The Thinking Man’s Comedy

The soul of another is a dark forest.

—Russian saying

It is the voice rather than the plots of Saul Bellow’s novels that sticks in my mind. His heroes don’t do much. They talk endlessly, mostly to themselves. In long, diverting, and funny monologues they unburden themselves of their troubles in a mix of rough street talk and bookish philosophizing. Like soapbox characters I heard in my youth on Bughouse Square in Chicago, they have hundreds of grievances and hold outrageous opinions on everything from women to the way our country is run. They are brainy, self-absorbed, perpetually fixated on some wrong done to them, and in a constant state of agitation. The basis of Bellow’s humor is that the hero is usually someone who has made a complete mess of his life. This has always been the comic writer’s view of humanity. Tragic heroes complain only to the gods; the comic ones squabble with their families and dream of settling scores with their real and imaginary enemies.

In Bellow, some of that sense of being a fall guy is undoubtedly the result of the immigrant experience, where it’s common to have had a life more absurd than any plot of a picaresque novel. “Mother Herzog,” Bellow writes of Herzog’s mother,

had a way of meeting the present with a partly averted face. She encountered it on the left but sometimes seemed to avoid it on the right. On this withdrawn side she often had a dreaming look, melancholy, and seemed to be seeing the Old World—her father the famous misnagid, her tragic mother, her brothers living and dead, her sister and her linens and servants in Petersburg, the dacha in Finland (all founded on Egyptian onions). Now she was cook, washerwoman, seamstress on Napoleon Street in the slum. Her hair turned gray, and she lost her teeth, her very fingernails wrinkled. Her hands smelled of the sink.

No one who has been thus sent adrift by one of history’s practical jokes is a great believer in Reason. One can say anything about history except that it gives a hoot what happens to one person or another. It’s tough for anyone to figure out why his or her life turned out the way it did. For an immigrant it becomes almost a metaphysical problem. The absurd is the only reality there is, so for an individual, life is all about luck.

Bellow himself, James Atlas tells us in his biography, was born in 1915 in Lachine, an outskirt of Montreal packed with working-class Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, and Italians. He was the fourth child of Jewish parents who had emigrated from Russia two years before he was born. “The trunks my parents traveled with were exotic—the taffeta petticoats, the ostrich plumes, the long gloves, the buttoned boots, and all the rest of those family treasures,” Bellow recalled, “made me feel that I’d come from another world.” Now they were one of millions of new…

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