Suppose nobody ever does write a biography of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow. Then this modest volume may loom larger, even though it is the record of a ten-year failure to become Bellow's Boswell. Until the real thing comes along, as the song says, Mark Harris's sweet-sour-comic chronicle offers enough tantalizing glimpses of Bellow to evoke at least a partial person behind the books. Or rather it is a person interpenetrating the books, as would-be biographer Harris thriftily ekes out fragments of firsthand knowledge about Bellow with echolike references to "Henderson the Rain King," "Humboldt's Gift," and other works.
The Bellow who emerges is now a punster, now a philosopher, now pithy, now vulgar of speech, now prickly, now gracious. He didn't like the way he seemed in a Harris excerpt published earlier, but he wouldn't come right out and deny Harris's right to set things down as he saw them.
Neither would Bellow authorize Harris as his biographer or help him as requested when they occasionally met or corresponded over the years. Thus Harris's view of Bellow as the woodchuck celebrated by Robert Frost, a creature capable of preserving its privacy with more than one door to its burrow. Thus a book as much about Harris as about Bellow, with Harris -- a professor and novelist in his own right -- playing a kind of worshipful innocent perpetually being slighted or soothed by his idol.
And thus a book that, despite meticulous footnoting and protests of factuality, is not your typical university press publication. It runs dangerously close to parody of scholarship and scholarly gatherings. When Harris keeps telling us about his note-taking, he blithely risks a certain guilt by association with one of his own fictional characters who "lived all life twice" through his journal -- to which someone says that "to live life twice was never to live it once."
Professor Harris brings up not only what he knows but what he doesn't know, and often has no intention of finding out. He swings from guilelessness to gossip. And here in the heady summit regions of American literature there seems a relentless drizzle of mundane problems with cars, mail, reservations, tickets, telephones, misspelled words, parking-meter coins (imagine Boswell having to ask Dr. Johnson for a dime).
Sometimes it all seems futile; sometimes it is the kind of sharp contemporary comedy expected from some of Harris's previous writings. As for Bellow, overshadowing the pettier observations is the figure of a man who in his role as writer has a sense of vocation resisting the compromises of celebrity. Asked to give talks, he unsettles or even bores people by saying what's on his mind instead of what they want to hear. When the intellectual fashion is to be bluntly anti-Vietnam, he judiciously refuses to be swept along, though he opposes guns for the solution of any problem. When black activists like Huey Newton are under prosecution, Bellow says: "I could wear a button saying Give Huey a Fair Trialm but I can't wear a button saying Free Huey.m I can't advocate the overthrow of the federal judiciary system." As Bellow sees it: "Some writers write only long enough to qualify for public life. The writerm works in isolation."
Where then did Bellow stand? Maybe someday there will be a biographer, and the biographer will find out. Meanwhile, his nonbiographer leaves us with words of no inconsiderable tribute, and they recall what woodchuck Frost once said when he called on people to think: "Thinking isn't agreeing or disagreeing. That's voting. . . ." Here's Harris on Bellow:
"His work was where he stood. What chutzpah,m when you get all through his collected work you find that he didn't vote for anybody, that his characters did the voting, that Bellow subordinated himself to the law of the art of fiction, as if it were the federal judiciary."