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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 On this withdrawn side she often had a dreaming look, melancholy, and seemed to be seeing the Old World—her father the famous misnagid, her tragic mother, her brothers living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 immigrants, having a hard time making ends meet. “A sickly child, afflicted with respiratory ailments, he was his mother’s favorite; she treated him like an invalid,” Atlas writes. After his father, who in the meantime had become a bootlegger, had a load of booze hijacked at gunpoint and was himself beaten and left in a ditch, the family got in touch with a cousin in Chicago. The father went first and the mother and the children were smuggled across the United States border in July 1924 by one of the father’s underworld associates.

Give Chicago half a chance, and it will turn you into a philosopher,” Bellow wrote. In his youth and for years afterward, it was a smoke-shrouded city of factories and ugly, poverty-stricken neighborhoods smelling of ethnic cooking and of stockyards where death-bound cattle and sheep waited their turn. Along Lake Michigan, where the well-to-do lived, Chicago was like a resort town with beaches, elegant hotels, and expensive stores. Only a few blocks inland, vast slums began with their taverns, pool halls, and flophouses. Raskolnikov would have felt right at home here, I remember thinking when I lived there.

The contrast between Chicago’s neighborhoods could have provided fitting illustrations for an edition of The Communist Manifesto: the fabulously rich and the masses of working stiffs hustling in a sprawling factory town. Everybody worked side by side with other nationalities, bantering in a mixture of languages so fantastic a professional linguist would have a hard time describing what he heard. “Rootlessness, so frightening to some, exhilarates others,” Bellow said. Identities, which other Americans took for granted, immigrants had to invent from scratch. It took time to grasp that one could make oneself over, that one could become someone else here in America. Immigrants who understood very well that they were regarded as the lowest trash nevertheless knew that “freedom” and “opportunity” were not mere talk, since they could see their material circumstances improve, and for many of them that was all that really mattered.

Still, some of the children of the immigrants were serious readers. When Bellow was in high school, Atlas tells us, the Russian Literary Society met at a hot-dog stand on Division Street. I myself remember encountering more than a few autodidacts, lowly office clerks and manual workers who claimed to have read everything and actually seemed to have done just that. Bellow spent the years of the Great Depression with his nose in a book. The public libraries were well stocked and much used. Years later he recalled the atmosphere:

The North Avenue Branch, like a church or a school, offered a privileged environment. The books were bound in brown buckram. The pages were stained with soup, or cocoa or tomato ketchup or by tears or by nosebleeds, and they were also fiercely annotated by borrowers. Readers denounced writers or praised them, argued with other readers around the margins—self-made prophets, poets in their own right, patriots, subversives, philosophers, neighborhood historians arguing the Civil War or the Russian Revolution. One could learn a lot about the mental life of a democracy from these annotations. Strange forms of originality sometimes appeared, special kinds of intelligence, passion and madness.

At the University of Chicago, which Bellow attended before transferring to Northwestern to study anthropology, the curriculum centered on the classics of Western civilization. As for his switch, Atlas writes, “He was a savage himself, he joked; why not study his own kind?” In fact, what he really wanted to be was a writer. His family, as is usually the case, was against it. If he writes books, kick the bum out, is advice as old as the invention of writing. Even at Northwestern, as he neared graduation, he was told by the chairman of the English department to forget about studying literature. “No Jew could really grasp the tradition of English literature,” the man explained. One needs to remember how Anglophile our English departments were then. If one spoke with admiration of Dreiser or Frank Norris in my day, one was likely to be pitied as being a yokel.

Even Lionel Trilling declared that this country offered “no opportunity for the novelist to do his job of searching out reality.” I myself was told by a professor in Chicago to stop wasting my time reading Walt Whitman and read Thomas Hardy instead. My fellow poets, on the other hand, urged me to forget about Robert Lowell and the rest of those Boston and New York phonies. It was a quarrel between two sets of provincials, those who believed that the “real” America was right here in Chicago and those who behaved as if culturally we were still a British colony. Bellow, who never forgot a putdown, continued to distrust the academy and the literary establishment all his life as if he were still an outsider.

Immigrants can turn out to be the ultimate subversives. No wonder that nationalists everywhere rage against them when they are not killing them. In time, immigrants may sneak both their cooking and their humor into the mainstream culture. They may enrich the language. It’s been said again and again that Bellow gave new life to American literature by bringing Jewish experience and its verbal wit into American fiction, and it is still worth saying. The “Europeanization of American literature” is what the critic Philip Rahv called it and this had nothing to do with the usual academic adulation of London and Paris. Bellow gave the realist novel of Dreiser and Farrell a new twist by mixing in Chekhov, Babel, Joyce, and even Céline. He wanted a novel that could be many things at the same time, earthy and philosophical, colloquial and literary, with plenty of room for buffoonery along the way.

Even the best of biographies can be both enjoyable and exasperating. The general rule seems to be, the more one knows about someone’s life, the more impatient and judgmental one is about him or her. Since we all have plenty of troubles of our own, other people’s failings, spelled out at great length, tend to get tiresome. I realize this is not universally true. Devotees of afternoon soaps can spend twenty years happily captivated by the ceaseless turns of fortune of some character. For me, it’s an aesthetic issue. I like literary works where economy and the sense of form are highly valued, while in biography the ideal seems to be a ten-act opera. I don’t wish to give the impression that Atlas’s book is not worth reading. It is very much so, but it could have been cut down considerably. As is often the case, the re-creation of the historical period ends up being more interesting than the life being told. When it comes to description and anecdotes, the more detail the better. The first seventy pages of Atlas’s biography, with their marvelous evocation of the Montreal and Chicago of Bellow’s youth, and a number of other stretches in the book describing postwar New York and its intellectual circles are fascinating to read.

Bellow certainly is not an easy subject to get hold of. He’s a complex character, perhaps better suited for fiction than for biography. As the old blues song goes, he had more women than a passenger train can hold. For a biographer that can be a trap because it invites him to sort out the guilty from the innocent parties in all these relationships. Married five times, four times divorced with plenty of infidelities on the side, Bellow made excuses for himself in his novels while blackening the reputation of his women. That’s the trouble one gets in when one bases characters in one’s books on real people. The biographer, no matter how much he cautions himself against such simple-minded readings, nevertheless reads the novels as if they were autobiography and not fiction. These wives simply could not all have been as bad as Bellow depicts them, Atlas thinks, and who would disagree?

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