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Bellow’s Gift

1.

Among American novelists of the latter half of the twentieth century, Saul Bellow stands out as one of the giants, perhaps the giant. His noontime stretches from the early 1950s (The Adventures of Augie March) to the mid-1970s (Humboldt’s Gift), though as late as 2000 he was still publishing notable fiction (Ravelstein). The Library of America has now republished Bellow’s three earliest books in a single thousand-page volume: Dangling Man (1944), The Victim (1947), and Augie March (1953). Bellow thereby becomes the first writer of fiction to receive the Library’s imprimatur during his lifetime.

Dangling Man is a short novel in the form of a journal. The journalkeeper is a young Chicagoan, Joseph, an unemployed history graduate supported by his working wife. The year is 1942, America is at war, and Joseph is dangling while he waits for word from his draft board. He uses his journal to explore how he became what he is, and in particular to understand why, about a year ago, he abandoned the philosophical essays he was writing and began to dangle in another sense too.

So wide does the gap seem between himself as he is now and this earnest, innocent past self that he thinks of himself as the earlier Joseph’s double, wearing his castoff clothes. Though the earlier Joseph self had been able to function in society, to strike a balance between his work in a travel agency and his scholarly inquiries, he was troubled by a sense of alienation from the world. From his window he would survey the urban prospect—chimneys, warehouses, billboards, parked cars. Does such an environment not deform the soul? “Where was there a particle of what, elsewhere, or in the past, had spoken in man’s favor?… What would Goethe say to the view from this window?”

It may seem comical that in the Chicago of the 1940s someone should have been occupied in such grandiose musings, says Joseph the journal- keeper, but in each of us there is an element of the comic or fantastic. Yet he recognizes too that by mocking the earlier Joseph’s philosophizing he is denying his better self.

Though in the abstract the early Joseph is prepared to accept that man is aggressive by nature, he can detect in his own heart nothing but gentleness. One of his remoter ambitions is to found a utopian colony where spite and cruelty would be forbidden. Therefore he is dismayed to find himself being overtaken by fits of unpredictable violence. He loses his temper with his adolescent niece and spanks her, shocking her parents. He manhandles his landlord. He shouts at a bank employee. He seems to be “a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn.” What is happening to him?

An artist friend tells him that the monstrous city around them is not the real world: the real world is the world of art and thought. Joseph respects this position: through sharing with others the products of his imagination, the artist allows an aggregate of lonely individuals to become some kind of community.

He, Joseph, is unfortunately not an artist. His sole talent is for being a good man. But what is the point of being good by oneself? “Goodness is achieved not in a vacuum, but in the company of other men, attended by love.” Whereas “I, in this room, separate, alienated, distrustful, find in my purpose not an open world, but a closed, hopeless jail.”

In a powerful passage, Joseph the journalkeeper links his violent outbursts to the unbearable contradictions of modern life. Brainwashed into believing that each of us is an individual of inestimable value with an individual destiny, that there is no limit to what we can attain, we set off in quest of our own individual greatness. Failing to find it, we begin to

hate immoderately and punish ourselves and one another immoderately. The fear of lagging [behind] pursues and maddens us…. It makes an inner climate of darkness. And occasionally there is a storm of hate and wounding rain out of us.

In other words, by enthroning Man at the center of the universe, the Enlightenment, particularly in its Romantic phase, imposed impossible psychic demands on us, demands that work themselves out not just in petty fits of violence such as his own, or in such moral aberrations as the pursuit of greatness through crime (vide Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov), but also perhaps in the war that is consuming the world. That is why, in a paradoxical move, Joseph the journalwriter finally lays down his pen and enlists. The isolation imposed by the ideology of individualism, he concludes, redoubled by the isolation of self-scrutiny, has brought him to the brink of insanity. Perhaps war will teach him what he has been unable to learn from philosophy. So he ends his journal with the cry:

Hurray for regular hours!
And for the supervision of the spirit!
Long live regimentation!

Joseph draws a line between the mere self-obsessed individual wrestling with his thoughts and the artist who through the demiurgic faculty of the imagination turns his petty personal troubles into universal concerns. But the pretense that Joseph’s private wrestlings are mere journal entries meant for his eyes alone is barely maintained. For among the entries are pages—renderings of city scenes for the most part, or sketches of people Joseph meets—whose heightened diction and metaphoric inventiveness betray them as productions of the poetic imagination that not only cry out for a reader but reach out to and create a reader. Joseph may pretend he wishes us to think of him as a failed scholar, but we know, as he must suspect, that he is a born writer.

Dangling Man is long on reflection, short on action. It occupies the uneasy ground between the novella proper and the personal essay or confession. Various personages come onstage and exchange words with the protagonist, but beyond Joseph in his two sketchy manifestations there are no characters, properly speaking. Behind the figure of Joseph can be discerned the lonely, humiliated clerks of Gogol and Dostoevsky, brooding upon revenge; the Roquentin of Sartre’s Nausea, the scholar who undergoes a strange metaphysical experience that estranges him from the world; and the lonely young poet of Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. In this short first book Bellow has not yet developed a vehicle adequate to the kind of novel he is feeling his way toward, one that will offer the customary novelistic satisfactions, including involvement in what feels like real-life conflict in a real-life world, and yet leave the author free to deploy his reading in European literature and thought in order to explore problems in contemporary life. For that step in Bellow’s evolution we will have to wait for Herzog (1964).

2.

Asa Leventhal, who may or may not be the victim in the short novel The Victim, is an editor on a small trade magazine in Manhattan. At work he has to endure the pricks of casual anti-Semitism. His wife, whom he loves dearly, is out of town. One day, on the street, Leventhal feels he is being watched. A man approaches him, greets him. Dimly he recalls the man’s name: Allbee. Why is he late, asks Allbee? Does he not remember that they had a rendezvous? Leventhal can remember no such thing. Then why is he here? asks Allbee. (Time and again Allbee will trap Leventhal with such logical jujitsu.)

Allbee now embarks on a tedious story from the past in which Allbee had fixed Leventhal up with an interview with his (Allbee’s) boss, during which Leventhal had (on purpose, Allbee says) behaved insultingly, as a result of which Allbee lost his job. Leventhal dimly recalls the events but rejects the implication that the interview was part of a plot against Allbee. If he stormed out of the interview, he says, it was because Allbee’s boss had no interest in hiring him. Nevertheless, says Allbee, he is now jobless and homeless. He has to sleep in flophouses. What is Leventhal going to do about it?

Thus commences Allbee’s persecution of Leventhal—or so it feels to Leventhal. Doggedly Leventhal resists Allbee’s claim that he has been wronged and is therefore owed. This resistance is presented entirely from the inside: there is no authorial word to tell us whose side to take, to say which of the two is the victim, which the persecutor. Nor do we receive guidance about moral responsibility. Is Leventhal prudently resisting being taken for a ride, or is he refusing to accept that we are each our brother’s keeper? Why me?—that is Leventhal’s sole cry. Why does this stranger blame me, hate me, seek redress from me?

Leventhal claims his hands are clean, but his friends are not so sure. Why has he become mixed up with an unsavory character like Allbee? they ask. Is he sure about his motives? Leventhal recalls his first meeting with Allbee, at a party. A Jewish girl had sung a ballad, and Allbee had told her she should try a psalm instead. “If you’re not born to them [American ballads], it’s no use trying to sing them.” Did he at that moment unconsciously decide to pay Allbee back for his anti-Semitism?

With a heavy heart, Leventhal offers Allbee shelter. Allbee’s personal habits turn out to be squalid. He also pries into Leventhal’s private papers. (Allbee: If you don’t trust me, why leave your desk unlocked?) Leventhal loses his temper and assaults Allbee, but Allbee keeps bouncing back.

Allbee preaches a lesson that (he says) Leventhal ought to be able to understand despite being a Jew, namely that we must repent and become new men. Leventhal doubts Allbee’s sincerity and says so. You doubt me because you are a Jew, replies Allbee. But why me? demands Leventhal again. “Why?” replies Allbee. “For good reasons; the best in the world!… I’m giving you a chance to be fair, Leventhal, and to do what’s right.”

Arriving home one evening, Leventhal finds the door locked against him and Allbee in his, Leventhal’s, bed with a prostitute. Leventhal’s outrage amuses Allbee. “Where else, if not in bed?… Maybe you have some other way, more refined, different? Don’t you people claim that you are the same as everybody else?”

Who is Allbee? A madman? A prophet in deep disguise? A sadist who chooses his victims at random? Allbee has his own story. He is like the plains Indian, he says, who in the coming of the railroad sees the end of his old way of life. He has decided to join the new dispensation. Leventhal the Jew, member of the new master race, must find him a job on the railroad of the future. “I want to get off [my] pony and be a conductor on that train.”

With his wife about to return, Leventhal orders Allbee to find other accommodation. In the middle of the night he wakes up to find the apartment full of gas. His first thought is that Allbee is trying to kill him. But it appears that Allbee has been trying unsuccessfully to gas himself in the kitchen.

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