The Flow of Life

The Flow of Life

Is Saul Bellow the central American novelist since Willa Cather and William Faulkner?


During his lifetime, Saul Bellow was the most celebrated of American writers: In addition to the Nobel Prize, he won the National Book Award three times, as well as the Pulitzer. In 1964, his novel Herzog was a huge—and hugely unexpected—bestseller, and from then until the turn of the century a Bellow novel landed on the bestseller list roughly every half-dozen years. But now, a decade after his death, Bellow has faded from readers’ consciousness, in spite of the aggressive publicity campaign conducted by his British fans, including James Wood and Martin Amis.

The withering of Bellow’s reputation is partly the result of academic fashion: Professors now ignore his work, believing it to be a swamp of white male privilege tinged by racism and sexism. These charges are wrongheaded: Bellow had a firmer grasp of social reality than most of his contemporaries; his work did not exclude otherness, but instead engaged with it. In his college years at Northwestern, Bellow was a student of the pioneering anthropologist and African-Americanist Melville Herskovits, and it showed. His novel The Dean’s December offers a worried, somber, detailed portrait of inner-city Chicago. Bellow’s working-class Jewish childhood in Montreal and Chicago, conducted in a mixture of Yiddish, English, and French, readied him for a multicultural world. In Henderson the Rain King, his title character finds enlightenment in Africa, not his native Connecticut.

There’s a strong case to be made that Bellow is the central American novelist since Cather and Faulkner. He had a rich comic sense—he might be the funniest of our major writers—but comedy, for Bellow, was the road to moral seriousness. He was an intellectual who refused to traffic in that deadliest of genres, the novel of ideas. He was willing to let his characters stretch out, even take over his novels, especially in Humboldt’s Gift and his last book, the masterful Ravelstein, a roman à clef about Allan Bloom, his friend and colleague at the University of Chicago.

Bellow’s generous way with his characters sometimes led to charges of looseness. Philip Roth once observed that something happens halfway through a Bellow novel: The plot goes astray, the structure slackens. This was not because Bellow got distracted. He revised his work compulsively and, when he wanted to—as in Seize the Day and Mr. ­Sammler’s Planet—could produce a superbly organized piece of fiction. His short stories, too, are often perfect, faux-casual in Chekhov’s manner. (“It came out of him like a watermelon seed,” Bellow’s son Adam said about one of his father’s late marvels, the story “By the St. Lawrence.”) But for the most part, Bellow chose looseness. He practiced what the film critic Manny Farber called “termite art”—deliberately unkempt, chewing away in several directions at once—instead of constructing the too-polished plaster-of-Paris classic (“white elephant art,” in Farber’s term). Bellow disliked writing that aimed self-consciously at greatness, the grand poise of a Thomas Mann or André Malraux.

* * *

I once challenged a friend to open Herzog at random and find a less-than-remarkable sentence. She tried the experiment a half-dozen times before admitting defeat. Bellow was among the most stylistically well honed of the American novelists after Hemingway, but to consider him just a stylist is to underestimate him drastically. Bellow was driven by the idea that style is not merely a veneer but rather the voice of human personality, which invaded his work as it did that of Dostoevsky, his favorite writer. The more untamed the personality, the better. Because of the Jewish cadences that flavored his writing, and because of his devotion to the unruly powers of personality, Bellow stood against the bland New Yorker fiction of his day, with its careful ironies—sometimes poignant, sometimes dry, but always so excessively controlled.

Bellow’s books stand at the opposite extreme from the currently popular mode known as the “novel of detachment,” with its ascetic, isolated heroes [Jon Baskin, “Always Already Alienated,” March 2, 2015]. His men and women go all-out; they are talkers, obsessives, restless creators, crackpots, or thugs—sometimes all of these at once. They couldn’t be further away from Beckett’s pared-down protagonists, or the cartoonlike human contraptions invented by Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. Neither modern nor postmodern, Bellow is a realist, without the fusty air that the word suggests.

Bellow’s universe is physical: People are their bodies and their faces, and their souls shine through their flesh. Think of the actor Murphy Verviger in Humboldt’s Gift, rehearsing at a Broadway theater that looks “like a gilded cake-platter with grimed frosting”:

Verviger, his face deeply grooved at the mouth, was big and muscular. He resembled a skiing instructor. Some concept of intense refinement was eating at him. His head was shaped like a busby, a high solid arrogant rock covered with thick moss.

Or there is Humboldt in his desperate final days: “He wore a large gray suit in which he was floundering. His face was dead gray, East River gray. His head looked as if the gypsy moth had gotten into it and tented in his hair.” Every Bellow reader has a mental list of such gloriously precise human pictures. In each one, Bellow shows how the psyche is right there in the flesh, ready to be seen. In Bellow’s descriptions, as James Wood comments, every detail is essential. He rivals even Dickens in his power to locate personality through physical quirks, to explain how appearances tell who we are.

Personality, which Bellow constantly praised, is now in eclipse; what gleams instead is identity. Americans are mad for it, because this is a country in which, we have always been told, you can become whoever you decide to be. We have been trained to wrap ourselves proudly in our signifiers of choice. We “identify as” transgender, mixed-race, Jewish, Hispanic. This is a more subdued and subtle version of the dress-up carnival that Artur Sammler sees in the streets of late-1960s New York: the guerrillas and the long-haired cowboys who remind him of Hollywood extras. Like social media, identity choice is now part of us. But it often remains superficial. As with Humboldt in his suit, we flounder among possible identities. Personality can disclose who you are in a way that social identity cannot. Personality speaks with the voice of nature, while identity swapping is just a conventional game—such is Bellow’s argument. It cuts against the current grain, but that’s all to the good: We need contrarian voices.

* * *

Bellow’s thinking about the history of the novel has been almost invisible to readers. Strangely, he decided not to republish most of his literary criticism in his book of selected prose, It All Adds Up (1994). But now we have the superbly wide-ranging collection There Is Simply Too Much to Think About. Its editor, Benjamin Taylor, who ably edited a volume of Bellow’s selected letters a few years ago, bills it as the novelist’s “collected nonfiction,” which is not quite true: The volume contains some of Bellow’s interviews but not others, and some of the essays have been silently chopped down. “Certain of the very long pieces are modified here for reasons of space,” Taylor says, but he doesn’t indicate what’s been left out. (It would have required only a page or two at the book’s end to do so.) The absence is acutely felt in Bellow’s fascinating long conversation with Norman Manea, thankfully available as a separate volume published by Sheep Meadow Press. Still, this is a necessary book for anyone who cares about Bellow, which means anyone who cares about fiction.

The most interesting of these essays are those in which Bellow comments on great precursors like Flaubert, James, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, and on contemporaries like Nabokov, Salinger, and John O’Hara. There Is Simply Too Much to Think About reveals that Bellow, along with his friend Ralph Ellison, is one of the 20th-­century American novelists who thought most deeply about earlier American fiction, about modernism, and about European realism. Bellow’s criticism of other writers is nearly always convincing, and not just because it serves his own purposes, although Bellow clearly has the defense of his own work always in mind.

Bellow’s main target is what he calls “the popular orgy of wretchedness in modern literature.” He often derides the “Wastelanders,” the postwar writers and professors who float in the wake of high modernism. For them, the world of grown-up experience is a miserable place. Thus the popularity of Salinger, he explains in a 1963 essay (“Recent Fiction: A Tour of Inspection”): “The young and the pure of heart are in.” His diagnosis is still accurate a half-century later. The American appetite for immaturity that gorged on Salinger’s preciousness now swoons over Girls.

In the mid-1950s, Bellow was trying to find his place in American fiction. The Adventures of Augie March, his third novel, catapulted him to fame, but its bumpy, picaresque shapelessness struck Bellow as a dead end. Augie was too fond of immaturity, a reaction against Bellow’s first two novels, which had been too dourly Wastelander. In Augie, Bellow had followed Twain, but he needed a new path. With Herzog, he found it: a vital realism based on a cuckolded sad-sack intellectual closely resembling Bellow himself. In another writer’s book, Herzog would have been either a figure of fun or a lethally dull image of modern angst, but Bellow made him captivating. Like his wife and her lover, the unforgettable peg-leg Valentine Gersbach, Herzog was a personality.

For Bellow, Flaubert’s arid, gorgeous books took the first steps toward the modernist disparaging of life and personality. Bellow respected Flaubert: He frequently taught Madame Bovary, especially during his years at the University of Chicago, though he preferred Dreiser’s Jennie ­Gerhardt, an achingly mature, unsentimentally moving book with a knowing, sturdy heroine. ­Flaubert, Bellow thought, had set fiction on the wrong track by “displac[ing] his enormous energy from subject matter to style.” For him, “literature was a heroic enterprise…in spite of the degeneration of life.” Flaubert created stylistic beauty as an answer to dull, empty bourgeois existence. As for Henry James, he “carved out for his work a reality that he controlled too absolutely.” He had “the despot’s mercy toward his subject”—a deadly accurate description of James’s way with his characters.

Most modern novelists follow ­Flaubert, Bellow complained in a 1960 essay, “The Sealed Treasure,” because they, like Flaubert, are disappointed by the world’s “human material.” “Flaubert believed that the writer by means of imagery and style must supply the human qualities that the exterior world lacked,” Bellow wrote. The “insistent aesthetic purpose” in James, Woolf, and Joyce, he added, is the writer’s too-forcible effort to color a world that would otherwise be empty. In his novels, Bellow did his best to reverse the impact of Flaubert and return to the fictional worlds of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, for whom meticulous artfulness would only get in the way of the flow of life.

* * *

Bellow’s works are not novels of ideas, like those of Camus or Mann, in which, he remarks, the book stands or falls along with the idea. (As an idea, Camus’s The Plague was “not so hot,” Bellow wrote in a letter to Roth.) But he was an intellectual from top to toe. “For Darwin it was the struggle for existence that mattered; for me, in those years, it was the struggle for conversation,” Bellow wrote about the 1940s, when he arrived in New York City. He talked and listened intensely to Alfred Kazin, a key influence; to Ellison, Harold Rosenberg, Dwight Macdonald, Philip Rahv, and Paul Goodman. But he also had his suspicions about writers associated with Partisan Review. They wanted to give an injection of European avant-gardism to middlebrow America and, if possible, to mate high art with anti-Stalinist Marxism. Bellow had been a Trotskyist in his youth, and had even seen Trotsky’s body in the Mexico City morgue in 1940 (he’d been promised a meeting by one of the former bodyguards of the “old man” but arrived a day too late). By the 1950s, though, he had wised up. Bellow was skeptical not just about revolution, but about blanket denunciations of the bourgeoisie and their bad taste. It reminded him of Flaubertian condescension, a stale, futile road.

Bellow relished the gray toughness of his city’s streets, and its people as well. “Sensitivity in a mature Chicagoan, if genuine, was a treatable form of pathology,” he remarks in Humboldt’s Gift. In one essay, lambasting Sartre’s embrace of revolutionary violence, he makes a streetwise crack: “It is not inconceivable that a man might find freedom and identity by killing his oppressor. But as a Chicagoan I am rather skeptical about this.… It may do more for manhood to feed one’s hungry children than to make corpses.” Unlike the boldly flailing Mailers and Sartres, Bellow had actual wisdom to offer about the world.

Some of that wisdom undoubtedly derived from his Jewish upbringing. In one of this book’s pieces, a lecture titled “A Jewish Writer in America,” Bellow speaks about his Jewish origins. He was sent at the age of 4 to a heder, where he began to learn Hebrew and “to memorize most of Genesis.” As Bellow comments: “It would be a treason to my first consciousness to un-Jew myself. One may be tempted to go behind the given and invent something better, to attempt to reenter life at a more advantageous point. In America this is common, we have all seen it done, and done in many instances with great ingenuity. But the thought of such an attempt never entered my mind.” Bellow was no new-made Gatsby: He was Jewish to the core, and spoke a fine Yiddish to his last days.

Bellow’s memoir To Jerusalem and Back shows his strong attachment to the Jewish state, but also some mixed feelings. There Is Simply Too Much to Think About reprints a searching piece that Bellow wrote for Newsday after his trip to Israel in 1967 to report on the Six-Day War, in which he faults Israel as well as the Arab countries for failing to address the needs of Palestinian refugees. In Nablus, now in Israeli rather than Jordanian hands, Bellow’s clear eye discerns something telling: an Arab poster for a Robert Mitch- um movie. “Mitchum Arabized is strong, honorable, but his features are twisted with foreknowledge of defeat. Fate is dead against him.” The belief in implacable fate—like the Wastelanders’ pessimism, another bad idea—was not for Bellow. Instead, he trusted to life. The people he had known, himself among them, were living arguments for it.

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