Saul Bellow is the most rewarding of living American novelists. Even when he is only clever, he has a kind of spirited intellectual vanity that enables him to take on all the facts and theories about the pathetic and comically exposed condition of civilized man—not woman, however—and distribute them like high-class corn so that the chickens come running to them. That is the art of the novelist who has ideas: to evoke, attract that “pleasing, anxious being.” the squawking, dusty, feverish human chicken. A fictioneer, like Aldous Huxley, could always throw the corn but nothing alive came fluttering to it.
But immensely clever novelists have to beware of self-dispersal. They had better not run to length. They lose their theme if they do. Of course, brilliance can bamboozle us here, but the fact is that Mr. Bellow is better in his shorter novels than in his long ones. The Victim is the best novel to come out of America—or England—for a generation. The Dangling Man is good, but subdued; Seize the Day is a small grey masterpiece. If one cuts out the end, Henderson the Rain King is at once profound and totally original in its fantasy. These novels had form; their economy drove their subjects home. By brevity he enhanced our experience. And, to a European reader—though this may be irrelevant—he seems the only American of this generation to convey the feel and detail of urban America, preserving especially what is going on at the times when nothing is going on: the native ennui which is the basic nutriment of any national life.
It is when he turns to longer books, chasing the mirage of “the great American novel,” that he weakens as he spreads the news. In Augie March the early Chicago chapters were very good, if occasionally the prose ran to marzipan; the Mexican chapters were kitsch. In his new book, Herzog, we find him once more scattering the high-class corn. Augie hoped to dazzle and dominate by the comedy of his self-conceit; Moses Herzog is the passive victim of his own cleverness. A brilliant Jewish professor and polymath with a rather solemn pretention to sexual prowess, he seems a promising exemplar of the human being exposed to everything without the support of a settled society or fixed points of belief or value. This theme has given the American novel its raison d’être and its vitality for a long time now and the Jewish novelists have done strikingly well with it, for racially they have most acutely the sense of a missing law or covenant. But for a writer like Mr. Bellow, who is at his best when he prunes and disciplines himself, the theme is too general. Although Herzog is a good observer and sufferer, his personal story is unsustaining and banal.
For what has happened to this brilliant dabbler in the ideas of four centuries? He is having a breakdown because his second wife has destroyed his sexual confidence. He sees himself—and Mr. Bellow sees him—prancing through one marriage and several liaisons with success and then marrying the all-time American bitch: exhibitionist, hysteric, looter of his brain, spender of his money, far-seeing in matters of law and property, adulterous, glamorously second-rate but adroit with the castrating scissors. To add insult, not to mention symbolism, to injury, the man she goes off with is a one-legged radio phony. The ruthless and learned Moses, a walking university, begins to look like a Jumboburger who has been told he has lost his mustard. His earlier women may say “Serve him right,” but neither they nor the reader is likely to think his sufferings of much importance when, in a ham ending, he solemnly shacks up with a tremendously international woman called Ramona—of all names—who is apt to come swaggering out of the bathroom with her hand on her hip like a dagger-carrying flamenco dancer, and wearing black frilly panties with saucy ribbons. Twice, during the novel, she clinches the entire deal by serving the gourmet the only dish, apparently, she knows how to cook: Shrimp Arnaud, washed down with a bottle of Pouilly fuissé. His earlier ladies must have thought they had paid a high price. Why didn’t they think of applying this particular nostrum to the exposed soul of modern man? One knows that the fantasy life of university professors is often surprisingly gaudy, that the minds of experts on seventeenth century thought or the condition humaine often drift off to Hollywood in the evenings. If this is Mr. Bellow’s ironical realism, it certainly describes the feeble state of contemporary erotic fancy but I detect no irony. Yet irony, and self-irony, are usually Mr. Bellow’s strength. What is more, the one or two love affairs in the book suggest that Moses is looking for easily punishable women without his or Mr. Bellow’s knowing it. In a moment of insight Moses wonders if his obsession with sex and love isn’t really feminine. The reader is likely to go further and ask whether Moses is not the Jumbo-size hermaphrodite.
Structurally and in content, the story of Herzog is unsustaining. But what Herzog sees, the accidental detail of his experience, are very impressive. Here he grows. He really has got a mind, and it is hurt. It is a tribute to Mr. Bellow’s great reserves of talent that the novel survives and overgrows its own weaknesses. He remains, for me, even in Herzog, the most distinguished and interesting American novelist. The muddle Moses is in, his sense of victimization, are valuable. His paranoia is put, by Mr. Bellow, to excellent use. If the theme is lost, we have the American scene. Moses is not really exposed, but his New York and Chicago are. Mr. Bellow has something like a genius for place. There is not a descriptive insinuator of what a city like New York is like from minute to minute who comes anywhere near him. Some novelists stage it, others document it; he is breathing in it. He knows how to show us not only Moses but other people, moving from street to street, from room to room in their own circle of uncomprehending solitude. Grasping this essential of life in a big city, he sees the place not as a confronted whole, but continually askance. His senses are especially alive to things and he catches the sensation that the things have created the people or permeated them. This was the achievement of The Victim; it is repeated in Herzog. A wanderer, he succeeds with minor characters, the many small figures in the crowd who suggest millions more. The dialogue of a Puerto Rican taxi driver, a Chicago cop, a low lawyer, a Jewish family, people brash, shady, or saddened with the need of survival and whose ripeness comes out of the dirty brick that has trapped them, is really wonderful. It is far superior to Hemingway’s stylized naturalism; Bellow’s talk carries the speaker’s life along with it. Their talk makes them move. They involve Moses with themselves and show him living, as all human beings do, in a web spun by others as well as by themselves. Put to it. Mr. Bellow would be able to write an excellent novel of stagnation like, say, Dead Souls or Oblomov. His Russian inheritance has been happily married to the American bounce.
The habit of seeing things askance or out of the corner of his eye has given Mr. Bellow an even more important quality: it keeps alive a perpetual sense of comedy and feeds his originality. There is sometimes talk of a taste for elegance in his book; spoken of like that, as a sort of craving or innate possession it sounds very nearly vulgar. But there is an implicit elegance of mind in his writing; it sharpens the comic edge and dares him to spirited invention. As far as the comedy is concerned, it has all the style of Jewish comedy, that special comedy of human undress and nakedness of which the Jews are the world’s masters. (Incidentally, no other writers revel, suffer or get so much out of the famous exposed self from which we are said now to suffer: as exposees they-are more sparkling than the traditional American Calvinist.) The other gift of Mr. Bellow—the original imagination—springs also from the habit of seeing askance. For a novelist, there is more to be got out of half an idea, than out of a whole one. One saw this in Henderson the Rain King. The remarkable example in Herzog is in Mr. Bellow’s brilliant device for conveying Herzog’s nervous breakdown. How to deal with his paranoia—if that is what it is—how to make it contribute not only to the character of Herzog, but also to the purpose of the book? Mr. Bellow hits upon the idea that Herzog’s dottiness shall consist in writing unfinished letters to all kinds of people living and dead, known and unknown—to his women friends, to editors, tutors, professors, philosophers, to his dead mother, to the President. It is the habit of the mad and Moses is not mad; but he at once is comically and seriously disturbed by every kind of question. Is romanticism “split religion”? “Do the visions of genius become the canned goods of intellectuals?” He writes to Eisenhower asking him “to make it all clear in a few words.” He begins addressing M. de Jouvenal about the aims of political philosophy. The letters are really the scribbles of an exhausted mind. Traveling in the subway Moses evokes the dream figure of a Dr. Shrödinger at Times Square:
It has been suggested (and why not) that reluctance to cause pain is actually an extreme form, a delicious form of sensuality and that we increase the luxuries of pain by the injection of a moral pathos. Thus working both sides of the street. Nevertheless, there are moral realities, Herzog assured the entire world as he held his strap in the speeding car.
Since Moses is a man of intellect these addresses are often interesting in themselves; but chiefly, they brilliantly convey the dejected larking of a mind that has been tried by two contradictory forces: the breakdown of the public world we live in and the mess of private life. In which world does he live? He is absurd yet he is fine; he is conceited yet he is raw. He is a great man yet he is torpedoed by a woman who “wants to live in the delirious professions, as Valéry calls them—trades in which the main instrument is your opinion of yourself and the raw material is your reputation or standing.” At times he lives like a sort of high-class Leopold Bloom, the eternal Jewish clown; at others he is a Teufelsdröckh; again he is the pushing son of the bewildered Russian-Jewish immigrant and failed bootlegger, guilty about his break with his past, nagged by his relations, his ambitions punctured.
As a character Moses is physically exact—we know his domestic habits—but mentally and emotionally amorphous. Any objection to this is canceled by his range as an observer-victim. It is a triumph that he is not a bore and does not ask our sympathy. And if Mr. Bellow has no great skill in drawing women he has handed to Moses his gift of seeing the non-erotic bits of them vividly. (The erotic face-up is too conventionally tasty.) In this novel as in Augie March the best things are the innumerable small sketches; they are what we get when, in high good humor and with confidence in his brain, he spreads himself. In his shorter novels, when we know where we are, and what the subject is, the portraits are full length, the drama is undiffused, intense, ‘and moving. It is a matter for admiration that this clever man can do both things.
October 22, 1964