[Marxism] Amusing gossip about Saul Bellow

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Mar 6 07:13:38 MST 2012


Yes, I know it has little relevance to Marxism but it is rather 
delicious, considering the late Saul Bellow's awful 
neoconservative politics. Here, btw, is my own take on Bellow: 
http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy25.html

http://www.theawl.com/2012/03/saul-bellow-and-the-malevolent-friend

Saul Bellow And The Malevolent Friend
By Evan Hughes | March 5, 2012

When Saul Bellow got an invitation to rejoin the faculty at the 
University of Minnesota in 1958, he and his second wife, Sondra, 
were ready for a change of scene from their Hudson Valley house 
(“could use TLC”), and they needed the income too. Although Bellow 
had already won his first National Book Award with The Adventures 
of Augie March, he followed in a long line of writers who 
discovered that you could be famous without having money.

Nevertheless, Bellow put forward one condition before taking the 
job in Minneapolis. The university had to find a position for his 
closest friend, Jack Ludwig, a writer and a colleague from 
Bellow’s time at Bard College. Ludwig, whose worship of Bellow 
made him an appealing friendship candidate, lived nearby with his 
wife, Leah, and the two couples were forever seen together. Apart 
from Bellow’s editor and his wife, the Ludwigs were the only 
guests at the Bellows’ wedding.

Landing that job through Bellow’s help was a godsend for Ludwig, 
because Bard had no intention of keeping him on the next year. 
Also, this way he could keep having sex with Bellow’s wife.

Just about everyone, it seems, knew that Ludwig and Sondra were 
having an affair before Bellow did. His blindness was astonishing; 
even he thought so in retrospect. Bellow’s marriage had fallen 
into trouble there in the countryside, where he expected Sondra, a 
formidable woman, to be the doting housewife and help take care of 
the “old ruin” of a house in Tivoli. She was lonely and pissed 
off. They fought over her spending, and she fell into the habit of 
criticizing Bellow’s sexual prowess to their friends. Meanwhile 
she spent a lot of time with Ludwig. He had a robust vitality, 
despite a pronounced limp, and had penetrating eyes and a booming 
voice, according to a colleague. While Bellow was at work revising 
Henderson the Rain King on a tight schedule before moving to 
Minnesota for the job, Sondra and Ludwig took an advance trip 
there together. To look at real estate, you see.

Ludwig played the admiring friend and confidant with Bellow, to 
the point of giving marriage-bed advice, while all along he was 
otherwise flagrantly indiscreet about his relationship with 
Sondra. In his insightful and bracing biography Bellow, James 
Atlas writes that someone approached Ludwig at a party and said, 
“I understand you know Saul Bellow,” to which Ludwig replied, 
“Know him? Hell, I’m fucking his wife.” Who does that? “There was 
something very malevolent about Jack,” Anthony Hecht told Atlas.

Ludwig wrote sports books and derivative novels in the Bellow-Roth 
mode that have fallen out of print—Atlas calls him “painfully 
short of talent”—and perhaps he acted out of resentment that he 
needed Bellow to carry him through several troughs in his career. 
Some of Atlas’s sources make a rather different claim—that the 
affair was some gesture born of Ludwig’s adoration for Bellow, a 
seriously perverse tribute: “If he couldn’t go to bed with Saul, 
he’d go to bed with his wife.”

Some responsibility should also be ascribed to Bellow, who was 
always gathering personal turmoil around him and seemed to thrive 
on it. In an email to me, Atlas said, “Ludwig—let's just be overly 
familiar and call him Jack—was a sociopath, Bellow a collusive and 
masochistic artist of disorder; I think my interpretation is right 
there.”

When Bellow finally learned of the affair (through some slip-up 
when the two couples were making plans), he was murderously angry 
and spoke of getting a gun. He drafted a blistering letter to 
Ludwig, but in it, as Atlas observes, Bellow avoided direct 
confrontation over the “ugliness” that “I don’t want explained,” 
and his tone had a curious showman’s bounce to it:

     It wouldn’t do much good to see matters clearly. With the 
sharpest eye in the world I’d see nothing but the stinking fog of 
falsehood. And I haven’t got the sharpest eyes in the world; I’m 
not a superman but superidiot. Only a giant among idiots would 
marry Sondra and offer you friendship. God knows I am not 
stainless faultless Bellow. I leave infinities on every side to be 
desired. But love her as my wife? Love you as my friend? I might 
as well have gone to work for Ringling Brothers and been shot out 
of the cannon twice a day. At least they would have let me wear a 
costume.

Bellow’s more sustained and considered response to being so 
dramatically cuckolded was all his own—amusing, in questionable 
taste, and brilliant—and in no small way it helped him win the 
Nobel Prize. He made Sondra and Jack’s affair the very engine of 
his next novel, Herzog, which won another National Book Award 
after selling nearly 150,000 copies in hardcover. Atlas said to 
me, “Herzog is my favorite novel of Bellow’s—the one in which he 
was most himself.”

In his biography, Atlas notes that Bellow had already conceived of 
a novel about a duplicitous marriage. (Perhaps on some level he 
knew?) But now Bellow had his material in all its incredible 
salaciousness, and he did not hesitate to use his life (nor the 
lives of others) in his fiction.

The novel of course enacted some revenge, and early drafts, 
written as Sondra and Ludwig carried on with their affair, are 
shot through with even more anger. But Bellow somehow held on to 
the ability, as Atlas points out, “to look upon his personal 
travails with detachment, experience them as theater.” For the 
sake of Herzog as art, it was a crucial character trait. A note to 
self by Bellow’s fictional stand-in, Moses Herzog: “On the knees 
of your soul? Might as well be useful. Scrub the floor.”

Reading Herzog side by side with Bellow, it’s striking that in the 
novel Herzog’s wife, Madeleine, and particularly her lover, 
Valentine Gersbach, do not come off worse than they do. Granted, 
Herzog harbors a desire to kill them both, but his emotional EKG 
is all over the chart, and at times his sense of fairness is 
surprising. In pain he turns repeatedly to pondering Gersbach’s 
charisma and energy, his skill as a family man, even his looks, 
and Herzog chews over his own failings a great deal: “Resuming his 
self-examination, he admitted that he had been a bad 
husband—twice.” This was certainly true of Bellow, ever a 
philanderer himself. (By the end he had married five times.)

Bellow also makes the interesting decision to demote himself, 
making his protagonist not a prestigious novelist but a stalled 
academic, while Gersbach has a good career in radio. Maybe that 
escalates the self-pity, but the easy route would have been a 
grandstanding revenge fantasy with an overmatched opponent (“How 
Bellow Got His Groove Back”). When Bellow stages a scene where a 
friend tells Herzog of the affair, again Bellow gives no thought 
to his own dignity. Herzog is not knowing and wise in acceptance 
of his brutal fate. He’s completely blindsided, uselessly 
protesting, pathetic.

The great conceit of the book is that in the wake of his 
humiliation, Herzog decides to write letters—to relatives, to the 
New York Times, to the President, to Heidegger—because he feels 
“the need to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in 
perspective, to clarify, to make amends.” Herzog picks himself off 
the “malodorous sofa” because “Grief, Sir, is a species of 
idleness,” and he gives energetic voice to the roiling stew of a 
mind in crisis.

Once more Bellow captivates with the high-spirited style, found 
not only in that letter to Ludwig but also most memorably in Augie 
March: “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber 
city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and 
will make the record in my own way.” But in Herzog, the backdrop 
of personal defeat lends a poignancy to the humor that feels true. 
Even while Bellow mines his own pitiable condition for a laugh or 
three, it never comes off as shtick. It feels like a triumph of 
the human comedy over human sadness, a triumph Jack Ludwig could 
never avenge.




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