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.