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The Whole Human Mess: On Saul Bellow | The Nation

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The Whole Human Mess: On Saul Bellow

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"For whom is a book written, after all," he says, if not for friends? A book, then, is itself a kind of letter. More, it is an offering "in lieu of letters," for "while I can gear myself up to do a novel, letters, real-life communications, are too much for me." Why? "Because I have become such a solitary...a loner troubled by longings, incapable of finding a suitable language and despairing at the impossibility of composing messages in a playable key." Walter Pater had a phrase for this characteristically modern dilemma, "the thick wall of personality"—a sense of the heroic difficulty of disclosing, not the superficial trivialities of ordinary discourse, epistolary or otherwise, but the true contents of your soul.

Letters
By Saul Bellow.
Edited by Benjamin Taylor.
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About the Author

William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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For this condition, the only remedy is art, the most idiosyncratic and at once the most hard-won of communications. Or as Bellow put it, "By now I have only the cranky idiom of my books—the letters-in-general of an occult personality, a desperately odd somebody who has, as a last resort, invented a technique of self-representation." Letters-in-general: his books are letters, but letters, necessarily, to the world. Put it this way: they are still addressed to friends, only a great deal more of them. "I prefer to think of the pages of fiction that I write as letters to the very best of non-correspondents. The people I love—the great majority of them unknown to me." In other words, his readers.

This is more than a pleasant conceit; this is an aesthetic. The breakthrough came with The Adventures of Augie March (1953), novel number three, in the aftermath of which he wrote to Bernard Malamud, "I took a position in writing this book. I declared against what you call the constructivist approach. A novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay." It was a prison break from Modernist obsessions with perfected forms, the "strict little dance" or anal-retentive "constructivist approach" that shows up variously in Hemingway's sentences and Henry James's plots. "I backed away from Flaubert," he went on, "in the direction of Walter Scott, Balzac and Dickens." Joy, appetite, exuberance, plenitude, sprawl—adventure, for writer and reader as well. And also—"like a letter"—intimacy, spontaneity. He put himself out there. Transformation, yes, as he said to Cheever; a novel's not a journal or confession. But no Modernist mask, no Joycean nail-paring, the god of the work absconding behind the appearances. "Having brought off my effort as well as I could," he concluded, "I must now pay the price. You let the errors come. Let them remain in the book like our sins remaining in our lives."

The book is like a letter; the book is like a life. It is no accident that the titles of most of Bellow's major novels—The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King (1959), Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970)—refer to their protagonists, or that the most acclaimed of all, the one in which the author's method reached its ripened state—Herzog (1964)—simply names the man himself. The gesture belongs to an earlier time—Tom Jones, Jane Eyre—but Tom was not Fielding, and Brontë was not Jane. Here we get something like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but largely stripped of its protective frames and forms. Herzog is the novel, the novel is Herzog, and both, to a striking extent, are Bellow. "This is the first time," he told his editor, "I've really shown my hand—my face, if you prefer—in any book." A later judgment—from the real-life model for Ramona, no less, Herzog's Latin lover, who ought to have known—called the novel "a book so private as to constitute a parallel to Rousseau's Confessions."

It is also no coincidence, of course, that Herzog is a novel about a man who writes letters. Bellow's plots have always been rebuked for shapelessness. His career had scarcely begun when Dwight Macdonald, then an editor at Partisan Review, was warning him about the "centreless facility which destroys the form by excess elaboration." But Bellow could plot when he wanted to, as any number of shorter works—"Mosby's Memoirs," "The Old System"—amply demonstrate. The big novels, especially—Augie, Herzog, Humboldt's Gift—are after something else, something better, something truer and certainly something more. Like Chicago, like America, they get it all in. Like a letter, they get it all down: topsy-turvy, stream-of-consciousness, one damn thing after another, the way it comes at you in life.

The way it came at him in his life: childhood and youth in Augie, second divorce in Herzog, third divorce in Humboldt's Gift, with Delmore Schwartz—the model for the title character—thrown in for good measure. Like lengths cut off a single bolt, the novels give it in full, the whole cloth warp and weft. Father's curdled life, mother's early death, older brothers' business bombast, mistresses' delights and lawyers' bastinado, deep thoughts tumbled up with high jinks in the bedroom and tumult in the street. Lachine, Hyde Park, Manhattan. It's all mixed in there together, just as it is in Herzog's letters (and just as it is in Bellow's, which is why this volume feels like yet another novel).

The marvel is that Bellow manages to keep it all straight for us. The novels don't lack form; they just don't flaunt their form the way that, say, Ulysses does. There are parts of Humboldt's Gift where the digressions go four layers deep, but we always know exactly where we are. Coherence comes as a sequence not of actions but emotions, a sentimental education ending in epiphany. "I believe he comes out sane," Bellow says of Henderson, "though he goes in mad. And that's news." The stories don't come to a close; the protagonists (or most of them) come to a rest.

All this jibes with Bellow's process. Not for him the Flaubertian squeezing out of mots justes, fainting fits and half a page a day. On rare occasions the prose simply came. "I wrote 'Mosby's Memoirs' on six successive mornings in the Mexican town of Oaxaca without the aid of tequila," he says. "I felt as they went into the story that I was striking [the words] with a mallet. I seldom question what I have written in such a state." But usually, and always with the novels, he wrote and rewrote entire drafts. "I have finished my story," he says at one point, referring probably to "What Kind of Day Did You Have?," "and in June I can go to work on it in earnest." "Be prodigal," he told William Kennedy. "Think of all those sperm: Only one is needed to create life."

Prodigal he was. The 340 pages of Henderson were boiled down from 4,000 pages of notebooks and manuscripts. In the heat of Herzog, he was turning it out at the rate of forty pages a week. Humboldt's Gift, he told an interviewer, was written "in my usual way": "Lots of beginnings, three years on the middle and then the last third in six weeks flat out." He may have been remembering the final push on Henderson, when after tearing up another draft and writing 500 longhand pages of the next, he'd dictated a new version, revising yet more as he went, at the rate of "eight, ten, twelve and fourteen hours a day for six weeks. By mid-August I was near suicide." The end of a book would be followed by a couple of weeks' prostration. "Have you ever visited a clothing factory," he wrote during the high Herzog sweat, "heard the sewing machines rrrrhhhahhhrrr with the loudness in the middle of the phrase? I feel like that myself, like the operator sliding in the cloth. Only the machinery is internal and the seams never end."

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