The soul of another is a dark forest.
It is the voice rather than the plots of Saul Bellow’s novels that sticks in my mind. His heroes don’t do much. They talk endlessly, mostly to themselves. In long, diverting, and funny monologues they unburden themselves of their troubles in a mix of rough street talk and bookish philosophizing. Like soapbox characters I heard in my youth on Bughouse Square in Chicago, they have hundreds of grievances and hold outrageous opinions on everything from women to the way our country is run. They are brainy, self-absorbed, perpetually fixated on some wrong done to them, and in a constant state of agitation. The basis of Bellow’s humor is that the hero is usually someone who has made a complete mess of his life. This has always been the comic writer’s view of humanity. Tragic heroes complain only to the gods; the comic ones squabble with their families and dream of settling scores with their real and imaginary enemies.
In Bellow, some of that sense of being a fall guy is undoubtedly the result of the immigrant experience, where it’s common to have had a life more absurd than any plot of a picaresque novel. “Mother Herzog,” Bellow writes of Herzog’s mother,
had a way of meeting the present with a partly averted face. She encountered it on the left but sometimes seemed to avoid it on the right. On this withdrawn side she often had a dreaming look, melancholy, and seemed to be seeing the Old World—her father the famous misnagid, her tragic mother, her brothers living and dead, her sister and her linens and servants in Petersburg, the dacha in Finland (all founded on Egyptian onions). Now she was cook, washerwoman, seamstress on Napoleon Street in the slum. Her hair turned gray, and she lost her teeth, her very fingernails wrinkled. Her hands smelled of the sink.
No one who has been thus sent adrift by one of history’s practical jokes is a great believer in Reason. One can say anything about history except that it gives a hoot what happens to one person or another. It’s tough for anyone to figure out why his or her life turned out the way it did. For an immigrant it becomes almost a metaphysical problem. The absurd is the only reality there is, so for an individual, life is all about luck.
Bellow himself, James Atlas tells us in his biography, was born in 1915 in Lachine, an outskirt of Montreal packed with working-class Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, and Italians. He was the fourth child of Jewish parents who had emigrated from Russia two years before he was born. “The trunks my parents traveled with were exotic—the taffeta petticoats, the ostrich plumes, the long gloves, the buttoned boots, and all the rest of those family treasures,” Bellow recalled, “made me feel that I’d come from another world.” Now they were one of millions of new immigrants, having a hard time making ends meet. “A sickly child, afflicted with respiratory ailments, he was his mother’s favorite; she treated him like an invalid,” Atlas writes. After his father, who in the meantime had become a bootlegger, had a load of booze hijacked at gunpoint and was himself beaten and left in a ditch, the family got in touch with a cousin in Chicago. The father went first and the mother and the children were smuggled across the United States border in July 1924 by one of the father’s underworld associates.
“Give Chicago half a chance, and it will turn you into a philosopher,” Bellow wrote. In his youth and for years afterward, it was a smoke-shrouded city of factories and ugly, poverty-stricken neighborhoods smelling of ethnic cooking and of stockyards where death-bound cattle and sheep waited their turn. Along Lake Michigan, where the well-to-do lived, Chicago was like a resort town with beaches, elegant hotels, and expensive stores. Only a few blocks inland, vast slums began with their taverns, pool halls, and flophouses. Raskolnikov would have felt right at home here, I remember thinking when I lived there.
The contrast between Chicago’s neighborhoods could have provided fitting illustrations for an edition of The Communist Manifesto: the fabulously rich and the masses of working stiffs hustling in a sprawling factory town. Everybody worked side by side with other nationalities, bantering in a mixture of languages so fantastic a professional linguist would have a hard time describing what he heard. “Rootlessness, so frightening to some, exhilarates others,” Bellow said. Identities, which other Americans took for granted, immigrants had to invent from scratch. It took time to grasp that one could make oneself over, that one could become someone else here in America. Immigrants who understood very well that they were regarded as the lowest trash nevertheless knew that “freedom” and “opportunity” were not mere talk, since they could see their material circumstances improve, and for many of them that was all that really mattered.
Still, some of the children of the immigrants were serious readers. When Bellow was in high school, Atlas tells us, the Russian Literary Society met at a hot-dog stand on Division Street. I myself remember encountering more than a few autodidacts, lowly office clerks and manual workers who claimed to have read everything and actually seemed to have done just that. Bellow spent the years of the Great Depression with his nose in a book. The public libraries were well stocked and much used. Years later he recalled the atmosphere:
The North Avenue Branch, like a church or a school, offered a privileged environment. The books were bound in brown buckram. The pages were stained with soup, or cocoa or tomato ketchup or by tears or by nosebleeds, and they were also fiercely annotated by borrowers. Readers denounced writers or praised them, argued with other readers around the margins—self-made prophets, poets in their own right, patriots, subversives, philosophers, neighborhood historians arguing the Civil War or the Russian Revolution. One could learn a lot about the mental life of a democracy from these annotations. Strange forms of originality sometimes appeared, special kinds of intelligence, passion and madness.
At the University of Chicago, which Bellow attended before transferring to Northwestern to study anthropology, the curriculum centered on the classics of Western civilization. As for his switch, Atlas writes, “He was a savage himself, he joked; why not study his own kind?” In fact, what he really wanted to be was a writer. His family, as is usually the case, was against it. If he writes books, kick the bum out, is advice as old as the invention of writing. Even at Northwestern, as he neared graduation, he was told by the chairman of the English department to forget about studying literature. “No Jew could really grasp the tradition of English literature,” the man explained. One needs to remember how Anglophile our English departments were then. If one spoke with admiration of Dreiser or Frank Norris in my day, one was likely to be pitied as being a yokel.
Even Lionel Trilling declared that this country offered “no opportunity for the novelist to do his job of searching out reality.” I myself was told by a professor in Chicago to stop wasting my time reading Walt Whitman and read Thomas Hardy instead. My fellow poets, on the other hand, urged me to forget about Robert Lowell and the rest of those Boston and New York phonies. It was a quarrel between two sets of provincials, those who believed that the “real” America was right here in Chicago and those who behaved as if culturally we were still a British colony. Bellow, who never forgot a putdown, continued to distrust the academy and the literary establishment all his life as if he were still an outsider.
Immigrants can turn out to be the ultimate subversives. No wonder that nationalists everywhere rage against them when they are not killing them. In time, immigrants may sneak both their cooking and their humor into the mainstream culture. They may enrich the language. It’s been said again and again that Bellow gave new life to American literature by bringing Jewish experience and its verbal wit into American fiction, and it is still worth saying. The “Europeanization of American literature” is what the critic Philip Rahv called it and this had nothing to do with the usual academic adulation of London and Paris. Bellow gave the realist novel of Dreiser and Farrell a new twist by mixing in Chekhov, Babel, Joyce, and even Céline. He wanted a novel that could be many things at the same time, earthy and philosophical, colloquial and literary, with plenty of room for buffoonery along the way.
Even the best of biographies can be both enjoyable and exasperating. The general rule seems to be, the more one knows about someone’s life, the more impatient and judgmental one is about him or her. Since we all have plenty of troubles of our own, other people’s failings, spelled out at great length, tend to get tiresome. I realize this is not universally true. Devotees of afternoon soaps can spend twenty years happily captivated by the ceaseless turns of fortune of some character. For me, it’s an aesthetic issue. I like literary works where economy and the sense of form are highly valued, while in biography the ideal seems to be a ten-act opera. I don’t wish to give the impression that Atlas’s book is not worth reading. It is very much so, but it could have been cut down considerably. As is often the case, the re-creation of the historical period ends up being more interesting than the life being told. When it comes to description and anecdotes, the more detail the better. The first seventy pages of Atlas’s biography, with their marvelous evocation of the Montreal and Chicago of Bellow’s youth, and a number of other stretches in the book describing postwar New York and its intellectual circles are fascinating to read.
Bellow certainly is not an easy subject to get hold of. He’s a complex character, perhaps better suited for fiction than for biography. As the old blues song goes, he had more women than a passenger train can hold. For a biographer that can be a trap because it invites him to sort out the guilty from the innocent parties in all these relationships. Married five times, four times divorced with plenty of infidelities on the side, Bellow made excuses for himself in his novels while blackening the reputation of his women. That’s the trouble one gets in when one bases characters in one’s books on real people. The biographer, no matter how much he cautions himself against such simple-minded readings, nevertheless reads the novels as if they were autobiography and not fiction. These wives simply could not all have been as bad as Bellow depicts them, Atlas thinks, and who would disagree?
Unfortunately, he comes to a conclusion. No biographer simply throws up his hands and says, I have no idea what to make of this fellow. I myself often wish they would do that. In-stead, Atlas psychoanalyzes Bellow and thinks he has discovered what he has been repressing, namely his lifelong guilt over his inattention to his mother at the time of her dying. There’s more, and it gets worse. Bellow, in Atlas’s account, is a bad friend. He is a lousy lover. He may be a closet homosexual and a racist. He is a master of self-exculpation. He is a sucker for flattery. In his books, he gives us idealized versions of himself while running away from deeper truths of his life.
For me, the question is not whether Atlas is right or wrong about any of this, but rather whether there is a human being anywhere who would come off very well after a close scrutiny of every aspect of his or her life. The Catholic Church is careful when it comes to bestowing sainthood on anyone, at times taking centuries to sort out among all the evidence. Its message is clear. Most of us are sinners; we only differ in degree. When that truth is lost on a biographer, who to his surprise and shock repeatedly discovers that the man he is writing about is flawed, much of his narrative becomes an exercise in futility. In the end, the failures of the subject make the biographer feel morally superior, which is a ridiculous position to find oneself in. As far as I’m concerned, those failings are mostly beside the point. Great works of literature have been written with the basest of motives by despicable human beings. I wonder how many biographies have turned the literary admirers of authors against them?
I have other complaints. For example, Bellow is interested in all kinds of ideas and his biographer is far less so. In fact, Atlas regards the presence of ideas in novels as no more than showing off by the author, whose purpose is to impress the gullible reader with his seriousness:
Philosophy, then and later, was one of the unfortunate legacies of Bellow’s immersion in the University of Chicago Great Books culture. His heroes shared a penchant for belaboring ideas. They were the products of a provincial Chicago boy’s effort to show that he wasn’t provincial, that he was at home with the whole of Western thought; unconsciously, perhaps, they expressed an impulse to distance himself from his true and more painful material—a flight into abstraction.
At its best, the habitual philosophizing of Bellow’s characters was a marvelous satirical tool. Moses Herzog’s elaborate disquisitions on Romanticism and phenomenology, Charlie Citrine’s meditations on death and the immortality of the soul, were meant to be funny, Bellow plaintively reminded critics who took him too seriously (though these speculative flights also provided a showcase for his erudition).
Certainly, satire is part of the intention, but Bellow’s ideas are not just there for laughs. “One of the most striking features of Bellow’s work,” Atlas rightly notes elsewhere in his biography, “is its refusal to be bound by the conventional definitions of what constitutes literary seriousness.” Bellow likes the mix of high and low sentiments. Nevertheless, he has a good nose for ideas that matter. One of the pleasures of his novels is the company of a restless mind skipping from subject to subject, keenly aware of intellectual history down to its contemporary trends and quite capable of contributing an original insight now and then. His eyes work well and so does his intellect. In fact, one cannot separate the two. If ideas were just a bit of window dressing, the novels would have no dramatic impact and they would not even be funny. Here is how he describes the predicament of his hero in Herzog:
The description might begin with his wild internal disorder, or even with the fact that he was quivering. And why? Because he let the entire world press upon him. For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions…. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you enjoyed delicious old-fashioned Values?
Bellow’s genius is that he makes us recognize ourselves even in his most outlandish characters. We can identify with some of his heroes once we realize that intellectually we are in the same pickle they are in. I have in mind the difficulties any thinking person has in a world such as ours, which has no use for independent thinking. When one adds that his heroes are usually members of one beleaguered minority after another, the habitual suspicion and the caustic wit make it even harder to decide what to believe in. In the case of Bellow, who conceived of fiction as a higher form of autobiography, it comes down to the basic questions of who I am and what I live for. As he said in a lecture:
But of course the prevailing assumption—and the Romantic assumption still prevailed—was that man could find the true meaning of life and of his own unique being by separating himself from society and its activities and collective illusions. If walking on the mountains as a solitary Rousseau didn’t turn the trick, you could go and derange your senses artificially, as Rimbaud recommended.
Not Bellow. He knows backwards and forwards all the ways our spiritual and mental doctors have devised to pull wool over everybody’s eyes. His heroes suffer from many things, but above all from knowing too much. They cannot bring themselves to give credence to one idea for very long, so they thrive as best as they can in the midst of monstrous contradictions. It’s like being a lifelong atheist and believing in every superstition at the same time. They know it’s absurd, so they rant. “The human mind is not a dignified organ,” Bellow quotes E.M. Forster with approval. The inventory of a consciousness at any given time makes a joke of any ideal conception of human beings. That’s the state of affairs of which he keeps reminding his readers.
One minute consumed with some pettiness, the next minute addressing a lofty ethical question—if the voice one encounters in his novels has a literary precursor, it is the nameless narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. Like Bellow’s heroes, he is self-conscious to an extreme degree and is at the mercy of the constant turmoil inside him. Everywhere he turns in his mind he encounters himself, so there’s little we can say about him that he already has not anticipated. It’s because he suspects others are watching him and thinking about him that he strives to keep one step ahead of them by imagining what that may be.
In the meantime, he’s trying to explain himself to himself, justify his actions, and find loopholes to outwit the harsh judgment he has already passed on himself. His mental state is one of pervasive indignation at everyone and everything. He is torn between the conviction that one’s character determines all one’s actions, that one is not free and never was, and the contrary feeling that everything within oneself is still open and undetermined. In the end, he can do very little. He’s stuck with the paralyzing thought that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything; that only a fool and a crook can become something. Bellow, too, is convinced that to have a conscience is, after a certain age, to live permanently in an epistemological hell. The reason his and Dostoevsky’s heroes are incapable of ever arriving at any closure is that they love their own suffering above everything else. They refuse to exchange their inner torment for the peace of mind that comes with bourgeois propriety or some kind of religious belief. In fact, they see their suffering as perhaps the last outpost of the heroic in our day and age.
Rereading many of the novels, as I did for this review, I was reminded how good the best of them are. Bellow is a supremely entertaining writer not only because he writes beautiful prose but also because he’s always topical. Whatever intellectual fashion was all the rage at the time of the writing is dissected in the novels. In addition, he is extraordinarily observant. His books abound in luminous details of the physical world. Seeing for Bellow is the supreme sensual pleasure. If one wishes to know what it was like to walk the streets of Chicago and New York in the second half of the twentieth century, one ought to read him. His best descriptive passages combine the clarity and mystery of great black-and-white photographs of the 1930s and 1940s. Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, David Vestal, and Louis Stettner come to mind, except photographs are mute. Here’s a passage from his latest novel, Ravelstein, that reads like one of Baudelaire’s prose poems:
On Roy Street in Montreal a dray horse has fallen down on the icy pavement. The air is as dark as a gray coat-lining. A smaller animal might have found its feet, but this beast with its huge haunches could only work his hoofs in the air. The long-haired Percheron with startled eyes and staring veins will need a giant to save him, but on the corner a crowd of small men can only call out suggestions. They tell the cop he’s lucky the horse fell on Roy Street, easier to write in his report than Lagauchettierre. Then there is a strange and endless procession of schoolgirls marching by twos in black uniform dresses. Their faces white enough to be tubercular. The nuns who oversee them keep their hands warm within their sleeves. The puddles in this dirt street are deep and carry a skim of ice.
If Bellow has a recurring theme—and he does—it’s the unhappy family. The family, the institution our conservatives like to wax lyrical about, is without doubt the place of both our greatest joys and our lasting miseries. Parents and children fight and so do husbands and wives. Bellow’s novels offer countless examples of how people who love each other descend into hatred. There’s usually a selfless aunt or a grandfather who rises above the endless bickering and is a figure long remembered and cherished, but the rest of what happens in families is all tooth and claw. Bellow’s leading characters generally do not get on well with women. They are convinced that their wives are out to destroy them. “Wisdom, beauty, glory, courage in men are just vanities and her business is to beat down the man’s legends about himself,” he writes in Mr. Sammler’s Planet. With all the comedy in his books, Bellow has a tragic view of life. His short masterpiece, Seize the Day, is typical with its miserly, unfeeling father, the son who craves one word of compassion from him now that his life lies in ruins, and the equally indifferent wife he is separated from. As always, Bellow strives to give each character a fair hearing. “In art you become familiar with due process,” he writes in Ravelstein. “You can’t simply write people off or send them to hell.”
What makes Bellow’s vision so powerful, and here I have to disagree again with his biographer, who accuses him of failing to empathize with others, is that he does. It is true that he’s tough on women, but even there, it’s not fair to accuse him of turning them into caricatures. Their failings are human in the eyes of the author. There’s rarely an element of compassion missing from portrayals of even the most offensive characters in the novels. There’s no doubting the affection in much of what he writes about children and old people. If one accepts what Atlas maintains, one might also have to conclude that a heartless bastard can write a great book.
Compassion is all-important to Bellow’s vision, because without it his loners would be stuck with their solipsism. “A man is only as good as what he loves,” one of his characters recollects someone saying. There’s a mystical side to compassion; it’s part of the quest for the essential self, a search for a truth that lies in the depths of all our beings. In his Nobel Lecture, Bellow quotes Joseph Conrad, who speaks of that “subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts… which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.” Literature’s highest task is to try to accomplish that. Its finest pages, Bellow thinks, can lead one into what he calls “sacred states of the soul.” Anyone who has been deeply moved by a novel or a short story of his would have to agree that such an experience is, indeed, possible.
May 31, 2001