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Saul Bellow in 1953: To come into his orbit was an ambiguous fate (photo: Richard Meek/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images)

Saul Bellow was one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century, but there is something almost paradoxical about saying so. For the odd thing about Bellow is that he seems uninterested in so much of what the novel is traditionally supposed to do. Certainly you do not read Bellow for his plots, which usually feel improvised, even desultory. When asked by an interviewer in 1964 whether he “worked out his plots in advance, or made charts, or began by writing out biographies of his characters, or used file cards,” Bellow “replied ‘No’ to each question,” writes Zachary Leader in his ample and perceptive new biography, The Life Of Saul Bellow, Volume I: To Fame and Fortune 1915-1964 (Jonathan Cape, 832pp, £35). “My ambition is to start with an outline,” Bellow said, “but my feelings are generally too chaotic and formless. I get full of excitement which prevents foresight and planning.”

Nor do you read Bellow to enter into the minds of independent, three-dimensional characters. While his books are full of unforgettable people, these are usually observed from the outside, in a tumult of physiognomic detail. Here is a minor character in Humboldt’s Gift, a detective: “He had a plain seamed face, now jolly, a thoroughly experienced police face. Under the red shirt his breasts were fat. The dead hair of his wig did not agree with his healthy human color and was lacking in organic symmetry. It took off from his head in the wrong places.” This is not how the detective sees himself, of course; the staccato poetry is that of an observer, and one proud of his powers of observation, as Bellow always was. “He looked at the world sideways,” observed Bellow’s second wife, Sasha, to Leader. “His head was always [slightly] turned away from you . . . he literally did not turn his head straight on . . . like a bird, very bright, observant, like a magpie, going to take something and use it.”

Taking things and using them was, in fact, the core of Bellow’s technique. Reading his books means thinking what he thought and seeing what he saw. In a trivial sense, this is true of any novelist, since no writer has any means of gaining knowledge about the world other than his own mind and senses — “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Flaubert admits. But in a traditional novel, that knowledge is deployed as a series of experimental propositions. Knowing what he does about human nature, Flaubert proposes that Emma Bovary, placed in this town with these neighbours, will think and behave in a certain way. The hypothesis is proved in the only way fiction allows, by the acceptance of the reader; our willingness to grant that acceptance is what sets the seal on a novel’s claim to realism. Yes, we think, this is what it would be like.

But Bellow seems indifferent to this kind of assent. On the one hand, he has a Jovian indifference to probability: if he wants to set Augie March adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, or have Henderson come face to face with a lion, he does so, seemingly out of sheer pleasure at his own comic gusto. (Not for nothing did Bellow “like to write with Mozart blaring”.) Even more mundane events in Bellow’s fiction often seem to belong to the world of slapstick, as at the end of Mr Sammler’s Planet, when Wallace Gruner wrecks his family’s home in a search for the cash he is convinced his father has hidden in the pipes; and it makes no sense to complain that slapstick is unrealistic.

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