Novelist of 'Herzog' and 'Henderson the Rain King' who won the Nobel Prize for Literature
Thursday 07 April 2005
Saul Bellow was the finest novelist of his generation in an age when novels mattered.
Herzog, Bellow's most famous book, was number one on the
New York Times best-seller list for almost a year; it is hard to envisage Grisham-like success today for a book whose protagonist spends much of his time composing mental letters to Voltaire and Rousseau.
Solomon Bellows (Saul Bellow), writer: born Lachine, Quebec 10 June 1915; Nobel Prize for Literature 1976; married 1937 Anita Goshkin (one son; marriage dissolved), 1956 Sondra Tschabasov (one son; marriage dissolved), 1961 Susan Glassman (one son; marriage dissolved), 1974 Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea (marriage dissolved), 1989 Janis Freedman (one daughter); died Brookline, Massachusetts 5 April 2005.
Saul Bellow was the finest novelist of his generation in an age when novels mattered. Herzog, Bellow's most famous book, was number one on the New York Times best-seller list for almost a year; it is hard to envisage Grisham-like success today for a book whose protagonist spends much of his time composing mental letters to Voltaire and Rousseau.
To call Bellow's work serious should not mislead anyone into thinking it humourless or dull, for in fact the mix of intellectual argument with memorable comic characters marks his books and helped to account for their great success. In person, Bellow was at once urbane and deeply urban: a polished, fastidious, and intensely intellectual demeanour coexisted with a pungent appreciation of life that Americans call, sometimes fatuously, "street smart".
Bellow's first two novels constituted what he later called "an apprenticeship", for, as later with Philip Roth, Bellow's early ambition was to enter a then overwhelmingly Wasp literary establishment. His début, Dangling Man (1944), takes the form of a journal kept by a young man waiting to be conscripted in the Second World War. Well received by critics, including Edmund Wilson in The New Yorker, Dangling Man is none the less conceived in a distinctly minor key - and the effect is still of a tight and derivative artistic control. The voice - expansive, flamboyant, relentlessly curious - that was to become the hallmark of Bellow's best work is yet to emerge.
It remains submerged in his second novel, The Victim (1945), a strange and perverse tale of a Jewish protagonist, Asa Leventhal, who is hounded by a Gentile acquaintance after the latter is fired, seemingly at Leventhal's instigation. This persecutor demands a relentless series of compensations that heighten Leventhal's existing neurotic state, already inflamed by the bizarre tensions of living in New York City.
The shift from such traditional models was evident from the landmark opening sentence of The Adventures of Augie March (1953):
I am an American, Chicago born, that sombre city, and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
Of American literature's famous declarative openings (from Moby Dick to The Sun Also Rises) this was the post-war period's most celebrated, renowned for the robustness it promised, and fulfilled. Sprawling, picturesque, Augie March was notable for its optimistic richness at a time when French literature seemed intent on a reductionist stripping of parts, English fiction was still drained by the effects of prolonged post-war rationing.
Oddly, for someone who became such a characteristically American writer, Bellow was born in Canada, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who arrived in Montreal in 1913, only two years before Bellow was born. As a child he was sickly, and was hospitalised for six months at the age of eight, an experience he later said made him a confirmed reader and gave him the sense, once recovered, of "welling vitality" that was to permeate his work.
When the family moved in the following year to Chicago he found in that city's teeming immigrant stew the natural setting for his own great energies, and Chicago was to remain his emotional home ground for the rest of his life. He made Chicago his own vibrant locale for many of his protagonists, and against the backdrop of Chicago's mercantile mix and ethnic checker-board, Bellow could paint characters whose vitality seemed entirely native, uninfluenced by the sophistication of New York, or Europe. As he once noted with a perverse relish, "Chicago is openly philistine, instead of culturally philistine." Awarding Bellow an honour in the 1960s for Herzog, Richard Daly, Chicago's long-time mayor, was asked if he had actually read the book. "I've looked into it," he replied. As Bellow remarked, this kind of neglect seemed preferable to the sort of interest Stalin took in poetry.
Bellow's strong sense of place, however invented the environment, gave a firm physical bedrock to the metaphysical flights of his protagonists. In Seize the Day (1956), a novella set in New York, Bellow stepped back from the exuberance of Augie March; his hero, the failed ex-salesman Tommy Wilhelm, staggers from one disaster to another, fiscal and emotional. Yet the tautness of Bellow's structure was informed by a more enquiring vision than that of his very early work, and the Kafkaesque shadows of The Victim have been supplanted by a newly confident American view.
Now well off, Bellow moved to the East and bought a house in Duchess County in New York state where he settled with his wife and young family. He was soon established among a New York literary establishment in which Partisan Review functioned as the court journal, but Bellow never became a courtier. For one thing, he wrote novels instead of articles about politics, and his own youthful Trotskyist convictions had not survived the war (an introduction to the man himself was aborted by Trotsky's assassination half an hour before Bellow's appointment).
He was also sufficiently Midwestern - and it is in that heartland that the immigrant obsession with becoming wholly American runs strongest - to resist the Europe-facing cosmopolitan tendencies of so many New York writers. This explains why a lengthy Paris sojourn on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948 found Bellow distinctly unimpressed by French cultural life. He immediately thought Jean-Paul Sartre a fraud and spent his time conceiving Augie March, that most American novel.
Bellow's new artistic confidence came to full flower in Henderson the Rain King (1959), Bellow's own favourite and among his very best. The setting of the novel in Africa, where Bellow had never set foot, was an imperious display of certainty in his own imaginative powers.
Not accidentally, Bellow had studied anthropology as a young man, first at the University of Chicago, then at Northwestern. His eponymous hero, Henderson, is a Connecticut millionaire, who finds his emotional life in tatters and is unable to discover any desire or sense of worth in his life. In Africa his encounters with various tribal chiefs, teetering on the preposterous, work because of their emphasis on the transformation of Henderson himself; these meetings gradually unravel the vast cocoon of material America in which Henderson has enveloped himself (wives, homes, countless possessions). "I want! I want!" becomes his rallying cry. Yet by the novel's end Henderson has been transformed from prosperous narcissist to caring hero.
Herzog (1964), Bellow's next novel, is arguably his best. Certainly it was his most successful, almost eerily tapping some American pulse, despite its length, its intensely intellectual themes and, indeed, its undeniable Jewishness. There is not the mildest whiff of Waspiness about Herzog: he is urban, bookish, neurotic. He is also an intellectual fantasist, composing a series of vivid letters that stay only in his head - to friends, members of his family, and to famous figures of the present and past. This running mental monologue constitutes a commentary that is counterpoint to Herzog's erratic actions.
Like many of Bellow's novels, Herzog has strong autobiographical elements, for its hero shares some of Bellow's own marital misfortunes, his own cuckolding by a close friend, Jack Ludwig. And Herzog is set in Chicago, which became Bellow's own home for over 30 years. Bellow had taught before, including stints at the University of Minnesota and Princeton, but it was only in 1963 that he took a permanent position, as a member (eventually Chairman) of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. The university is in Hyde Park, a cultural oasis surrounded on three sides by black ghetto, on the fourth by Lake Michigan. In Hyde Park, thinking man is under siege, much as Herzog's relentlessly highbrow musings stand as a flimsy barrier against his mental unravelling. As Bellow later remarked, Herzog shows what "little strength 'higher education' had to offer a troubled man".
Mr Sammler's Planet (1970) was even more sensitive to the fragility of a life of the mind, for it is set in New York City in the late 1960s, when the cracks in Manhattan's social façade first turned to fissures. Yet Sammler is more than a Spenglerian lament about the decline of the cultural values, thanks to the remarkable qualities of its protagonist, the ageing Artur Sammler. Sammler is European, genteel and learned, a scholar who has known H.G. Wells and frequented the British Museum in the 1920s. Yet Sammler is also a Jew who has miraculously survived the Nazi occupation of his native Poland, as well as the Polish Partisans' subsequent decision "to reconstruct a Jewless Poland".
The contrast between barbarism and civility offered daily by New York is highlighted for Sammler by a black pickpocket who, detected by Sammler, menacingly exposes himself. Sammler has seen worse, of course, but it is New York's juxtaposition of low and high life that now disturbs him - he cannot compartmentalise the two. Turning away from any interest in people, Sammler pursues a Wells-inspired interest in the Moon.
Sammler's eventual return from mental orbit constitutes a moving conversion of character. Culminating in the death of Sammler's patron Gruner, who first brought him to America from a refugee camp, the novel becomes about humanisation, and demonstrates again the failure of intellectual life to solve human problems.
Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, usually an infallible indicator that a writer's best work is behind him, and this is true of Bellow. The personal balance of tart self-confidence and self-deprecating humour also seemed to shift, and his Nobel acceptance speech revealed the very smugness he had often mocked in the other literary "greats". His political thinking hardened: lofty pronouncements on American problems and membership of the Committee on the Present Danger (a kind of right-wing Pen) suggested a political certainty absent from the fertile ambiguities of his novels. A non-fiction account of a trip to Israel ( To Jerusalem and Back, 1976) looks remarkably unprescient today in its optimism about that country's ability to solve its problems.
Of the later novels only Humboldt's Gift (1975) approaches the power of its predecessors, chiefly through the portrait of the gifted but self-destructive Humboldt, clearly modelled on Bellow's friend Delmore Schwartz. For all his own ambition and eventual success, Bellow had a soft spot for gifted bums, men whose troubled personalities overwhelmed their talents - Schwartz, the poet John Berryman and the talented but ultimately failed figure Isaac Rosenfeld were the most notable examples.
In Humboldt's Gift the mix of fondness and accuracy in his depiction of Humboldt makes the novel at its best both comically zany and moving. But Charlie Citrine, a successful novelist who tells the story, is ultimately unpersuasive in his guise as a kind of vulgarised Bellow. The intrusion of Chicago street life - much is made of a vandalised Mercedes - seems especially contrived.
The Dean's December (1982), seven years later, was greeted with disappointment. Influenced by Bellow's fourth marriage, to a Romanian mathematician, it alternates between Chicago and Romania, where the protagonist's mother-in-law is dying. As Albert Corde, the Dean of the novel's title, meditates on death, he experiences countless difficulties with Romanian bureaucrats, as well as encounters with the colourful denizens of a manifestly declining Chicago. If Humboldt's Gift is too long, The Dean's December falters in its voice - predictable, didactic, it manages (almost inconceivably for Bellow) to lose our interest. The same is true of the five stories in Him with His Foot in His Mouth (1987).
More Die of Heartbreak (1987), a full-length novel, and two novellas, The Bellarosa Connection and A Theft (both 1989) are notable chiefly for their attempts to offer a revised view of male/female relationships; the misogyny for which the younger Bellow was often criticised seems softened here. Though a lover of women, Bellow was hard on his wives, and his marriages ended unhappily, the divorces acrimonious and financially contested. The exception was his last (and fifth) marriage to a graduate student at the University of Chicago, who was almost 50 years his junior and provided Bellow with a daughter - controversially in some eyes, since Bellow's age (he was 83 when the girl was born) precluded a conventional kind of paternity.
Ravelstein (2000), Bellow's last fiction, attracted a great deal of interest because of the real-life model for its eponymous protagonist, the political philosopher Allan Bloom. A close friend of Bellow, Bloom was a flamboyant figure, openly gay in later life, who became nationally famous for his moralising tract The Closing of the American Mind (1987). His depiction in Ravelstein is entertaining, and the heartfelt love between the homosexual Ravelstein and the heterosexual narrator is particularly touching. But the plot, even by Bellow standards, is extraordinarily thin, the prose too often repetitive. The attempt at comic exuberance is strained, almost embarrassed, as if Bellow knows that he cannot recover the unaffected liveliness of his writing in the time before he appeared on the cover of Newsweek.
In these later works, Bellow's energy seems vitiated by his propensity to lament. He saw failure everywhere - in science, in technology, in the older humanistic and religious arenas as well. He had reached what the critic Alfred Kazin called "the prophet stage", to the dismay of readers who missed the enquiring scepticism of his best work.
That the themes of Bellow's novels - the ineffectuality of intellectual lives; the sense of spiritual crisis in a secular world - are so recurrent is not a fault. As Evelyn Waugh wrote in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, "most men harbour the germs of one or two books only; all else is professional trickery of which the most daemonic of the masters - Dickens and Balzac even - were flagrantly guilty". What cannot be disguised in the later Bellow, however, is the loss of vitality that is an inimitable quality of all Bellow's best work, and distinguished him from other novelists of his time.
Of these writers only John Updike rivalled him in accomplishment. (Unsurprisingly the two were never friends, Bellow not disguising his resentment at his caricature in Updike's character Henry Bech.) If Bellow is not held to rank with Hemingway and Faulkner among modern American literary titans, he is very close. More than either of them, he was fascinated by both the intellectual and material worlds, happy to yoke abstractions with immediate actualities. As in his affecting character Artur Sammler, Bellow depicted with equal richness the world of ideas and the people who create it.
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