Toward the end of Saul Bellow’s last novel, Herzog’s wild ruminations are pierced by a very real horror when he wanders into a courtroom where a man and woman are standing trial for infanticide. The woman—semi-retarded, dim, brutalized—had, in a fit of fury, dashed her son to death against a hotel wall while her lover lay casually smoking in bed. From the vision of the dead child’s uncomprehending terror Herzog’s mind spins to his own daughter, who is kept from him by his ex-wife and her domestic consort Gersbach, the erstwhile friend who managed first to cuckold Herzog and then to usurp his role as father. Herzog’s glimpse in the courtroom of unthinkable human viciousness clears away the ambiguities around which he has wrapped his domestic situation, and, for once, instead of writing a letter or monograph about it, he sets out with an old family gun to rescue his daughter and do battle with those who have abused his heart. But when he sees the man he wishes to kill through a bathroom window in the act of tenderly washing his, Herzog’s, child, he falters, and reverts to his old self.
To shoot him!—an absurd thought. As soon as Herzog saw the actual person giving an actual bath, the reality of it, the tenderness of such a buffoon to a little child, his intended violence turned into theater, into something ludicrous.
If there is a notion of fate in Bellow’s work, it is that good men are destined, and know it, to misconceive life again and again. Throughout the book Herzog chases continually a reality which refuses to bow to the preconceptions formed of it by an imaginative intelligence. At one instant life seems a madman’s dream, but no sooner has one armed oneself against this flamboyant guise than it changes into something small and ordinary. For the figures of Bellow’s imagination, scratching away furiously for a resting place in life, this shifting reality is the cause of their comic and humbling pratfalls which force them to accept at last a world that is reluctant to offer simultaneous satisfaction to the mind and heart. When passion seems required, something is inevitably produced to disjoint the moment and set loose the ironies of thought which inform a Herzog that he is an incongruity, an actor done up in cod-piece, tights, and doublet sauntering into a kitchen set.
This sense of the antic perversity of life, its refusal to live up to the simplest or most elaborate human expectation, pervades almost all of Bellow’s work. For Augie March, a picaresque raisonneur, it can provide an amusing spectacle, a sort of existential rodeo where he can watch others testing their theories of how life can be broken and tamed before it bucks them off. “He was another of those persons who persistently arise before me with life counsels and illumination throughout my entire earthly pilgrimage,” says Augie about one of the characters in his saga, and his tone is that of a sensibility that will not be conned, that finds it best to drift a little to one side of life, putting itself together in an improvised way.
For Augie, who is, after all, young, overblown, a little shallow in his feelings and pleased that he is his own Columbus, there is no real urgency to battle for a sanctuary where he can find some connective truth between himself and the world he is observing. But for the Herzogs and the Hendersons, who already have had their wounds and deceptions, there is no alternative. Henderson, on his hands and knees, croaking out an imitation of a lion’s roar, moving, as he puts it, through “mental geography” to discover how to make himself complete, to achieve as a man that certainty of being which no longer needs to test itself; and Herzog, trying to love, to be a father, to claw himself out of the intellectual wreckage of his mind—these bruised individuals have been flayed so often that they seem almost reduced to pure spirit, to modern consciousnesses for which only the imagination of an artist can find a carnal embodiment.
This imagination belongs, of course, to Bellow, and, like his characters, it seems often to do battle with the materials of life without ever reaching an agreement with them. From Dangling Man to Herzog, one has a series of speculations, possibilities, and qualifications, of stylistic play and unexpected transformations, of self-amused assaults on the particulars of ordinary life followed by long meditations intending to disparage any victories won during the engagement. The intellect is always at play, a warning device to keep Bellow, like Herzog, from the luxury of being theatrical. It is not that Bellow is a philosophical writer in the European tradition, unfolding tight metaphysical parables or lyrical morality tales; rather, for him, thought seems a reflex action to the events he himself has imagined. So many times in his work one feels that he is encircling an incident, writing around it with an analytical caution which will never quite allow life an unannotated existence of its own.
There is the sense, also, that there are depths and subtleties on his mind which the situations and people of his imagination are not up to, and that he has not really been able to wring out of a naturalistic setting all the mysteries of being of which he is aware. Again like his characters, Bellow often finds it difficult to come up with a significant action, a dramatic gesture which would hold his novels together. They proceed in fits and starts, alternating between event and explanation, until they do not so much end as wear themselves out. It could almost be said that Bellow is not entirely comfortable with the conventions of fiction, that, like the Hegelian Idea, his consciousness objectifies itself every few years in imperfect forms, and that he typifies that modern, historically framed intellect which finds little other than itself to trust to the imagination.
Bellow’s energies and mental passion get him past these difficulties, and he does often succeed in putting together experiences in which life does have the last say, even over the objections of his own skepticism. The short novel, Seize the Day, is an example of how far he could go if he trusted the concreteness of the scenes and people he can so pungently create. Even The Adventures of Augie March seems a brilliant literary hypothesis compared with this story of a man being laid low by the collection of financial and emotional debts his unmomentous life has managed to accumulate. The struggle of the book’s hero, Tommy Wilhelm, pursued by alimony payments, joblessness, and other middle-class American furies, becomes, as it leads him into an alliance with a manifest charlatan to score a coup on the Commodities Exchange, a Faustian comedy in which New York’s Upper West Side becomes a tawdry Walpurgisnacht where Tommy battles Old World demons done up in American disguises and speaking American jargon. Bellow’s figurative language, too, was never used so well as in this evocation of the urban grotesque; his style of chipping away with colloquial precision to the very brand names of objects, of twisting and poking into the intimacies of streets, haberdashery, groceries, his dunning insistence that things be felt, heard, tasted, and smelled—this style creates an imaginative landscape in Seize the Day which becomes ultimately the most formidable of Wilhelm’s spiritual pursuers.
Tommy Wilhelm is not so ambitious as Herzog or Henderson: he is not trying to come to terms with all of life, but is attempting only to escape with his skin. As a result, he has a certain human clarity occasionally missing in Bellow’s grander characters. It would take something like a theological history of Western Man to come up with an answer to the question, “What, in fact, does Henderson mean by his credo, ‘I want’?” The answer, however, to Wilhelm’s problem is refreshingly short: money; and Bellow makes a malevolent and humorous magic out of the very ordinariness of this quest.
Of course, Wilhelm comes to learn that he is being hounded by something more than that which can be pacified by a rise in the price of pork bellies. He comes to feel that it is mortality itself that is encircling him, and the day he tries fatefully to seize ends in his weeping at the funeral of a stranger. The best stories in Mosby’s Memoirs convey a similar feeling of mortality, a slow illumination of the final trick that life plays on the human spirit. “Leaving the Yellow House” is a superb study of an old woman’s awareness that life is through with her before she has understood a moment of it.
She was big and cheerful, puffy, comic, boastful, with a big round back and stiff, rather long legs. Before the century began she had graduated from finishing school and studied the organ in Paris. But now she didn’t know a note from a skillet. She had tantrums when she played canasta. And all that remained of her fine fair hair was frizzled along her forehead in small grey curls.
Thus, Hattie, whom fate has deposited in a shabby Utah resort. She is surrounded by the restlessness, the often meaningless transience, of American life. Like so many people of the New West, her being there is the result of pure chance, of a life that has led nowhere in particular. A dimly remembered divorce, a fanciful few years with a middle-aged, illiterate cowboy, an accidental friendship, occasioned by alcohol, with a woman equally lost—all this is what has put Hattie in her house in the desert, surrounded by great distances which she can no longer traverse. Isolated, self-pitying, frightened, she is a sad, ragged example of old age and dying in a world that makes itself up as it goes along, a world without community or memory.
All Hattie has as a testament to herself is her yellow house, and she clings to it as a token of her significance. If her life could turn up someone worthy to bequeath it to, someone whose life she could say, after all the years of drift and disconnection, she has meaningfully touched, then she might find for herself a late but final continuity. In a fit of drunken honesty, she does uncover an heir, and Bellow gives us one of his best illustrations of the comic indomitability of the human will. Hattie writes:
It is too soon! Too soon! Because I do not find it in my heart to care for anyone as I would wish, being cast off and lonely, and doing no harm where I am. Why should it be? This breaks my heart. In addition to everything else, why must I worry about this, which I must leave. I am tormented out of my mind. Even though by my own fault I have put myself into this position. And I am not ready to give up on this. No, not yet. And so I’ll tell you what, I leave this property, land, house, garden, and water rights, to Hattie Simmons Waggoner. Me!
There has, I believe, seldom been a more eloquent protest against one’s fate than Hattie’s pathetic arrogance, her rebuttal of life and of the final loneliness it gave her among the drive-ins, dude ranches, and divorcees of the American frontier.
At the other end of human arrogance, we have Mosby, professor and diplomat, on a Guggenheim Grant in Mexico, putting down his memories of a tightly lived, self-satisfied life. All has not been perfect, there have been odd ironies in his career, but Mosby, a political philosopher, a student of power and on easy terms with it—he has worked in his time for Hearst, the State Department, and the O.S.S.—is certain he has kept control, has uncovered with his wit and intelligence the correct categories through which collective life can be analyzed. His conservative, unsentimental opinions have made him disagreeable to many, but that has been not the fault of the opinions, but of those who have not been able to understand the tough logic behind them. Mosby, frigid with ideas, a sort of goyische Herzog, is not done in by his mind; it has given him his cool and controlled style, perfectly suited to memoirs.
An opposite style is provided by the man Mosby is on the point of introducing into his memoirs as “comic relief.” Lustgarten, a bundle of disheveled passions and ideas, an ex-radical trying to make his fortune in postwar Europe, failing miserably, plunging on, losing his wife and his money, scheming, waiting for a break—this man, whom Mosby knew for a time in Paris, is called on to give a tonal balance to his chapters on Tocqueville and “Marx Revisited.”
Mosby looks back upon Lustgarten, not so much with contempt as with amazed curiosity that all that chaos and failure should never have known itself, that Lustgarten could still go on believing that he could win something from life, that he was not the most accidental of beings:
A Lustgarten who didn’t have to happen. But himself, Mosby, also a separate creation, a finished product, standing under the sun on large blocks of stone, on the stairs descending into the pit, he was complete.
The stairs referred to lead down to a Zapotec tomb, a geometrically precise structure of large, perfectly planned granite slabs, which Mosby and a pair of English ladies are touring. It is here, in this order of stone, that he sees his memorial more clearly than in his memoirs and, fighting for breath, stumbling like a Lustgarten, he draws back in panic from the exactitude of death.
The ending of the story is a little too pat, as is the mind-passion duality of Mosby and Lustgarten. But Bellow sets down their different styles of lunacy so well that their separate agonies do become bound together in a human fate which makes of the Mosbys of the world, too, items of “comic relief.”
There are other good stories in this collection, but “Leaving the Yellow House” and “Mosby’s Memoirs,” different as they are in tone and method, point up particularly well Bellow’s creative range and capabilities. There are few other writers today who can match his readiness to experiment, to try new experiences; and if sometimes his work is exasperating, it is, however, the work of a writer who just will not pretend that life gives up its secrets easily, no matter how well-intentioned or informed the mind may be that seeks them.
March 13, 1969