Chicago, that gritty city, has a hammerlock on Saul Bellow’s imagination, and has held it there for a long time. Even when he takes his fictional characters elsewhere, they carry Chicago with them, and come back to Chicago for final authentication. (Henderson the Rain King, that gross and glittering piece of foolery, is an exception to this rule, as to many others in Bellow’s work.) It is not that Bellow idealizes his adopted city, not at all; his feeling seems something like that suggested by Nelson Algren when he said (I quote from memory and approximately) that living in Chicago was like making love to a woman with a broken nose. Bellow is always quarreling with Chicago, sometimes for being what it is, sometimes for not being what it used to be; but Chicago names and neighborhoods are generally present in his fiction, often as shorthand for attitudes and values of which they are redolent.
A recurrent theme of his work is the contrast between the brute appetites of the city, its hoodlums, grifters, shysters, and aldermen, and various observant but uprooted and largely ineffectual intellectuals. They may be actual or, more commonly, tangential academics, bookish in their interests but not formally engaged with a discipline, and freewheeling toward immense philosophical constructs of their own contrivance. Like the “intelligentsia” of Chekhov’s Russia, they are absurd and beguiling figures, ineffectual vehicles of aspiration at hopeless odds with the raw realities around them, but striving always to learn. For of false teachers, comic or villainous, there is never an end.
The balance between these forces is precarious and the tensions high. Chicago itself is a devouring subject, vital and corrupt, open and crass, violent and plutocratic. Hardly any of these elements is distinctive to Chicago; their combination produces an aroma that realistic writers since the 1920s have been trying to render, and from which Bellow’s idealists always have something to learn. For these are uncommonly starry-eyed types whose discourse always threatens to evaporate into airy schemes filled out with flying allusions to every author in the Syntopicon. Rising above the harsh life of the streets and the markets, they tend to become—not always without self-mockery—do-it-yourself space navigators, trekkies through the Great Books galaxy. Between the two parties, incomprehension is represented as mutual, and hardly ever without the overtone of contempt. The city is seen as crass, the big thinkers are seen as pretentious irresponsibles. The terms of intercourse seem far harsher and more forbidding in Chicago than, say, in New York, Boston, or San Francisco. Yet the relation is more complex than mere hostility; the word-men of Bellow’s imagination would probably hasten to call it “symbiotic.”
There is a curious story in the present collection of five, titled “Zetland: By a Character Witness.” Technically, it is probably the worst, but thematically it is one of the most interesting of the group. The occasion for which the character witness has been called is left completely to the reader’s imagination; the function implies wrongdoing and a trial, but there are no particulars. As usual, when Bellow characters start to exculpate themselves or anyone else, the narrative is fearfully circumstantial. We learn all the details of young Zetland’s family life, his rough, disapproving father, his adolescent devotion to Kant, Nietzche, surrealism, and Dada. He flourished in the fecund Jewish culture around Humboldt Park; he went to the college and got his own seedy flat on Woodlawn Avenue; he lectured to neighborhood study groups on the differences between Kant and Hegel. Even his father, who disapproved of everything because he “knew life,” was impressed. But then young Zetland got a fellowship to study philosophy at Columbia, on the strength of which he married the attractive Lottie. Together they departed joyously for New York—free at last, “free to live,” as Zetland says, “in a place where it’s normal to be a human being.”
Something happens, however, or rather nothing does. Zetland loses interest in philosophy, resigns his fellowship, and from then on does nothing in particular. So far as the last perfunctory paragraphs of the story inform us, he simply withers on the vine. He reads, and is impressed by, Moby-Dick; he begets a son. The Second World War approaches, and Zetland, with his usual high-minded enthusiasm, is eager to join up. His wife encourages him, as predictably as his father disapproves; but since the Zetland ménage settles in 1940 into a Greenwich Village flat which they keep for twelve years, we are left to assume he was not accepted. And there the story wilts away. Nothing more worth telling about Zetland, apparently, not even how he came to need a character witness. But evidently a character witness doesn’t have much to do when the person for whom he’s witnessing no longer has a character. And Zetland, separated from his grouchy father, removed from hundred-percent industrial Chicago, no longer using his once high-power mind, has faded to a formula and then to a cipher. It’s a curious and disturbing story.
Commonly, Bellow’s spiraling wordweavers provide a comic leaven that lightens the thick mass of circumstantial detail; but in the most tangibly Chicago of these stories, “What Kind of Day Did You Have?,” the mental marvel, Victor Wulpy, is himself part of the morass, an aging Grendel out of the fens. He is seen through the eyes of Katrina, his latest mistress, an anxious, defenseless, middleaged divorcée from Evanston, on whom the portentous genius dumps humiliations, frustrations, and terrors throughout a long, indeed an interminable day. But the wretched victim of this cosmic windbag barely allows herself to sense the degree to which she is disgusted with him, and Victor Wulpy, having inflicted on her a ghastly and completely unnecessary midwinter flight from Chicago to Buffalo and back, goes off to pontificate complacently before a gathering of rich Chicago businessmen, who are paying him to act the visiting guru. In this midwinter story of human coldness, incidental figures do little that is not gratuitously cruel, and even the frank good counsel of a sister is nothing but a concealed form of hostility.
The moral idiot of nineteenth-century fiction is a well-known figure (he is Murdstone, he is Gradgrind); his utter insensitivity is commonly set off against the open responses of an undeformed human being. Perhaps Lieutenant Krieggstein, an Evanston policeman who would like to be Katrina’s tough protector, is supposed to be such an offsetting figure in this story; but his motives are too suspect, there is something grotesque about the arsenal he carries with him, his temperature hardly gets on the chart—no, there is nobody for Katrina, and nothing. It is a deep-frost tale, kept moving only by the agility of Bellow’s writing.
The title story is one of Bellow’s long, self-explanatory letters, directed from a man with a compulsion to say nasty things, to one of his earliest victims. Shawmut, the narrator, begins by saying that he is not writing to apologize for his ugly tongue, only to explain himself. But the explanation isn’t very explanatory, amounting to little more than the fact that he says vicious things because he says them; and before we’ve got far beyond that point, it starts to become clear that he’s rather pleased with himself, and finds his idiosyncrasy rather an intriguing and distinctive feature of his character.
Like many spiteful persons, he makes of his sharp tongue a point of pride; and if it’s inverted pride, so much the better. Thus he is pleased to report that his life has been an almost complete disaster. Once a musicologist of standing, with good academic experience, he made a lot of money at one time from a textbook; but his coarse businessman brother cheated him out of most of his money, and a shyster brother-in-law got the rest. He writes now from a temporary refuge in Canada where he has, as usual, managed to alienate all potential friends—waiting for the US marshal to come and pick him up, and with little but hard time to look forward to. He concludes his confession by reciting a list of smart and nasty things that famous people once said, as if possession of these poisonous jewels somehow justified him. Or as if, with so much accumulated inner nastiness to be purged, he were in a hurry to get rid of it all at once. One thinks of Dostoevsky’s underground man in his cellar: “My liver is bad—well, let it get worse.”
Two final stories in the collection are, to a greater degree, stories of reconciliation. A hard, dishonest, and truculent father is united, at the end of his life, with a gently philosophical, strikingly responsible, and forgiving son. It is a mute and fleeting moment, which leaves the son, not for the first time, with the sense that his father has gotten away with something; but it is a moment of recognition, too. And in the final story, “Cousins,” Ijah Brodsky escapes from the family’s nagging, loving demands that he help out his gangster cousin, and is able to do something for his “genius” cousin instead—doubtless a crackpot, this one, but a disinterested crackpot, and the one toward whom Ijah’s instincts really direct him. Shorter and gentler than the earlier stories of the collection, these fables emphasize the strong strain of family feeling that runs through Bellow’s work and helps to mitigate the harshness of his Chicago.
At this late date, it’s surely superfluous to say that Bellow is one of our best writers. His prose in these stories is, as always, nimble and fluid—quick to mock or reverse itself, and double in the manner of all good fictional prose in maintaining an undercurrent of feeling beneath a surface of statement. He is a master of what the French call the style indirect libre, which allows a reader to move into and out of the consciousness of a character without crossing any sharply defined borders. The tone is now mocking, now straight, and the reader must catch it as he can. Indeed, with respect to verbal variety and the dancing point of view, short stories may be more congenial to Bellow’s gift than novels; certainly Mr. Sammler and the more recent gloomy dean often came closer to flat monologue than was good for the sense of fiction. It would be a shame if Bellow succumbed to an overdidactic view of his own work, to the point of neglecting the joyful impetus and sense of intellectual play that make his often coldly accusing stories a delight to read. His rogues provide constant fun; even his starchiest thinkers let themselves from time to time be seen through. Of all the American novelists who don’t have a foot in their mouth, he remains one of the most rewarding; and the new collection of stories provides encouraging evidence that this state of things is not about to change.
July 19, 1984