Toward the end of his 1989 novella, A Theft, Saul Bellow–who died on April 5 at the age of 89–has Clara Velde, the tale’s protagonist, describe the perceptual stages she’s passed through in her life: “Stage one: Everybody is kindly, basically good; you treat ’em right, they’ll treat you right–that’s baby time. Stage two: Everybody’s a brute, butcher, barbarian, rapist, crook, liar, killer and monster. Stage three: Cynicism also is unacceptable, and you begin to put together an improved judgment based on minimal leads or certain selected instances….”
That approximately characterizes my responses to Bellow’s work over the years, beginning with rapt devouring of his every word, as though his fiction were wisdom-writing on the order of the Bible or the Bhagavad-Gita. This personal attachment to Bellow’s art gave way to something like personal hurt when I was confounded by his disgust with contemporary life and contemporary people, if not with life itself. And, finally, there was a calm, grateful, less personal acceptance of Bellow’s precious artistic blessing, along with resignation to the absurdity of his lacerating intellectual curse.
In his scorn for just about every aspect of the “contemporary scene,” Bellow sometimes joined the company of enigmas with authoritarian leanings, like Yeats, Lawrence, Céline and Eliot, and just plain social creeps, like Woolf, Forster and Larkin. American versions of these genius-monsters are rare. Bellow’s dark philosophical moods are what defined him as the most European of American novelists, though he is often celebrated–especially by British writers–as the epitome of American literary exuberance. But Bellow was really a nationally unaffiliated free agent who exuberantly used European lines and pulleys to get America under control of his imagination, just as he wielded an American idiom to throw off any claim that Europe might have had on his creative will. It was this very insistence on his sovereign autonomy that lies at the heart of Bellow’s darkness and disdain.
The Adventures of Augie March (1954), considered by many to be Bellow’s most American book, is actually his declaration of independence from both America and Europe. This magnificent picaresque tale ends with its hero standing at the edge of the North Sea, on the beach at Dunkirk, “where the British were so punished” as they fled the invading Nazis and then waited to be evacuated. Yet no one is driving Augie off the continent. He is the lordly American postwar traveler, enjoying the abeyance of European influence.
Strangely, though, he has no plans to go back to America. “Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand,” he muses in the book’s famous final lines, “and believe you can come to them in this immediate that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.” And which didn’t prove there was, since America had yet to be invented, and still has yet to be summed up by history. The shrewd double negative confers on Bellow’s hero an absolute freedom from place. He is an “Isolato,” the term coined by Melville in Moby-Dick for those “not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own.” Augie’s homeland, and Bellow’s too, is the terra incognita of the character’s, and the author’s, singular will and imagination.
In novel after novel, Bellow put his protagonists through an infinite regression of detachment from places, ideas, qualities of experience. He cuts them loose from every clinging, mortal thing–this is the essence of his creativity. In Humboldt’s Gift (1975), Charlie Citrine rhapsodizes about his ideal state of being, the “single self, independently conscious, proud of its detachment and its absolute immunity, its stability and its power to remain unaffected by anything whatsoever…. For to be fully conscious of oneself as an individual is also to be separated from all else.”
Bellow so precisely captures and notates physical existence only to transcend it. He is not, in fact, a realist at all. No one ever looked like the con man Tamkin in Seize the Day (1956): “His bones were peculiarly formed, as though twisted twice where the ordinary human bone was turned only once, and his shoulders rose in two pagodalike points.” These are literal details fringed with expanding wonder; they make the familiar world suddenly give way to terra incognita. With the exception of Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow’s heroes are always, by novel’s end, alone on their separate continent, physically, emotionally or spiritually “separated from all else.”
By the time of Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow’s evocations of the physical world had become almost surreal: “the clothesline surrendered the pith of its soul.” From then on, you barely get any description at all. Citrine’s confession that for him the veil of Maya “is wearing out, like a roller-towel in a Mexican men’s room” is both a lament and a victory cry. Bellow was dispensing with the physical world altogether.
He deployed ideas and opinions in his art as a function of this sweeping-clean quality. Bellow used his imagination to build his separate continent while his imagination used his intellect to clear a path for itself. No wonder he loved to portray gangsters, and sometimes to marry a tough-guy tone to alpine cerebrations. In Bellow’s fiction, ideas are explosive, dazzling, intimidating lieutenants in flashy suits who push various troublemakers out of the way: powerful rivals, skeptics, critics of various stripes. Afterward, the imagination enters, passive and sympathetic where the intellect was merely commanding: dapper, elegant, elfin, feline. And then there is just Bellow and his hero, isolated and absolutely alone. And finally there is “nothing”–the penultimate, one-word sentence of Herzog (1964).
Bellow’s portrait of a black pickpocket and exhibitionist in Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) provoked accusations of racism, and his opera buffa challenge to academics to produce “the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans” didn’t help matters. Both episodes were instances of the old Bellovian mental path-clearing, to which Bellow subjected intellectuals and Catholics in Herzog, hypocritical religious Jews and capitalists in Seize the Day, middle-class Jews and upper-class WASPs in the short masterpiece Mosby’s Memoirs (1968), politicians and journalists in The Dean’s December (1982), politicians, academics, foundation heads in Humboldt’s Gift–to which he subjected every famous thinker, illustrious writer, public figure, friend, lover, acquaintance whose power over his mind or heart interfered with his will. In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the target wasn’t really the black man with the large phallus. It was a certain American-Jewish middle-class daydream of feral potency, a condescending fantasy purveyed by a rival, Norman Mailer, with his exoticizing fixation on the black phallus in his notorious essay “The White Negro.”
Bellow’s targets themselves sought Single Selfhood: Jewish con men, cruel Jewish fathers, black muggers, heartless WASP mandarins, strident multiculturalists, luckless flounderers, impractical doomed poets. You followed Bellow on his creative-destructive quest to clear a space for his own “single self…proud of its detachment and its absolute immunity” because Bellow’s panoramic journey enacted the American ego’s numberless strategies for trying to get its way. What makes Bellow mesmerizing, transporting, addictive, even when he is affronting you with his defensive Olympian postures, is that he had the gift of sweeping through existence from high to low, encompassing every point in between, and making you feel the whole whenever he touched one of its parts.
Yet Bellow could indeed put you off with his sometimes ludicrous visitor-from-another-planet generalizations about contemporary life–people don’t even wipe themselves anymore, ruminates Ithiel Regler, Clara Velde’s boyfriend, as he sits sniffing in the back of a New York taxi. (This astounding social observation was deleted in a later edition.) Bellow was especially hard on figures who possessed a will and ambition similar to his own. It got to be exasperating when he mocked “deep thinkers” because you realized that he was having his cake and eating it too, flaunting his intellectual capacities and dismissing his intellectual competitors by undermining their vocation. Late in his career, Bellow exclusively wrote fiction that took up his past, a place where his intellect didn’t have to exact so many casualties for the sake of his imagination. Everyone was already dead.
And still, at his most rebarbative, Bellow’s voice held you aloft, above the daily din of tragic reports and false consciousness. It was a comprehensive voice with a vulnerable core, whose lowliest concerns had a metaphysical ballast. Serenely certain, the Bellovian melody seemed to emanate from an eternal perspective. He was like a commuter from the Other Side. People join cults under the spell of an otherworldly confidence like that. Even when you saw through Bellow’s trick of substituting for the idols he smashed his own contrivance of universal authority, he consoled you.
He consoled you because Bellow didn’t stand for anything except being true to his own unfolding nature. We all want such authenticity for ourselves, no matter who we are; it’s bracing to behold if it’s done with Bellow’s candor. And once Bellow had inspired you with his laughter at the cosmos, you yourself could laugh at his intellectual inflations and his spleen, proud of your immunity and your newfound detachment, and of all the things Bellow had taught you about being free. Which didn’t mean he wouldn’t have liked to sweep the world clean of you, too.