Isaac Rosenfeld and Sol Bellow first met in Chicago in 1934. Rosenfeld was 16, Bellow (he had not yet started using the name Saul) was two years his senior. Both of them came from the same East European Jewish immigrant background. Both had literary ambitions and each recognised in the other something that set them apart from the smart kids they knew. Convinced that they were destined for great achievements, they became close friends. But from the outset it was a friendship shadowed by jealousy, as though they also understood that there was only going to be room for one of them at the top.
Bellow published his first novel, Dangling Man, in 1944. Rosenfeld made his debut as a novelist two years later, with an excellent, largely autobiographical work called Passage from Home. It was hardly the stuff of which best-sellers were made, but it was well received in the intellectual circles that meant most to him. At the Partisan Review and the New Republic, he was very much regarded as a coming man.
Then his career stalled. There was to be no second novel, and the only publisher he could find for a collection of his short stories was an otherwise unknown press in Minneapolis. (It may well have been the only book it ever published.) His reputation dwindled, and his private life was a mess. When he succumbed to a fatal heart attack in 1956, he was only 38, but he already seemed a figure from the past.
Meanwhile, Bellow was steaming ahead. The Adventures of Augie March, published in 1953, had made him famous, and he was already well launched along the path that was to lead to the Nobel Prize. It is small wonder that in his last years Rosenfeld was more consumed by jealousy than ever. But the curious thing is that so was Bellow. As Steven Zipperstein writes in Rosenfeld's Lives, the competitiveness between the two "would continue to haunt both until Rosenfeld's death. It remained with Bellow long after that."
The first aim of Zipperstein's study is to liberate Rosenfeld from the confines of this relationship — to present him not simply as a bit player in the Bellow drama, but as someone who deserves to be remembered in his own right. The obvious strategy, one might have supposed, would have been to concentrate on Rosenfeld's work. But Zipperstein can't quite bring himself to claim that Passage from Home, for all its virtues, is a major novel, and his account of Rosenfeld's short stories and abortive attempts at a second novel make them sound interesting, but no more than that.