Saul Bellow And The Malevolent Friend

by Evan Hughes

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 Leya, 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.

Previously: The Architect, The “It” Girl And The Toy Pistol That Wasn’t, Larry David’s Rough Night Out With The Aging Literary Lion and The Cordial Enmity Of Joan Didion And Pauline Kael

Evan Hughes’ book, Literary Brooklyn, a work of literary biography and urban history, has just been published. He’s on twitter.