Ernst Gombrich in Art and Illusion talks about those pictures which appear to be one thing until you perceive a different pattern, whereupon the rabbit turns into a goat, the can-can girl into a hag in a bonnet. Once you’ve seen both, you can then have either perception, but not the two at once. Saul Bellow’s new novel is like this, a novel about Albert Corde, an American spending December in Rumania, or a novel about conditions of American society presented through the meditations and conversations of the same character, removed from the scene, in a situation that affords certain opportunities for comparison and reflection. Either novel disappears when the other is focused on. The pattern of the social novel is the more insistent and interesting, but the Corde novel rivalrously endangers it.
The Corde novel suffers from the author’s satisfaction with his creation, Corde, a former journalist, now a college dean in Chicago. Dashiell Hammett once wrote of a book he was reviewing that its hero “thought he was a giant. His wife thought he was a giant. That is all very well. But when [the author] agreed with them, he spoiled his book.” Bellow’s approval of Corde is so immense, and he takes so little trouble to convince us of his view, that the reader feels excluded; it’s like embarking on a long train journey alone with two people who have just fallen in love with each other.
Moreover, it’s not easy to see what Bellow and the other characters see in this love object. Corde is just a plain person—smart, but very plain and calm. He visits his dying mother-in-law in a Bucharest hospital: why should her vital signs galvanize when she is advised by this son-in-law, whom she hardly knows, that she is loved by him? Or why should he be the talk of Chicago? Why do the Rumanian cousins worry about his diet, and the curious contrive to meet him? A Nobel Prize winner they might, maybe; a dean, no. Yet Corde feels himself constantly the object of attention, like a wonderful object under glass, which confuses the reader’s perception that this novel is not about him; he is only the interpretative consciousness in a novel about much larger matters.
The reader will have other complaints. Most of the characters are not especially interesting; they have the faded, anonymous aspect of old photos of someone else’s ancestors. The Rumanians are as understandably subdued and grim as their Rumanian situation compels, and the potentially more colorful Chicagoans lose color from being rendered discontinuously from Middle Europe in Corde’s meditations as he passes the time. Partly the collective pallor is owing to the fact that the minor characters have very few lines, and none of the fantastical exuberance of, say, Henderson’s African king, and none of the dignified learning of the elderly Jewish gentlemen Bellow does so marvelously.
It’s hard to remember that Corde himself is a WASP, a Huguenot from a distinguished old family. He and his family seem like nice Jewish characters, as usual. There’s a cousin Maxie, a horrid nephew. Mason, a nice sister Elfrida, married to a judge. Corde feels Herzogian guilt for his past doings, and welcomes his own satisfaction with his new domestic stability, and there is a lot of mention of digestion. Probably Bellow got tired of his old characters and of being expected to stick to them—the disadvantage of a specialty, the same disadvantage that women novelists find, say, when everything they write gets read in the light of womanhood whether or not womanhood has anything to do with what they are writing about. Corde’s ethnicity has nothing to do with his observational powers, but it’s interesting to wonder at the connection, for the author, between Corde and that other, more wonderful non-Jew, Henderson.
Like the earlier Mr. Sammler’s, Corde’s mission is to be at the moral center of the book, the worried and thoughtful person. And at that he is splendid. He is in Rumania to attend the deathbed of his wife’s mother, formerly an important woman there, now out of favor. Corde’s astronomer wife Minna and he are kept waiting around, arbitrarily prevented from visiting the intensive care unit by petulant officials who resent the dying Valeria and Minna’s defection. They connive visits, and the rest of the time sit around the cold apartment, eat bleakly, and talk.
Corde is following the progress, back home, of a court case involving the murder of a student. Two blacks are accused of pushing him out of a window to his death. They claim he fell, and that he had anyway been asking for trouble. Corde has encouraged their prosecution, but without his interest the case would probably have gone the way of other such cases—postponement after postponement until the witnesses died or moved away, and eventual freedom for the killers. Some, including his nephew Mason, feel that Corde is failing to allow for the social conditions which led to the depravity of the accused blacks. Increasingly appalled by what he has been finding out about the legal system, hospitals, slums, social conditions generally, and the outlook for black people, Corde has written some controversial articles in Harper’s telling what he sees.
The action of the novel proceeds simply, without suspense. The mother dies, is cremated, family members gather. Minna and Corde return to Chicago. If the blacks had not been found guilty, Corde would have been in difficulty at the university. But the accused have been tried, convicted, and given sixteen years. Nevertheless Corde resigns his academic post and plans to devote himself to journalism.
His Harper’s articles are mostly descriptive. Detectives shoot an escaping young prisoner ten times in the head. In the slum housing project, people, “being afraid to go at night to the incinerator drop on each floor,” drop their garbage down the toilets and break them. There are “young men getting on top of the elevator cabs, opening the hatch and threatening to pour in gas, to douse people with gasoline and set them afire.” Snipers, rapes, revolting murders, terrible despair—a huge American underclass which is not attached to life, and no one can suggest how to attach it (n.b., “Corde”).
People don’t want to read about this. The Harper’s subscribers are angry. Student militants demand an apology to “Black, Puerto Rican and Mexican toilers” for making them look like “animals and savages.” Corde observes that in our society the truth-teller needs a lead apron against the radiation and shock waves set off by mere objectivity—and the complicated formal arrangement of the novel is perhaps Bellow’s lead apron.
If there is a lie at the heart of the book it is here, in assuming or pretending that there would be a great public reaction to objective descriptions of American social conditions. Perhaps we are beyond outrage. People do try to write angry descriptive articles and outcries are seldom raised. It’s wishful thinking to imagine that one commentator, even Albert Corde, speaking of “superfluous populations,” “written off,” “doomed peoples,” might get through to the rest of us, but it’s an honorable wish, and the novel an honorable outcry. Corde himself is concerned about the thickness of our rhetorical insulation and of the self-satisfaction of liberalism:
We sat there explaining evils to each other, to pass them off somehow, redistribute the various monstrous elements, and compose something the well-disposed liberal democratic temperament could live with. Nobody actually said, “An evil has been done.” No, it was rather, “An unfortunate crazed man destroyed a woman, true enough, but it would be wrong of us to constitute ourselves judges of this crime since its causes lie in certain human and social failures.”
In a sense, Bellow has written a novel about how nobody will read or accept the novel he is writing, any more than the people Corde talks to believe him, and it is always easier for critics of novels to talk about language or form than about what the novel is saying. It’s by no means agreed that novels should say anything.
Corde reflects upon Rilke’s idea that you shouldn’t talk about horrors, because you can only talk about them in “newspaper expressions” which trivialize them. Corde himself is on the side of “so-and-so, who said that you departed for the eternal only from Grand Central Station…that the contemporary is your only point of departure.” One might contrast this view with, say, the practice of E.L. Doctorow, who, also writing about society, uses history for a point of departure, presumably for Rilke’s reason. History, especially in Doctorow’s hands, is wittier, but has the disadvantage of retaining its emotional power unevenly; different myths have different half-lives, while the contemporary world holds its present in common. It is interesting that an initial connection to the contemporary, in Isherwood’s Berlin stories, for instance, retains in the names of cabinet ministers now dead and vanished streets an immediacy that seems to resonate in the very words and names, transcends the passage of time, and does not “date.”
Corde suggests, not playfully, that “perhaps only poetry had the strength to rival the attractions of narcotics, the magnetism of TV, the excitements of sex, or the ecstasies of destruction” in trying to reclaim the doomed American underclass. His is the Arnoldian view that people can be attached to life by culture—but there is no culture in the city, in the wasteland. He is defending humanistic Western culture against the conventional liberal institutions that have failed to maintain it. “Public discussion is threadbare.” The communications industry “breeds hysteria and misunderstanding,” academics make no effort to lead the public, “the intellectuals have been incapable of clarifying our principal problems.”
John Updike’s recent novel Rabbit Is Rich is a picture of the moral and spiritual situation of a modern middleclass American man. Bellow’s novel is only a picture of a man thinking about the spiritual situation and its actual correlatives; that is, it is abstracted by a process of diffraction through the minds of Corde, of his friend Dewey, of other people he talks to. It would have been possible to dramatize the Chicago novel another way. The dean is awakened one night to learn of the murder of one of his students. He enlists the help of the university in seeing that the killers are brought to justice—and attempts are made to dissuade him from seeing justice done. His ambitious cousin Max is attorney for the defense, etc.
This would have provided a dramatic, active, involving novel with a climactic courtroom scene, or whatever. But it is not the novel Bellow, a masterly novelist, chose to write, perhaps because it would have deprived him of Rumania, and the implicit contrast of a regimented society with our chaos, but also perhaps because this more conventional structure would have required a resolution, some ending, unhappy or happy, to suspense; and that in turn would provide a satisfaction that would belie the view of contemporary life he is taking here. If the formal success of a work of art lies in part in the resolution of the tensions and problems with which it deals, if only in the form, then this novel could be said to fail. Yet to resolve the huge problems that engage Corde, by prescription on the one hand or catharsis on the other, would produce a reassuring work. Perhaps art is meant to be reassuring at the same time that it disturbs. But reassurance, more suited to the matters of the individual soul than to the body politic, would falsify the subject here. So Bellow has chosen a strategy more akin to that of an essay, which leaves questions, and his language is the plain meditative language of thought, in place of the exuberant language he has commanded elsewhere.
Perhaps Corde overstates the failure of press and academy, but it doesn’t seem so. The American novel, which has always waxed private and public in turn, has been stuck for three decades in a mode of private confession now very worn, or of experiment, the more vital strain with too few practitioners. Breaking away, as he does, from the confessional mode, Corde is perhaps, as he puts it, “objectivity intoxicated.” But he seems nowhere wrong. If the role of art is somehow, as Arnold Hauser suggested, to make you feel that you must change your life, then this novel succeeds by recommending—no, by showing (for novelists are always being enjoined to show, not tell, and Bellow has not forgotten this injunction)—an American in the first stages of change, that is, the describing stage, the stage of admitting how things really are in the world beyond the self.
March 4, 1982