The Whole Human Mess: On Saul Bellow

The Whole Human Mess: On Saul Bellow

Drollery, mordancy, tenderness and soul talk: Saul Bellow's letters are a Saul Bellow novel!


The temptation here is simply to quote. "I am a poor lost woof from the kennel of Fate looking for a dog to belong to." "As my sixty-seventh birthday approaches (or I approach it in the sense that a fellow jumping from the top of the Empire State approaches the sixty-seventh floor)." "Losing a parent is something like driving through a plate-glass window. You didn't know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you're picking up the pieces." "I told an old friend in Rome that I'd never return. One can't even see the city for the cars, the Colosseum is fenced up because the tourists have been taking pieces of it as souvenirs, the Romans all look as though they had just gotten up after an adulterous siesta, first-class hotels stink of bad plumbing, everyone is on the make, the exhibitionists don't even zip up between exposures, they walk around on fashionable streets with their genitals in their hands."

Drollery, mordancy, tenderness, quick-draw portraiture, metaphysical vaudeville, soul talk, heart pains, the whole human mess—Saul Bellow's letters are a Saul Bellow novel, the author himself the protagonist. A Saul Bellow novel! A gift from the grave, like Humboldt's. The great voice again, the peerless voice: speaking of craft, the culture, intellectuals ("those dying beasts"), beach holidays, custody settlements, old times, summer mornings, Chicago, snubs, Jews, Tolstoy. Speaking to lovers, ex-wives, editors, fellow writers (John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, Robert Penn Warren, John Cheever, Karl Shapiro, Philip Roth, Martin Amis), sons, strangers, mentors, countless friends. Cooing, whispering, chuckling, chortling, lecturing, hectoring, denouncing, arguing, reminiscing. The whole life, as intimately as we're going to get it, from 17 to 88.

And thus a riposte to the previous life, James Atlas's openly hostile biography of ten years ago. "The towel with which the bartender cleans the bar," its subject called it. Atlas may have gotten the facts, but he spun them like a spitball pitcher. His Bellow is driven by his insecurities, compulsive in his need to make enemies, utterly selfish in his sexual and marital relationships and incapable of empathy or affection. Now we have raw data and can make some judgments for ourselves. On the letters in particular Atlas gets it precisely and characteristically wrong: "There was a certain impersonality in his boisterous epistolary style; no matter whom Bellow was writing to, his letters have a single tone. It was as if he was writing to just one person: himself."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Not a single tone but a whole church organ of them, for Bellow was always intimately responsive to his correspondents. The early letters to Warren, ten years older and still something of a patron, strain a little for sophistication. To the critic Alfred Kazin, a lifelong rival earlier arrived to acclaim, Bellow sounds at first insecure, then later, as if by way of compensation, ostentatiously clever, as in this, from Paris:

If Stendhal were alive today…he would do as I do with his copy of Les Temps Modernes, that is scan the latest sottises, observe with brutal contempt the newest wrinkle in anguish and then feed Simone's articles on sex to the cat to cure her of her heat and give the remainder to little G[regory] to cut dollies from; he can't read yet and lives happily in nature.

Berryman, a brother-in-arms, gets some of Bellow's profoundest feelings ("Just now in Poetry I read four Dream Songs, and wish to say, this being the hour when strength is low, thank you. We keep each other from the poorhouse"), as well, in retrospect, as some of the saddest lines in the book: "We must have a conversation about health and disease. Meantime, old man, for the love of Mike stop knocking yourself out." (After the poet's 
suicide, the finish to his alcoholic self-destruction, there was simply this: "I often wondered whether he would. I guessed that he wouldn't. I seldom guess right.") His last to Cheever is even more affecting: "Since we spoke on the phone I've been thinking incessantly about you." So much for Bellow the narcissist. "You were engaged, as a writer should be, in transforming yourself…. There's nothing that counts really except this transforming action of the soul. I loved you for this. I loved you anyway, but for this especially."

To Marcello Mastroianni, who had inquired about the film rights to Humboldt's Gift (1975), Bellow is exquisitely courteous. To Owen Barfield, who was schooling him in Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy, he is deferential. To Sondra, his second wife, in the wake of their nasty divorce, he is imperious. To Susan, about to be this third, he is gleeful. "Dolly," he writes, just arrived in Puerto Rico, "I am away, spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch." To Maggie Staats, perhaps his greatest love (they never married and were lifelong friends), he taps his childhood memories, the deepest sources of his feeling: "I hear Chicago carrying on its business, like a bad brass band playing all the old tunes. I've been hearing that noise since I was nine years old."

John Auerbach, the Polish-born Israeli novelist, a kindred spirit during Bellow's declining years, elicits details of his daily life in Chicago, Vermont (where he had a vacation house) and Brookline (where he moved to teach a dozen years before his death). "I…go out of doors and rinse my brains in God's icy air without knowing whether the tears in my eyes come from the cold wind or gratitude to my Creator." "Well into my late sixties I could work all day long. Now I fold at one o'clock." "Meantime the trees grow, the birds sing, the flowers do their stuff, the green is greener than ever. And there's Janis," Bellow's fifth and final wife, "without whom my blood wouldn't circulate." And Allan Bloom, another late-life intimate—colleague, crony, sounding board, mentor, protégé and finally, in Ravelstein (2000), fictional subject—arouses him to novelistic pitch:

I dragged myself over to the east side of Broadway, and a woman of ninety advanced toward me on a four-pronged cane—tiny, a construction worker's yellow hard hat pulled over her forehead. This apparition passing, there came more: middle-class people, I suppose, but reduced to the status of derelicts, one holding a little boy by the hand while yelling at an acquaintance to get his goddam ass out of her face because she wouldn't submit to suffocation, and then some people affably talking to themselves; and then a nice police dog chained to a parking meter, wearing a cast on his broken leg and barking. He may have been asking to see the humanity in relation to which he was supposed to be a dog.

Atlas got another thing wrong about the letters. He calls Bellow "an assiduous correspondent"; in fact, he was a dilatory one, as he often complained. The present volume—handsomely packaged and intelligently assembled—consists of fully two-fifths of the author's known output. That works out to only a little more than about twenty pages per annum, even excluding his years of youth and senescence. As a measure of Bellow's character this is neither here nor there, but the reasons bring us to the center of his art—of his voice, form, method, matter, of his whole approach.

"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.

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."

The Augie break was more than just aesthetic. The most cerebral of our major novelists, Bellow pushed himself out into the world. A brainy, bookish child and youth, mad about culture and the Europeans, he had made his first attempts along received and straitened lines. About Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), his first two novels, with their Dostoyevskian titles and existential dread, there was something too studied, too neurotic and confined. His MA and PhD, he later called them, suggesting their status not only as apprentice works but also as the products of a kind of academicism. With Augie, Bellow began the process of finding his proper relationship to reality. And though Augie is a naïf and Henderson a lout, the classic Bellovian heroes, the figures at the center of his most mature and characteristic works, are like their creator: notion-spinners, sensitive souls, idealists, contemplators, writers all. And while Augie and Henderson are perpetual motion machines, the later novels enact a more complicated dynamic. Herzog in his hammock; Sammler in his bedroom; Charlie Citrine, from Humboldt, on the sofa in his high-rise: they start in a condition of removal, of reflection, of repose—safely ensconced, thinking it over, just themselves and the Great Books. But here's what's new: their stories drive them out. Into the city, into the uproar, into America.

Into the world of Bellow's brothers, Maurice and Sam, big in the coal business, huge in real estate, Cadillac drivers, ganse machers, figures of energy and action, not above a shady deal, men who knew the way the system worked, the traps it laid for bleeding hearts. Men like their father, a failed bootlegger and everything elser, but cynical and tough, all three of them contemptuous of little Sol the luftmensch. "My father looked, when I told him of the award," Bellow writes an old friend at 33, having finally won himself a Guggenheim, "as he had looked at the gold star in my third-grade copybook. Yes, very fine, but there is still life with its markets, alleyways and bedrooms where such as you are conceived between a glass of schnapps and a dish of cucumbers and cream."

But instead of backing away from everything that scorned and seemed to have no need for him—from the world of business, from philistine, indifferent America, from Chicago, with its hustle and its ignorance of culture—he plunged in. At 46, after years on the East Coast, he moved back to the city of his youth, which he had fled in his youth. It was a movement he would replicate for Herzog and Citrine, putting intellect in dialogue with appetite, vision with vice, restlessness with rest—the bracing Blakean damn. "You'll find the book I'm writing now"—it was, precisely, Herzog—"less 'tender,' 'tolerant,' etc.," he writes:

When a writer has such feelings, however, it's his business to lead them all into the hottest fire. He must expose them to the most destructive opposites he can find and, if he wishes to be tender, confront the murderer's face. The converse, however, is equally true, for writers who believe there is a Sargasso of vomit into which we must drift are obliged to confront beauty.

In throwing his heroes to the mobsters and the shysters, the adulterers and operators, Bellow rejected not only the Modernist strictures and forms but also the Modernist emotions and attitudes—contempt for the bourgeoisie, "the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook," willed enfeeblement, la nausée:

I came some time ago to think of despair and victimization as being at the service of the ruling class and the whole social edifice. It is the way in which imagination and intelligence eliminate themselves from the contest for power. Not that they are rivals for the same power…. But there are other powers from which we have abdicated—powers of gratification, of beauty and strength.

They may have been Modernist emotions, but they belonged to the Old World. This was America. Look around, breathe it in and get going.

* * *

What happens in the plot happens in the sentences; the place where the Bellovian poles of high thought and venal circumstance most directly touch and spark is in his prose. Bellow's way with portraiture is often to open up with a barrage of jostling adjectives: "We met Sewell for lunch—a muttering subtle drunken backward-leaning hollow-faced man." He throws them out, the epithets, a boxer dealing rights and lefts. And when he's really roused, the jumble's wilder still: "He wore a black carabiniere cloak, his feet were bare, he drank Pepsi-Cola, he had eight or ten children, he owed money to everyone, and he was a cultural statesman." A vivid miscellany, Bellow's style, like the American city itself. There is a sublime ungainliness about the phrases, a restless discontent, the philosophical-abstruse yoking itself, with loosely fitted joints, to the concrete-vernacular. The syntax comes in a tumble, submitting itself to the urban experience: "A mysterious tremor, dust, vapor, emanation of stupendous effort traveled with the air, over me on top of the great establishment, so full as it was, and over the clinics, clinks, factories, flophouses, morgue, skid row."

It's like drinking from a fire hose. This is your brain on Bellow. There's as much perception in his prose per square inch as there is thought in Henry James. He looks the facts in the face. Under such attention, everything is lovely: "the patrons of the Russian Bath are cast in an antique form. They have swelling buttocks and fatty breasts as yellow as buttermilk. They stand on thick pillar legs affected with a sort of creeping verdigris or blue-cheese mottling of the ankles." But also, often, there's a kind of coarse approximateness, a roughness like a rough guess, life handled largely, with stiff workman's gloves: "Upstairs, on the television screen in the locker room, little dudes and grinning broads make smart talk or leap up and down." And finally, behind it all, there is the tension of an enormous highbrow intelligence being held in check, diverted. Registered, finally, in an exquisite dryness of manner, like Scotch evaporating on the tongue.

Herzog, Sammler, Citrine: they think, but they are not thinkers in the usual sense, professional intellectuals, and neither, quite deliberately, was Bellow. Having come of age in young Marxist Depression-era Chicago, having gone east to seek his literary fortune amid an even more hypertrophically intellectualized and politicized milieu, the Partisan Review crowd in its heyday, living in a century of omnivorous ideas and cannibalistic ideologies, he distrusted the big theory, the blanket explanation. The postwar scene was only worse. Already by 1948 he is bemoaning "our failing connection to reality." Journalism, sociology, political talk, "the canned goods of the intellectuals"—all of these he saw as mass delusions, groupthink on a global scale. All the official sources of cultural authority were suspect to him, all the "centers": Partisan (they were the "dying beasts"), New York, the Ivy League, Europe.

"I must say, here"—he is referring to the University of Minnesota, where he taught as a young man—"that sociologists are the greater offenders. I listen to them…with every effort to be fair and understanding but I can't make out their Man…. The creature the theologians write about is far closer to me." Bellow insisted on the reality of the soul, of its powers and greatness and supreme importance, a conviction he derived not from orthodox belief or any other kind but from his own intuitions and intimations, his encounter with himself and others. The soul: individual, unique, immediate, irreducible—not an average, not a notion. "The novelist labors in character," he writes here, eschewing the Village's fashionable Freudianism, "not in psychology, which is easier and swifter; the psychology of a man comes from many different sources, a theory that is shared; the vision of him as a character comes from the imagination of one man." Vision, imagination, art: this is the way to get at the truth, to get at the soul. Instead of talking about what matters, he says here, we should talk about "what really matters"—not received concepts or causes but feeling, perception, experience, the world as it arrives to us direct. "What I felt all through," he says of Cheever's novel Falconer, "was an enraged determination to state the basic facts."

His own tendency to think the general thought he recognized and sought to guard against. "Hattie in 'The Yellow House' and Henderson and 'The Old System' seem to me my most interesting things," he writes, "because they are not argued." His notion-spinning heroes were a way of keeping his own intellect at arm's length, ironizing the will to master mentally chaotic circumstances. His novels aren't essays, and they don't contain essays, either. Herzog's cogitation and the others'—it is mobile, improvisational, circumstantial, speculative, the mind wrestling with reality, not shutting it in the cellar. When Bellow started a literary magazine, the Noble Savage, in 1959, his goal, he said, was to get writers out of the "nutshells" into which the twentieth century had shut them and "into the world again." "It's a lucky man who has a generous style," he writes, "and can accept the wider range of other people's facts." Other people's facts: reality as it exists apart from us. His friend Allan Bloom said it brilliantly and best: "He has always understood that even if you are on your way from Becoming to Being, you still have to catch the train at Randolph Street."

Understanding, for Bellow, begins in feeling—hardly an intellectual's position or, these days, even a comprehensible one. Citrine, we read, is a man who has decided "to follow the threads of spirit he had found within himself to see where they might lead." That is why Bellow's memories of childhood were always his essential touchstone. "Love reclaims one for reality," he writes here—that same love that he felt for his readers. And that is why he insisted, to Alfred Kazin, that when it comes to judging a work of literature, "The first criterion is enjoyment, and so are the second and third criteria." Bellow was against interpretation long before another writer got there. "While our need for meanings is certainly great," he wrote in a 1959 essay, "our need for concreteness, for particulars, is even greater." And that is why he thought by telling stories.

* * *

In his letters, too. "When people ask me how I am, I am always inclined to answer like a Roman I once saw knocked down by a Vespa. When people ran toward him to ask how he was, he said, 'I was better before.'" But the greatest story here is just the life itself, unfolding haphazardly but finding its own echoes and ironies, its dramas and denouements. We feel the racing excitement as the author gets another novel up to speed. ("I'm writing a book, growing a new life the way newts grow tails.") We weigh the ratios of vulnerability, manipulation, love and wounded pride in his letters to his sons. We follow subplots as they arch across the decades—most strikingly, the one that starts right off the bat. Bellow is 17 and denouncing, with high self-consciousness and full Russian flourishes, the girl who has refused him for another. "Some day when I am in my dotage," he concludes, "and you are many chinned and obese we may be reconciled." They must have been, for 64 impossible years and 500-plus pages later, we read the remembrance that Bellow composed for her memorial service.

Most compelling is the author's converse with his fellow writers. Beyond the letters, there are beautiful elegies here for Malamud ("We were cats of the same breed"), Warren ("a great-souled man") and Ellison ("It took great courage…to insist as Ralph did on the priority of art and the independence of the artist"). There is a series of marvelously pithy letters to the Guggenheim Foundation in support of younger authors: James Baldwin, Grace Paley, Louise Glück. And there is a whole raft of sympathetic but exacting critiques: to Malamud on God's Grace, to William Kennedy on Ironweed, to Cynthia Ozick on The Messiah of Stockholm, to Martin Amis on The Information, to Philip Roth on I Married a Communist.

Toward younger writers his generosity was unfeigned and unstinting. "I knew when I hit Chicago…and read your stories," he writes to Roth, "that you were the real thing. When I was a little kid, there were still blacksmiths around, and I've never forgotten the ring of a real hammer on a real anvil." In our age of diminishing expectations for culture and the novel, his example has the power to inspire yet new generations still: his work, for the scope of its ambition; his letters, for the devotion that they unapologetically proclaim. "The name of the game is not Social Security. What an error! Social Security is an entirely different game. The name of the game is Give All."

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