Writing a biography of Saul Bellow must be like taking a test you’re doomed to flunk: Describe the life of a great self-describer. Bellow didn’t write autobiography, but he pulled the best details in his novels and stories out of his prodigious memory. No biographer could ever bring Bellow-level wattage to his two main settings, the nostalgia-brightened streets of Chicago and the feverishly ratiocinating salons of American intellectuals.

Nor could a biographer add nuance to Bellow’s maniacally elaborated portrait of his inner life. The thoughts and feelings of Bellow’s fictional counterparts don’t track his exactly, but they represent acts of self-mimesis. Bellow’s great subject is his own subjectivity. He announced as much on the first page of his first novel, Dangling Man (1944). He aimed to dispense with the Hemingway-esque cult of “hardboiled-dom” and introduce a literature of exuberant self-involvement: “If I had as many mouths as Siva has arms and kept them going all the time,” says Joseph, the novel’s Bellow-like protagonist, sounding a little like Walt Whitman, “I still could not do myself justice.”

Well into his career, Bellow combined the confessional with a mid-century notion of alienation, which meant, for Bellow, man’s inability to get outside his own head. (I use the masculine advisedly; Bellow didn’t go deep enough into women’s heads to need to get out of them.) The torrential inner disputation that made Herzog feel so original when it was published in 1964 makes it uncomfortable to read now. Moses Herzog’s interiority is relentless, wounded, claustrophobia-inducing—as well as mordant, brilliant, and hilarious. Readers get no respite from the howls of humiliation and self-pity he sends up after being betrayed by his second wife, Madeleine, and his best friend. Herzog is the most loquacious victim among Bellow’s protagonists, but a similar note of aggrievement is audible in all of their voices, beneath the overtones of wry self-mockery.

Bellow’s secondary and minor characters tend toward caricature—marvelous cartoons, most of them, sharply etched, wittily dissected, and fully alive. But they too come off as figures in Bellow’s internal dramas, unlike, say, Dickens’s grotesques, who were identifiable as social types. The magnificently bitchy Madeleine, an unmistakable attack on Bellow’s actual second wife, was “drawn with pure venom,” as Irving Howe wrote in his review of the novel. Without Bellow’s fury, this demonic creation could never have achieved her unforgettable malevolence.

The self-embedded quality of Bellow’s prose heightens the challenge of writing about him as a man. After Joseph and Herzog and Charlie Citrine of Humboldt’s Gift; after the memoir by an ex–literary agent and another by his eldest son; after the compendious volume of letters published in 2010; after the self-referential essays, the speeches given at countless award ceremonies, and the interviews with Norman Manea and Philip Roth, collected and published this year as a volume titled There Is Simply Too Much to Think About; and after three biographies, what’s left to say?

Zachary Leader, the latest Bellow biographer, has found plenty. His The Life of Saul Bellow is 832 pages long and the first of a planned two-volume treatment. It traces the author’s life from his birth, in 1915, to 1964, when he was 49 and had written six of his 14 novels. (Bellow died in 2005, at 89.) As Leader admits, he had a big advantage over his predecessors. By the time he began doing his research, Bellow was dead, no longer able to deploy the evasiveness shading into nastiness with which he’d sabotaged so many previous efforts to uncover his secrets. “I am no more keen about a biography than I am about reserving a plot for myself at 26th and Harlem Avenue,” he wrote in 1990 to a friend being interviewed by the biographer James Atlas. The pending publication of Atlas’s book inspired a letter to another friend in 2000: “There is a parallel between his book and the towel with which the bartender cleans the bar.” Leader, by contrast, is the authorized biographer, handpicked by Bellow’s widow and given access to previously unavailable papers.

So what do we learn from a biographer freed from the need—conscious or unconscious—to please or punish this prickly colossus? The answer is a lot and not enough. Leader is statesmanlike, fair-minded. He acknowledges in the introduction that great artists are not necessarily family men and that Bellow helped himself to his friends’ and relatives’ life stories even when they would have preferred their privacy. Then Leader moves on. He is particularly felicitous in his descriptions of Bellow’s parents and their struggles. Their generation survived a murderously anti-Semitic Russia and the life of impoverished immigrants in North America to become giants who stalk Bellow’s tales, spitting a Yiddish that inflects his multi-accented prose. You just can’t understand Bellow’s gorgeously idiosyncratic style, his jazzy high-low argot, or his greatest characters—the raconteurs, finaglers, and charlatans, such as William Einhorn in The Adventures of Augie March, Dr. Tamkin in Seize the Day, and Valentine Gersbach in Herzog—without understanding the dislocations and wiliness and zeal to get by or get over that drove Bellow’s progenitors and kin.

Yet there’s something odd about the way this biography proceeds. Leader relies on external sources for the basic facts of Bellow’s life but fills them in with Bellow’s own words. Family members recount stories about Bellow’s father, Abraham, who was bad at business, but most of the details about his professional failures at farming, baking, and bootlegging come from Bellow. (Abraham finally made it in the coal business, with the help of his older sons.) And we come to know Abraham as a man—physically abusive but loving; part tyrant, part schlemiel; a big, melodramatic, almost vaudevillian personality stuck in his Old World Yiddishkeit—almost entirely through descriptions of the fathers in Herzog and Bellow’s most autobiographical work, the never-finished Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son, from which Leader generously quotes. “You see what die Mama and I have gone through to keep coats on your backs and shoes on your feet and bring you up as Jews and not as enemies of Jews,” Bellow has his father say in Memoirs. The narrator then offers this cold-eyed commentary: “When Pa spoke such things in his whisper, wide-eyed, he bent his knees—his body sank a little, he swayed it sidewards … He behaved like a painted man on the stage in the role of a poor Jew.”

We read a few pages about Humboldt Park, where Bellow spent much of his childhood, but see Chicago as marked by “an unreasonable kind of emptiness,” largely void of beauty “unless you had the gift of deeper perception,” because that’s how Bellow saw it. We perceive his mother, Liza—a relatively well-off merchant’s daughter turned worn-out housewife—as “the source of all human connectedness” because Bellow felt unconditionally loved by her: “When you fell down the stairs and got a big bump on your head,” he once said in an interview, “her crying aloud and solicitude made you feel that you were—it never even entered your mind that you were anything but—cherished.”

The urge to poach such vivid portraiture must have been hard to resist, and Leader’s borrowings provide an excellent introduction to Bellow’s world. But they also pose an epistemological problem. Biography by way of empathetic identification works when we don’t know how a subject experienced his life, but Bellow shared that information in abundance. What we don’t know are the things he wouldn’t or couldn’t reveal, and what we crave is a wider view than his one-point perspective allows us.

Leader does step back to reconsider one crucial subject. The rap against Bellow is that he maligned four of his five wives, especially in his fiction. This is true, and Leader is savvy enough not to take Bellow’s word about them. Wife No. 1, Anita, is shown as the underappreciated mainstay she obviously was. As for wife No. 2, Sondra Tschacbasov Bellow (Bellow called her Sasha), the model for the evil Madeleine, Leader has a scoop: an unpublished memoir shared with him after Bellow’s death. By her own account, Sasha was a vulnerable child-woman lacking basic life skills. From childhood and into her teens, she says, she was the victim of incest committed by her father. When Bellow took up with her, he was 37 and she was 21, a Bennington graduate and a secretary at the Partisan Review. His friends treated her with a sniggering sexism unfortunately unremarkable in the 1950s. At a party Bellow took her to, the critic R. W. B. Lewis, her former professor, drunkenly demanded to know whether she was sleeping with Bellow yet; “they were all placing bets.” She started an affair with Bellow’s friend Jack Ludwig (the prototype for Gersbach in Herzog) only after she learned of her husband’s many infidelities.

If Leader does justice to the wives, though, he glides past tantalizing gaps in the Bellow persona—tiny cracks in the wall that he built around himself, as people do. Leader relegates to a footnote, for instance, a comment by Bellow that hints at a more complicated attitude toward Judaism than he usually admitted to. At the age of 84, he said in an interview that he’d kept kosher and sat in synagogue next to his father every Sabbath through his late adolescence. In previous accounts of his teenage years, Bellow never mentioned any kind of Jewish practice. In fact, throughout his career, he was notably reticent about the depth and duration of his religious upbringing—especially for a writer whose Jewishness infused his worldview and work. He invoked his heder, or religious school, in his fiction; in “A Jewish Writer in America,” he recalled that when he was young, his family recited blessings and followed the customs—“some of them superstitions,” he said.

In other words, distancing himself from such old-fashioned observance seemed important to him. As a teenager, Bellow refused to take his sweetheart home to meet his family. When she read that Bellow wore tzitzit, or fringes, under his clothes as a child—a detail included in his account of a trip to Israel, To Jerusalem and Back (1976)—she suspected that his parents’ religiosity had embarrassed him. The tales Bellow told of those years dwell on his immersion in literature, philosophy, socialism. So it comes as a surprise to learn that while all this secular Bildung was going on, Bellow was still a practicing Jew, still the dutiful Jewish son.

Leader also skates past some incriminating details that, if true, should prompt a reassessment of the most important person in Bellow’s life—Maury, his oldest brother. As Leader shows, Maury was both the driving force in Bellow’s Americanization and a major presence in his work. Parents and wives came and went, but Maury remained: Simon in Augie March, Shura in Herzog, Julius in Humboldt’s Gift. As peremptory and violent as their father but more competent, Maury epitomized the cult of power and material success that both fascinated and repelled Bellow. “I recognized in him the day-to-day genius of the U.S.A.,” Bellow said in an interview with Philip Roth. In the same conversation, Roth observed that Maury’s reckless, angry spirit was “the household deity of Augie March.” By the time Maury finished law school, he had already started collecting graft for a corrupt Illinois state representative, skimming off the top for himself and his mother. A charismatic ladies’ man with an illegitimate son, Maury was “very proud of his extraordinary group of connections, his cynicism, his insiderhood,” Bellow told Roth. Maury was disdainful of his brother’s nonremunerative choice of profession, which he considered luftmenschlich—frivolous, impractical.

The competitive byplay between Maury-style machers and sensitive soul-questers recurs frequently in Bellow’s fiction. The classic example is the sadomasochistic relationship between the mobster Ronald Cantabile and the intellectual Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift, but there are many others. The rivalry between the brothers may have been even more extreme in life than it was in art. When Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, his brother refused to come to Stockholm for the ceremony. Maury’s grandson reconstructed his thinking as follows: “How dare Saul win the Nobel Prize when I’m really the smart one, I’m the one.”

Just how smart was Maury? Or, to put it another way, how well connected was he? On this question, a footnote again delivers an unsettling surprise. Leader mentions links between Bellow’s brother and Jimmy Hoffa and Allen Dorfman, the Teamsters’ investment manager, who had close ties to mobsters in Las Vegas, Chicago, and Cleveland. I’d happily read a whole book about Maury’s secrets, but at the very least it would be edifying to know which mob he had dealings with. You can’t help wondering just how much Bellow saw of the underside of that day-to-day genius of the U.S.A.

These are quibbles, I know. Details of this sort wouldn’t really revise the view of Bellow as the chronicler of consciousness in a grasping postwar America that Leader lays out deftly, if at great length. But they could, like checkpoints, let us go beyond Bellow’s well-patrolled boundaries. Who was the Saul Bellow whom Saul Bellow didn’t talk about? Why was he so needy, charming, embittered, and sharp-sighted, and how did he become so incomparable? A biographer isn’t necessarily committing character assassination if he tracks down the estranged parts of a writer’s personality. Maybe it will take an unauthorized detective to do so.