Saul Bellow revisited on the centenary of his birth
Eileen Battersby celebrates the work of the great American, Russian-inflected, Jewish writer, an undisputed master of language and characterisation
Saul Bellow, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature at his home in Vermont in 1989: The honour came the year after Humboldt’s Gift , his most Nabokovian novel, and within months of To Jerusalem and Back, his non-fiction report of a journey to Israel. It is always valid to include that book because it is serious and Bellow, for all the gags and earthy set pieces, is very serious. Photograph: Dominique Nabokov / Liaison Agency
‘I’ve reckoned with death for so long that I look at the world with the eyes of someone who’s died’ – Saul Bellow
Although The Dean’s December is the title of one of his novels, it could also be referring to what appears to be the current plight of the most decorated of American literary giants, Saul Bellow, a dean certainly but also a magus.
Born 100 years ago today – although now some theories suggest that he may have been born in July – his readership may have waned in the decade since his death. In short he appears to be out in the cold, nudged out of pole position by writers who may not have been born when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
On this, the centenary of his birth, it seems opportune to celebrate this most amusing, most difficult, most petulant of men, who was recently the subject of volume one of a massive biography, which at 812 pages brings Bellow to the age of 49 and the publication of Herzog.
Bellow lived a life fraught with relationships and friendships which often faltered into rivalries. There were also the stresses created by his ambition and his tendency to fictionalise his life and his friends. He was a great American writer; a great American, Russian-inflected writer; a great American Jewish writer and while he was none too keen on being described as Jewish the fact remains that Bellow’s flair for evoking Jewish characters, frequently academics who spoke like gangsters, caught between wanting to become American while fleeing their cultural inheritance, inspired much of the comedy.
So how good is he?
Very; he is an undisputed master of language and lively quasi-biblical prose, who was not overly bothered by narrative structure. He was superb with dialogue; Bellow “hears” his characters; writers, literary critics, lost souls, clingy women, discarded wives. His wonderful grotesques, even his minor characters, are vivid and approach Dickensian excess: “A man in his sixties, he was big, ruddy, fleshy, his huge chilled face as thick as sweet red pepper. His hair was dense and long, and he sometimes reminded me of the Quaker on the oatmeal box. He had energy enough to keep two men warm.” (From Ravelstein) or here is Herzog musing about his late, unlucky father. “J. Herzog, he was not a big man, one of the small-boned Herzogs, finely-made, round-headed, keen, nervous, handsome. In his frequent bursts of temper he slapped his sons quickly with both hands. He did everything quickly, neatly, with skilful Eastern European flourishes; combing his hair, buttoning his shirt, stropping his bone-handled razors….holding a loaf of bread to his breast and slicing towards himself…..jotting like an artist in his account book.” (From Herzog) or how about: “Humboldt wanted to drape the world in radiance, but he didn’t have enough material.” (From Humboldt’s Gift.)
What should we read? Best advice is to avoid the biographies – although if the world is to be divided between Zachary Leader’s new book and the much criticised single-volume biography written by James Atlas (2000), I would pick Atlas. It’s street-wise and judgmental but it does nail Bellow as an elusive, cocky, unmistakably human son of a bitch. So Bellow the man was no Santa Claus. Look instead to the heavily-autobiographical fiction.
1. Seize the Day (1957)
2. Herzog (1964)
3. More Die of Heartbreak (1986)
4. A Theft (1989)
5. The Bellarosa Connection (also in 1989)
6. Ravelstein (2000)
7. Humboldt’s Gift (1976)
Bellow’s bootlegger father couldn’t read English but he became proud of his clever son’s books, while his mother died young, at 50, unaware of her Saul’s achievements, leaving him hurt and angry. There were also the two elder brothers – later to become crooked Chicago businessmen in Bellowland – neither of whom had had much time for their dreamer brother’s obsession with books. For Bellow, books were the world; eventually his books became his world. Yet even Gore Vidal, a man not given to praising anyone, always conceded that Bellow was an intellectual who certainly read widely. Bellow, just like many of his characters, was a split personality, capable of being really charming and funny – so he seemed to me, when I met him – and quite appalling, petty and mean-minded.
Saul Bellow’s story is part of North American immigrant history. His parents had arrived in Canada, from Lithuania, then part of the old Russian empire, via St Petersburg and Bellow was born in Lachine, a small town near Montreal in 1915. His family moved to Chicago when he was nine years old. It was that city, ultimately his personal theatre, which shaped his personality. It also gave him his language. He did the rest. Sorrow and hurt define his fiction, yet there is also life and humour, such humour. Bellow’s Jewish humour is rich with impatience, comic timing and, as the years turned into decades, an increasingly sardonic tone of knowing regret, an awareness of Europe and a host of ancestors peering over his shoulder, asking each other what was he writing about. He was the first member of his family to become a naturalised American. He was granted citizenship in 1941.
His art has energy and a great deal of talking; earthy, metaphysical intelligence and profound simplicity. Early in his long career, Bellow the streetwise philosopher identified, as had his countryman William Gaddis (1922-1998), the abiding source of US fiction – its dynamic, free-flowing language and with it, believable dialogue, often fired with a further injection of exasperation. Bellow’s characters are good on exasperation – miffed betrayed husband Moses Herzog makes an art form out of it as he despatches outraged letters to just about everyone he can target. Life’s chaos was Bellow’s theme, particularly in relation to disastrous relationships and to this he added an inherited measure of European angst to narratives which are snappy, conversational, invariably eloquent, consummately American and yet not quite.
Dangling Man, his debut, published in 1944, is a statement of artistic intent; sharp, cryptic, assured and engaged. Joseph awaits his call-up papers; he is in limbo, his life is suspended and there are clear traces of Dostoyevsky and Kafka. For Bellow it was the beginning of his lifelong study of alienation as experienced by the eternal outsider – the Jew adrift in an urban landscape, be it New York or Chicago – struggling to become American despite the family ghosts of eastern Europe. In addition to this search for identity, Bellow’s convincingly flawed and human characters, sinners and schemers all – often emerging fully formed through one choice behavioural observation – battle the messiness of human existence.
At the close of one of Bellow’s finest achievements, the novella Seize the Day, (1956), a very Russian work, Tommy Wilhelm stands in a chapel at the funeral service of a stranger. He starts to cry. “It must be somebody real close to carry on so,” a voice is overheard saying. But Tommy is weeping for himself, as the most human of Bellow’s creations invariably do. Asa Leventhal in The Victim (1947), Bellow’s second novel, is deeply troubled and wholly convincing. Ironically, the Huck Finn-like Augie March, all-American, all mouth, the central character of Bellow’s baggy picaresque The Adventures of Augie March (1953), is the least typical of his protagonists. While the novel, his third, won the US National Book Award and made him famous, it was the book he shook off as his career and art evolved. For all its energy it now appears rather crude, far less nuanced than everything else Bellow wrote. The Adventures of Augie March has dated, whereas Herzog (1964) remains timeless. It offers a profoundly-felt portrait of a spoilt middle- aged intellectual in crisis and out of control.
Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976 when he was 61. The honour came the year after Humboldt’s Gift, his most Nabokovian novel, and within months of To Jerusalem and Back, his non-fiction report of a journey to Israel. It is always valid to include that book because it is serious and Bellow, for all the gags and earthy set pieces, is very serious. There is no short cut to Bellow’s fiction – it can be shocking and profane and at times metaphysical. You read it for his descriptions of human responses.
Weary and wary, he held his face in his hands as if to support his neck in the task when I met him in his office at the University of Chicago. At first he mistook me for an eager student and asked about an assignment. He had hooded brown eyes and a loud, hollow laugh, but his mood certainly lifted once he established he preferred having a conversation to being interviewed. His office was spartan: no pictures, no postcards – only books, books on every surface, and a sharp, black fedora hat. Although he never wanted his fiction to appear intellectualised, Bellow could not help being clever – here was an American intellectual capable of humbling the brightest of the Europeans in televised debate, and he did.
Death infiltrates most of his short stories, of which there are several superb long ones such as What Kind of a Day Did You Have? and Leaving the Yellow House. Throughout his career he drew on his own life and that of his friends – this much has been confirmed by his biographers. In Ravelstein, the eponymous, larger-than-life antihero, a once-poor academic made rich by publishing a bestseller, was based on Bellow’s friend, the critic Allan Bloom. Some critics objected to Bellow’s apparent hijacking of a friend’s life, but more recognised it as a fine novel. He saw, he listened, he wrote, he studied and rendered it into all-seeing fiction. And no, he didn’t show much mercy. According to his second wife, Sasha, immortalised as Madeleine in Herzog, Bellow was by nature solitary. “There was always a kind of distance, he always looked at the world sideways…..like a bird, very bright, observant…..Going to take something and use it.” (From an unpublished memoir quoted by Zachary Leader in The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune 1915 - 1964, 2015)
Dominating his middle period is The Dean’s December (1982), set in Bucharest, where a Chicago college dean has arrived at the bedside of his dying mother-in-law. It pits many of Bellow’s big themes against his prevailing thesis, failed relationships. This question of love is again explored in More Die of Heartbreak (1987). Late in his career Bellow subjected the notion of truth to a forensic examination in The Actual (1997). It is yet another mercurial performance. He considered himself a romantic, and he was that and more. As shrewd as a professional card player, as subtle as a poet, Saul Bellow, who died on April 5th, 2005, weeks short of what would have been his 90th birthday, pursued greatness with open hunger and achieved it all, without not a little emotional bloodshed being expended by others – wives; children; friends. The question now remains – will his works continue to be read? His subject is the self; his theme is the self on the rampage in life.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent