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."