BOOK REVIEW / Rage and contempt to lift the spirits: It all adds up - Saul Bellow: Secker & Warburg, pounds 20

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AT THE END of this collection of essays, Saul Bellow is asked whether he despairs of modern life. 'Do I look or sound despairing?' he replies. 'My spirits are as high as ever. Not despair - anger. Contempt and rage.' It is not all that common to find a man - especially a shy, sensitive type such as a Nobel prize-winning novelist - whose spirits are given a lift by sheer anger at the world. But that's Saul Bellow for you: strong stuff. Other writers cheer themselves with vodka and tonic; Bellow prefers contempt and rage - shaken, stirred and almost on the rocks.

The subjects the book embraces - the wrong word, assaults is closer to what happens - include literature, politics, Mozart, the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Chicago, Khrushchev, Spain, Tuscany, the Six Day War, New York, and various other big deals. But the volume is really a quest for an answer to one question: what on earth is modern man to make of the modern world? Bellow lays down a sustained rhetorical barrage against what in Humboldt's Gift he calls the moronic inferno (Wyndham Lewis's phrase), against the distractions of our hi- tech mass culture, against the generally low human content of life today. In the novels, big delicate guys recoil in dismay from the slings and arrows; in these essays Bellow strides out and takes them himself.

Inevitably, he couches his dissatisfactions in the superlative high-low style that is his keynote. He spits out epigrams with a zeal that makes the anthology seem, at times, like a one-man dictionary of quotations. 'There has been a decline of desire,' he writes. 'People doubt their own human weight.' There are hundreds of these fraught sayings - here comes a list.

On tyrants: 'We praise the grey dignity of our soft-spoken leaders, but at heart we are suckers for passionate outbursts.' On the ecology of the planet: 'The enormous increases in population seem to have dwarfed the individual.' On the wonders of technology: 'We are temporarily miracle-sodden and feeling faint.' On the tyranny of facts in art: 'As long as the chariots are faithful copies, it seems to make little difference that the dialogue makes you clutch your head.' On the level of public debate: 'Life-and- death questions are not what we discuss. What we hear and read is crisis chatter.' On the media: 'The university is no more an ivory tower than Time magazine.' On the virtues of solitude: 'The more you keep your mouth shut, the more fertile you are.' On Sartre: 'His hatred of the bourgeoisie was so excessive that he was inclined to go easy on the crimes of Stalin.'

He is hard on his contemporaries: 'A great many writers have done little more than meet the mounting demand for thrills.' But he hunches down and defends books in the most uncompromising way possible. 'If you don't give literature a decisive part to play in your existence, then you haven't got anything but a show of culture.' What he is after is a dignified place for the soul, defined as 'certain essences permanently associated with human life'. This is controversial; the modern temper is uncomfortable with transcendence, with all these human essences. But Bellow makes a point of being politically incorrect where the soul is concerned.

Some people might flinch at some of the grandiose touches here and there, and it is possible, too, to rummage around for contradictions: Bellow hates the modern 'fiddle- faddle' but also hates writers too quick to moan about it, as if their own sensibilities were all that mattered. He is a lifelong academic who remains dismissive of modern universities: 'In colleges and universities no passion for novels and poems is instilled. What people learn is how to conduct a cultured conversation for a few minutes without betraying ignorance or stupidity.' He detests the outpourings of the press, yet is proud (rightly) to be the kind of fellow who reads Plato in one hand and the Wall Street Journal in the other. Are these contradictions, or a sign of breadth? The real contradiction is that such a misanthrope can be so exhilarating.

Quite a few of these axioms relate to his own novels. 'The degree to which you challenge your own beliefs and expose them to destruction,' he writes, 'is a test of your worth as a novelist.' Probably it is cheating to set a test for yourself, however difficult- sounding. But Bellow, though too much the lecturer to invent wrongheaded characters we can admire, passes with room to spare. The more exasperated he becomes with the shallowness of modern life, the more intensely we recall the relish with which he describes it. He exposes his hatred of the world to his delight in it: a tough and brave gamble.

But then, Bellow has always been a heavy investor in the power and forcefulness of an individual life - he always locates planetary disorders in the poundings of a single heart. In this sense he is an extremely traditional novelist, repeatedly letting an innocent man dangle in a dangerous world. In the text of a lecture delivered in 1977, he considers the plight of the modern character: 'We see how damaged he is, how badly mutilated. But the leap towards the marvellous is a possibility he considers nevertheless. He dreams of beating the rap, outwitting the doom prepared for him by history.'

No prizes for guessing who Bellow has in mind here. We can see him squirming - that brave talk of beating the rap, of taking a flier - to avoid sounding high and mighty (and failing). There is, too, an unsettling feeling in these lines that the author is beckoning us in to some exclusive club where we too can strut around feeling superior to the world. But it is part of the fabric of Bellow's prose to mix grand and menial tones, to be on hey-buddy terms with the soul and with 'human essences'. And he loves taking lofty concepts down a peg. 'For Darwin it was the struggle for existence that mattered,' he says, referring to his own early life. 'For me it was the struggle for conversation.' Even the name- dropping - Rilke, Nietzsche, Gide, Tolstoy, Proust, Faulkner, Blake, Ruskin, Gogol and others stop by for a word - feels like a man telling a good one about his pals.

In the end, the reason why Bellow commands our attention has to do with the great rebellious vigour of his style. Is he a modern man who refuses to discard the ancients, or an ancient mariner who refuses to shut his eyes to current affairs? Either way, he fixes us with his glittering prose. He knows that people have hearts as well as minds, and that the two don't always get along. He has a raging hunger for big truths, along with a dilettante's refusal to settle for the ones on offer. He is disdainful, rancorous, challenging, funny and, best of all, uneasy. And always, along with the hot cynical temper, goes a streak of optimism, a warm faith in marvellous leaps. It all adds up to something, that's for sure.