Saul Bellow will be eighty-two this summer. Not long ago, he told Playboy, he had been near death after partaking in the Caribbean of a fish that turned out to be toxic. But here he is, sharp as ever when he writes about low doings in Chicago and then adds his now customary outrage at the piggishness and mediocrity of American democracy.
Forty-four years ago Bellow’s breezy young character Augie March noted, “I quit thinking long ago that all old people came to rest from the things they were out for in their younger years.” Augie was right. In the Bellow world the protagonist is never at rest, and never seems much older than Bellow was in 1944, in Dangling Man, when he began the struggle to establish his own world of thought. This has always been the struggle to reach a higher plane of existence, and it has kept him contending with and curtly opposing people he considers necessarily inferior. These he has bitterly to seek out in order to observe the smallest details of their being, thus enabling him to stand “free” and be true to himself.
The Chicago Jews in his new novella The Actual are now far better off and more highly polished than they were in The Adventures of Augie March, The Dean’s December, More Die of Heartbreak, and other extensions of what becomes a personal epic whenever Bellow writes about Chicago. Though their names (with the exception of the most interesting character in the book, the billionaire Sigmund Adletsky) are now racially indistinct—Harry Trellman, Amy and Jay Wustrin, Bodo Heisinger—few are less crude and few display more “soul” than they used to. “Soul” is an odd quality in Bellow’s catalog of Chicagoans: not many characters have it. Few can survive his harsh skepticism about human nature. The Actual wearily begins, “The usual repertories of stratagems, deceits, personality rackets, ringing the changes on criminal cunning, are hardly worth examining…. That a slip of the tongue will lead you back to the mischievous id needs no more proving.”
The picturesque and vaguely endearing Sigmund Adletsky, ninety-two, shrunken but ever watchful, has made his pile by dominating a large part of Chicago. On the side he builds super-resorts for the very rich so that they can relax on exclusive Latin American beaches. Only to his tiny, frail, equally aged wife (he calls her “Dame Siggy”) is Adletsky benevolent. Foreign governments and native corporations have learned not to tangle with him. In all departments of life, except with Dame Siggy, he is watchfulness itself. This is a quality Bellow has long considered essential when dealing with the heartlessness of Chicago. It is one he loves to work up in his fiction.
Adletsky steals the show in The Actual. He owns a stretch limo that variously reminds the narrator, Harry Trellman, of a grand piano and an ocean liner. Harry says in awe: “One thing I learned in my contacts with the old man: Wealth so profound can have no adequate human equivalent. He is very old now and small—light enough to fly away into the everlasting. His sons and grandsons, however, still report to him.” Such wealth has raised him high over the aggressively successful shysters in The Dean’s December and More Die of Heartbreak, who tried to be “reality instructors” to the once too-sensitive Bellow protagonist.
Harry Trellman has returned to Chicago from mysterious financial shenanigans in Burma and Guatemala. “I never care to specify my trade,” he says. His “unfinished emotional business” is that he has been madly in love since high school with Amy Wustrin, now an interior decorator and a divorcée. Harry’s dream love of forty years has survived the fact that her second husband, a careless, inveterately adulterous lawyer, managed to tape Amy’s one extramarital experience (she screamed at the culminating moment). That is how Jay managed to divorce her and escape paying alimony.
Adletsky meets Harry at a party given by a fashionable Wasp hostess, where neither Jew feels at ease. Adletsky is soon impressed by Harry’s ability to see through their mannered hostess and her rambunctious ex-husband. “I kept an eye on you as you watched that scene. I haven’t had much time for social life or psychology items. But now I’m out of planning, acquisitions—I’m out of business action. I go around with my wife on her circuit. Anyway, I thought I’d like to become acquainted with somebody like you—a first-class noticer, obviously.”
Adletsky, imitating Franklin D. Roosevelt “in one respect,” promptly hires Harry to be his personal “brain trust.” Harry is a natural disciple, too smoothly accommodating to be easily believed in. And I don’t. I know more about Jay Gatsby’s business—deliberately vague as that was—than I ever will about Harry’s. Maybe Bellow doesn’t think the details are necessary; they would be too nasty and distracting. This is not a book in which top-heavy American wealth gets much scrutiny. And Harry’s longing for Amy Wustrin is the weakest, least convincing element in a story set against Bellow’s customary background—rough doings in Chicago.
Harry is not much of a character, but he is the narrator because he possesses sharper powers of observation than anyone else. To notice so exactly is the heart that keeps a Bellow narrative pulsing. When he first returns to Chicago he stumbles on Amy without recognizing her, and she promptly calls him a dirty name.
“Hey, go easy, Amy,” I said. “In all the time we’ve known each other, I’ve never run into you downtown. And under the el tracks when the weather is overcast, everything turns gray.”
Because she was as gray-faced as a maid-of-all-work—an overworked mother. She had run out to do a quick errand, returning a pair of shoes her older daughter had changed her mind about. The thick, dried urban gumbo of dark Lake Street made everything look bad. Yes, she was unidentifiable below the black girders.
He remembers the first time he called on her:
She had a style of her own with hats—they were set back from her forehead. There are foreheads that can’t tolerate the pressure of a hatband.
The house was not the usual brick. It was Indiana limestone. The porch was one thick slab of it. When Amy came out on the graystone porch, I inhaled her personal odor. Part of it was Coty’s face powder. I ask myself whether Coty is still using the fragrance it used in the fifties. When we embraced and kissed in the park, the odor of the damp fur was much stronger than the powder.
After impressing Adletsky at the party Harry boasts, “I had brought out the observer in him.” Adletsky says chummily: “It’s not so much a skill, is it, Mr. Trellman. It’s a way of life.” Harry: “If you have it, it’s because you’ve always had it.”
To be a super-sharp observer in this untrustworthy world is, more than anything else, proof of the inescapable gift that marks those of the Bellow characters who seem to speak for Bellow himself. In his little masterpiece Seize the Day, significantly placed in New York (a town seen as too large and unwieldy to have a strong protagonist), the miserably inferior Tommy Wilhelm is beset by forces on Broadway that he helplessly feels are part of his descent and collapse. These he cannot name any more than he can control and direct them. Not one of Bellow’s sharp observers, he is lost. The Victim, impersonally told, is the extraordinary fable of a Jew-hater’s moral domination of a Jew, Asa Leventhal, who is also not an observer capable of contending in the battle of life. Leventhal cannot easily free himself of the kind of “guilt” to which Jews are susceptible, a weakness that enabled Nazis to capture Jews inwardly before they murdered them. At the close of The Victim Asa Leventhal’s tormenter, Allbee, admits, “I’m the type that comes to terms with whoever runs things.” As the man rushes off, Asa betrays the moral bewilderment that keeps him a “victim.” He pleads—“Wait a minute, what’s your idea of who runs things?”
To be the observing type for Bellow is to be on top, to show yourself strong. Tommy Wilhelm and Asa Leventhal are victims because they are not as smart as most of Bellow’s personal surrogates—Joseph in Dangling Man, Augie March, Moses Herzog, the husband in The Dean’s December, Kenneth Trachtenberg in More Die of Heartbreak. Of course they are talking from Chicago, a town that enthralls its poets, novelists, and University of Chicago pioneer sociologists because its crassness and dynamism force them to react. Already in 1895 the gentlemanly novelist Henry Blake Fuller, pointing to Chicago as the symbolic city of the brazen Nineties, said the town “labors under one disadvantage: it is the only great city to which all its citizens have come for the one common, avowed object of making money. There you have its genesis, its growth, its end and object.”
Chicago as a rough beast is a familiar complaint—or boast. Nelson Algren said writing about Chicago “was like making love to a woman with a broken nose.” In More Die of Heartbreak we read of a character whose “face was charged with male strength in all the forms admired in Chicago.” In The Dean’s December, Corde says to his sister Elfrida:
Black or white or ocher or green, there weren’t many people in Chicago who bothered their minds with anything like justice. Puzzling, how few. You didn’t even realize this until you met a person who did have it on his mind as a primary interest, and then it dawned on you how rare such a primary interest was.
The great exception to all this (and Bellow’s most direct representative) is old Artur Sammler. Sammler lost an eye to the Nazis who were shooting Polish Jews into a pit, and he saved himself by crawling over corpses. In London he came to know H.G. Wells, and he is ending his days in New York, living on the kindness of relatives while trying to write a book on Wells. He is remarkable, one of Bellow’s great characters, because he has large, considered views on everything that has gone rotten in the dying century. He condemns the degrading mass age with a tight-lipped contempt in which one cannot miss Bellow’s distinctive passion, his absolute horror at what modernism has come to—the nihilism he equates with the sexual revolution and the mediocrity of average opinion. Sammler is affronted by Hannah Arendt’s having used the words “the banality of evil” in connection with the Holocaust.
The idea of making the century’s great crime look dull is not banal…. The Germans had an idea of genius…. What better way to get the curse out of murder than to make it look ordinary, boring, or trite?… Intellectuals do not understand. They get their notions about matters like this from literature…. Do you think the Nazis didn’t know what murder was? That is very old human knowledge. The best and purest human beings, from the begin-ning of time, have understood that life is sacred…. Banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abolish conscience….
This rings true. When Sammler condemns the nihilism that he sees behind the sexual revolution, he can be taken seriously because he makes connections between what he observes and his accumulated insights. This is a favorite theme for Bellow that is unconvincingly replayed in The Actual.
Amy thought that Bodo somewhat resembled Jay, her ex, her late husband. Both felt that nihilism was sexy and seemed to believe such that there was no real eroticism that didn’t defy the taboos. Neither Jay nor old Heisinger was sharply intelligent. Very sexy men frequently were stupid, and shared stupidity is an important force when it is presented in the language of independence or emancipation.
Nothing in the story suggests Amy is capable of such judgments. This is Bellow speaking. In Sodome et Gomorrhe Proust wrote that even socially favored Jews, as they get older, tend to turn prophet. It has been clear for some time that Bellow, for all his remarkable career and great gifts as a storyteller, has reached the prophet stage. It seems to be the task of many former radical Jews in America today to sigh over the mediocrity of our national arrangements. Bellow as an interim disciple of Trotsky was not even much of a radical, since the Trotsky so much admired for his personal culture and blazing oratory was, in his ideals, just another bloody-minded utopian who theorized himself into a corner. What you never get from Trotsky is an account of a concrete social malady about which you can do something. Naturally his ex-followers still despise “liberalism.”
There are brilliant visual effects in The Actual, but not much of a plot. Bellow is not a novelist of society, not even when he describes corrupt, desperately ambitious nouveau riche Chicago on the lakefront. He is a novelist obsessed with personal freedom—his obsession is to demonstrate how entangled, tortured relationships between man and woman, husband and wife, end in the husband’s trying to rise to his fundamental relationship—with himself. The women are ancillary; we usually hear a lot about their deep-seated odors and they are portrayed so impatiently that Amy in The Actual, supposedly much beloved by Harry, reads to me like a wistful attempt to redress the usual imbalance. In any event, Harry is “prepared by now to make my peace with my species. For most of them, I am aware in hindsight, I generally had a knife within reach.”
There is even a happy ending—Harry proposes to Amy. This is the “actual,” the end of the road, when the long love dream slides into reality. Just a flourish. We’re not enough convinced of Amy’s attraction for him, or her reality, to be interested in whether she accepts. What a contrast with the murderously attractive super-bitch Madge Heisinger, wife of Bodo Heisinger, owner of the magnificent lake-view apartment Adletsky is mildly interested in buying. When Bellow has need of a plot to get his intensely personal characterizations moving, the story he tells can be fanciful and melodramatic. Here there are plot touches—there is no overriding social idea. The prophet worries about kinkiness, but has no criticism of the criminality that makes huge wealth “profound.” Bodo, who is rich but hardly as rich as Adletsky, has made a killing on “repulsive, menacing space-alien dolls.” Kids get hurt, but who cares? His wife—listen to this—hired a man to kill her husband, but Bodo knocked the pistol out of the man’s hand. Madge went to prison along with the hired killer, but Bodo forgave Madge, got her out of prison, remarried her.
Adletsky and Dame Siggy bring along Amy the interior decorator to appraise the furniture when they visit to consider buying the Heisingers’ apartment. Madge Heisinger insists on the Adletskys buying the furniture. Amy is not much impressed with it. When tea is served Madge deliberately pours Amy’s tea right into her lap. Why? So that Amy will have to retire to the bathroom. There Madge intrudes and explains why she is so desperate to get the Adletskys to buy the furniture at her price. She wants money for the man she hired to kill her husband, not because she cares for the man but because she still feels guilty for having hired him in the first place.
Except for Amy’s getting near-burned by the tea in her lap, Madge’s scheme is without follow-up or meaning. What does make you read on, as always, is Bellow’s commitment to make the most of what there is to describe. People—this is a favorite thought of his—are not so much character as nature. Character is socially formed, something presentable to the world (perhaps even to oneself). Nature—the low, bottom, excruciatingly physical truth—shows itself, above all, in faces. Bellow even quotes some Russian lines to this effect: “The face of man is the most amazing thing in the life of the world. Another world shines through it. It is the entrance of personality into the world process, with its uniqueness, its unrepeatability. Through the face we apprehend, not the bodily life of a man, but the life of his soul.”
Maybe Bellow made this up—he relishes Russian-sounding reflections on the spirituel—but he certainly likes to show his overriding interest in the face and everything it shows of force or weakness. In The Actual:
And, now, in came Madge. Amy remembered having met her once or twice…. She was slender, not too hippy. Prison must have kept her in condition. She had a good bust, an oval face, a well-shaped head. She was very fair, a golden babe whose hair was pinned tightly, almost to the point of strain, and braided at the back. Amy had seen her silk suit in an Escada window—five thousand bucks on her back, plus matching sapphires on the fingers and hanging from her ears. The few golden hairs that broke loose from control seemed independently strong. In the wilderness…you could make a trout fly of such hairs and attach it to a bent pin. In jail for forty months, she had probably worn dungarees or smocks. But now there wasn’t a shadow of prison anywhere. Merely a change of scene and costume. She was very handsome…. It was only the woman’s nose that was wrong—too full at the tip to be entirely feminine.
Madge doesn’t lead us to anything very interesting, but the detail offers the kind of independent texture that makes Bellow’s intensely visual approach so dramatic and rich in irony. Near the end of the story there is a brilliantly observed bit when Amy and Harry, in Adletsky’s gigantic stretch limo, roll into a cemetery to watch as her ex-husband Jay Wustrin is transferred to another plot from the grave between Amy’s parents that he had bought in order to provoke her when he died. We are, I take it, supposed to see this as a Chicago-style joke.
But the Chicago soil is so sandy that “the graves go into the ancient lake bottom, twenty or thirty thousand years old.” Only Bellow would have added about Wustrin’s former grave: “A considerable amount of soil had come out—dark-brown earth mixed with human qualities.” And that, as Bob Dole the candidate used to say when he got to the end too soon, is “what it’s all about.”