, and pulls gems into the light. The surprise and treat of this book is how much Bellow stayed a master, sentence by sentence, every time he picked up a pen.
This second volume is just as definitive and revelatory [as the first volume] ... Leader is the ideal biographer for Bellow, who was a perfectionist in his work but led a complicated personal life, evenhandedly negotiating his way through the contradictory accounts of the writer's amazing journey ... This is biography at its best and will appeal widely.
Leader is, after Mark Harris, Ruth Miller and James Atlas, the fourth to attempt a book-length biography of Bellow. It is likely to be the definitive one. Though Leader lacked access to his subject himself, he has interviewed almost everyone still alive who knew him ... Leader’s own text could not be called hagiography; he does not attempt to excuse Bellow’s racially insensitive attacks on multiculturalism ... However, he endows Bellow with a cultural gravity and flawed grandeur that make him seem, in the final years, like a Jewish Lear ... He is more concerned with tracing how elements of Bellow’s life show up in the fiction than in rummaging the fiction for clues to the life. Ultimately, the books are what justify the years that Leader has spent parsing details of how the man spent his time. Though they exhibit some of their author’s flaws, the books will be read as long as readers continue to care about the art of fiction.