"Here is a list of the things that have failed to kill Saul Bellow. A double dose of peritonitis and pneumonia, aged 8. A crocodile in Egypt – which gave him and Saul Steinberg a scare (Steinberg’s imagined headline ran, ‘crocodile kills two Sauls’). A poisonous Red Snapper that left him in a coma for two weeks, aged 79. Then there’s the alcoholism, cancer, AIDS and sheer old age that have silenced his late contemporaries ‘with the regularity of a drum tattoo’. At which point one can easily imagine Death simply shrugging and moving on – leaving Bellow to write yet another full–length novel, to father another child, and to contemplate the century he has done so much to document, not to mention outlast. ‘It remains to be seen what the 20th Century has made of Saul Bellow, or what Saul Bellow has made of the 20th Century,’ he said recently, with characteristically grandiose self–deprecation, as if the 20th Century were someone he met at a party last night. This gift for concretised abstraction is one of the things that Bellow fans treasure – his casual ability to be on better speaking terms with a Big Idea than most of us are with our neighbours. An article of 1990 rounded up Heidegger, Ronald Reagan, the Ancient Mariner, the Information Revolution, postmodernism and daytime TV – the usual suspects – and ran them through the blender to produce a vivid harangue against ‘the ceaseless world crisis, also known as the chaos of the present age.’ It’s that ‘aka’ I love – the Chaos of The Present Age as just another Bellovian hoodlum prowling the perimeter of his fiction, collecting poker debts and suckers. No shit, you just got mugged by the Human Condition.
So what’s the final diagnosis? What has Bellow made of the 20th Century, or the century of Bellow? You need a good head for heights to answer both questions – to negotiate both the gyroscopic perspective shifts of his fiction and to survive the sheer vertigo of the Bellow reputation. For to get to Bellow you must first get past all the praise for Bellow, most of it designed along roughly the same principles as electric cattle prods. Leslie Fielder has called him ‘one with whom it is necessary to come to terms’, which is simply a mean thing to say about anybody. James Atlas says that Bellow progressed from being ‘a promising writer, to being an interesting one, to being an exciting one, to being a major one’ – as thuggish a mob of adjectives as ever ganged up on a reader. By the end of Atlas’s book, Bellow has become such a glinting assemblage of plaques and Pulitzers, National Book Awards and Nobels that you could almost forget the novelist under there somewhere – a novelist with Russian blood in his veins, a nose for a scam, and ear for the streets, and a taste for big–bosomed women surpassed only by his taste for top–heavy rumination.
That there might also be a man in there has always been a strong possibility, too, although so far Bellow has only attracted the attentions of the biography industry’s more lunatic fringe. Mark Harris’s dotty, meandering U&I–style book on Bellow elicited the following response from his subject: ‘It was as if one of my joints were to turn author and write its own chronicle of one of my joints.’ At 674 pages, James Atlas’s Bellow (Faber 25 pounds) is much the weightiest specimen to date – tirelessly researched, rich in incident, and fleshed out with shrewd critical judgments. Atlas is clearly the man for the job, from the ringing endorsements offered by his CV (a previous biography of Delmore Schwarz, the model for Humboldt) right down to the seemliness of that surname: try and keep up with the young Bellow’s globe–trotting – France, Spain, Mexico, Egypt, Eastern Europe – and you’ll find an Atlas comes in pretty handy. AS for keeping track of the wives, well, the Manhattan telephone directory is a fairly good place to start– once it listed two Mrs Bellows in West End Avenue alone. And the mistresses? How much time do you have on your hands? More to the point: how did Bellow find the time? If all references to novels and novel–writing were to be excised from this book, you would not, I think, guess that its subject was a literary man. You would think: playboy, financier, jewel thief, airline pilot, superhero, sugar daddy, heart–throb. You would not think Nobel Laureate. You would think Bruce Wayne.
It begins on the hoof, in 1913, with Bellow’s parents – Russian Jews – fleeing the St Petersburg Tsarist police to relocate in Canada, where Bellow Snr, emboldened by a heady rush of pioneer spirit, tried his hand at a variety of jobs, only to prove a rousing failure at them all. One cannot but warm to Abraham Bellow, ‘a sharpie circa 1905’ who tried on occupations in much the same manner that Inspector Clouseau tried on disguises: peddling, bootlegging, matchmaking, insurance broking, selling cemetery lots, before finally moving from Montreal to Chicago where he became a baker. We clearly have a lot to thank him for. Abraham was not a literary man – a letter congratulating his son on the success of one of his novels urged him to ‘wright soon’ – but there’s as distinctly Augie March–ish tinge to that wild roster of misfitting jobs: it’s not hard to see how that fecklessness might, refitted with sufficient ambition, be turned outward as the hard–nosed yearning which was to be his son’s speciality. More importantly perhaps, he stopped his peregrinations at exactly the right point of the map. His son was to grow into a writer set on transforming his ugly, anti–poetic home city in ‘the place – incredible, vital, sinful, fascinating’ – as recognisable as Joyce’s Dublin, or Proust’s Paris. But there is a limit to what a writer can transform – the world was not, I think, quite ready for Bellow’s Montreal.
Bellow almost didn’t get to grow up at all: that peritonitis and pneumonia laid him up in hospital for six months, taking him close to death. Death, having failed in its first run–and–grab for the boy, returned for the mother, who succumbed to breast cancer when Bellow was 17. These two events became crucial elements of Bellow’s self–mythology – the life–epiphanies, the ‘batch of poems’ which every man carries around with him – although the keenly–judged pathos of that phrase should serve as both goad and warning to trauma junkies. To scan the outlines of this childhood, you’d have the child pegged as a sickly melancholic, bookish and inward, but the portrait won’t quite stick. Admittedly, an early job working for his brother’s coal truck company was severely compromised by Bellow’s tendency to read rather than count coal trucks. But on the other hand the book he happened to be reading was a soot–stained copy of Marx’s Value Price and Profit, which I guess beats Mallarme when it comes to explaining why you got fired.
The life of the young Bellow is instead marked by a Huck Finn–ish taste for adventure. Aged 17, and with the Depression in full swing, Bellow and a school–friend spent a summer hitching lifts with the hobos on dustbowl freight trains. This was followed by a night in jail, and then college, where Bellow was more drawn to performance than study, spending most of his time arguing the merits of Trotskyism with his friend Isaac Rosenfeld, improvising skits – a dissertation on beet Borscht, a Yiddish version of ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufock’. Atlas gives us a lovely portrait of Bellow at the time: standing out form the student mass of grubby corduroy in his navy blue suit and white shirt, ‘a sensuous mouth, a gap between his teeth, and wide eyes that were like a doe’s. He bounced on his toes as he walked’. Your basic dish. After the success of Dangling Man, Bellow even got a call from an agent convinced Bellow had a future in Hollywood – not as an Errol Flynn or George Raft type, perhaps, but as ‘the guy who loses the girl to George Raft or Errol Flynn type’. AS a prophetic act of literary criticism, this is well–nigh unsurpassable – it’s pretty much the plot of Herzog – and one can only mourn the possibility of a double career. The Nobel Prize ceremony – a notorious stiff – would surely be enlivened considerably, were its winners to bound onto the stage in green tights, plant their feet a yard apart, and let loose with one of those Errol Flynn laughs where it sounds as if you’re counting all the ‘ha’s.
Bellow resisted these blandishments, as he resisted anything that threatened his freedom: politics, marriage, and later, his Jewishness (asked if he felt he’s won the Nobel as a Jewish writer or an American writer, he replied ‘I thought I’d won it as a writer’). After he graduated, he did the customary tour of Europe, but found Paris a ‘sullen, grumbling city’. ‘One suspects that the main problem with Paris was the Parisians,’ writes Atlas, ‘they didn’t seem to know who Saul Bellow was.’ Actually, one suspects that the main problem with Paris was Hemingway – the last writer single–handedly to reshape American prose. What Bellow had in mind would resist Hemingway’s terse ruggedness just as surely as it would resist nail–paring exquisiteness. After his first two novels, Bellow rejected the Flaubertian standard and wrote at a gallop, abandoning wholesale what didn’t work – starting from the beginning again, storing what did work in the freezer, in case the house burnt down. Like Dickens, Bellow felt domestic chaos was a spur, not a hindrance to his creativity. ‘I feel like a man trying to sign his name in the back seat of a rollercoaster,’ he said, only half complaining.
The result of all this ferment was The Adventures of Augie March, a novel barrelled along by its own distinctive strain of brainy garrulity. The book was its own rollercoaster, as outward bound as it was inner–directed. For one thing, was ever a Bildungsroman so well populated? Dickens’s Pip meets a few colourful folk along the way and Stephen Dedalus talks of forging, in the smithy of his soul, the conscience of his race, but he prefers his own company. In Bellow’s novel, we get to meet the race. It is thronged with the peoples of America and their movements – ‘Danish sility, dago ingenuity’ – and Bellow’s powers of observation are sharpened into Instamatic indelibility by the need to catch the swarm of faces, the Brueghelian frieze, as it goes milling by: “We came up the walk, between the slow, thought–brewing, beat–up old heads, liver–spotted, of choked old bloodsalts and wastes, hard and bone–abare domes, or swollen, the elevens of sinews up on collarless necks crazy with the assaults of Kansas heats and Wyoming freezes, and with the strains of kitchen toil, Far West digging, Cincinnati retailing, Omaha slaughtering, peddling, harvesting, laborious or pegging enterprise from whale–sized to infusorial that collect into the labour of the nation.’ It is one of those extraordinary reverse–zooms that are a Bellow speciality: from a single set of sinews to the collective labour of the nation in a single sentence. His crowd control would be the envy of D W Griffith. The Adventures of Augie March at times resembles not so much a novel as a population explosion between hardcovers.
And where is Augie in all of this? To come to this novel from late Bellow novels, which are self–centred in every sense – launching into sustained orbit around a single soul – is quite a shock. For the first 200 pages or so, Augie is more of a satellite, physically undescribed, without character traits. All we get are the crowds, the people, and Augie’s reactions to them. ‘I’m not sure Augie can bear so much traffic and yet he must bear it,” worried Bellow. The gamble paid off. Augie’s is that peculiar brand of passivity which attracts events and people to him as surely as a lightning rod, yet hides a deep stubbornness of soul – a sense of self–determination so fierce that the only option is to echo the personalities of those around, all the while waiting the moment to strike. Augie March is unquestionably a young man’s novel, fired up with cunning and brio, and was received with appropriate rapture, succeeded by an expectant hush: how on earth would Bellow follow it up? How top the radiant verve – the ‘grand vital discord’ – of a novel like Augie? With a slim, infinitely sad novella like Seize the Day, of course – death whittled and dusted with melancholy, bone to Augie’s flesh.
Such a display of reach confounds our traditional ideas of the way careers should proceed. It also serves as warning to anyone trying to get the measure of a man so clearly capable of chopping and changing at will. Bellow seems to have conducted his personal life along similar lines: a terrible husband who left his wives before they could leave him, yet juggled events to portray himself as the wronged party – a selfish lover, whose legendary list of conquests concealed terrible technique in the sack – and a lousy friend who regularly pillaged his friends’ lives for material, and refused event to attend their funerals. There is something a little seamy and dispiriting about this portrait of the artist as Utter Scoundrel. The problem is not that one doesn't’ believe it. One does believe it: the problem is that the psychological profile echoes that of most literary biographies you’ve ever read.
After all, it is in their work that writers achieve distinction. In their personal lives they are second–rate copyists and rip–off merchants – plagiarising the same subset of personality defects and character flaws. The rich and varied language of Freudianism tends to hide one basic truth: that personalities tend to fuck up in roughly the same way. You are either fucked up or you are not. One day, someone will write the literary biography of a modest, monogamous, thick–skinned sweetiepie who cleans out his mother–in–law’s budgerigar cage every week: that would be an event worth recording. Whether he would be a writer worth reading is another matter. Personally, I distrust any writer still on speaking terms with more than half of his telephone book. Surely a writer’s primary duty is to louse up as much of his private life as he possibly can, so that at the end of a hard day I can curl up with a book that is of marginally better quality than the book that would have been written had he not. In this, readers are quite free from the normal constraints of etiquette and morality. If Bellow felt it necessary to steal his friend’s stories – and if he further thought that not attending funerals would help matters any further – then so be it. If it will help his books any, he is quite free not to attend my funeral. I will not mind.
Atlas knows all this. He quotes at length a letter from Bellow to Dave Peltz, who accused Bellow of pilfering an incident about a poker debt for Humboldt’s Gift: ‘The name of the game is Give All. You are welcome to all my facts. You know them, I give them to you – if you have the strength to pick them up, take them with my blessing.’ Aside from being magisterially cocky, this also happens to be the absolute last word on the subject, the debate clincher, an end of the matter. Atlas, however, has a biography to write, and so on it goes, the parade of pettinesses, the repeat revelations of Bellow’s beagling self–interest. ‘In Bellow’s case, the process of mourning was intensified by his habit of experiencing his dead friends as aspects of himself. Or, of his letter–writing style: ‘it was as if he was writing to just one person: himself.’ Do letter–writers – or mourners, for that matter – ever do anything else? You find yourself wondering if these criticisms don’t amount to much more than the observation that lives tend to get lived from the centre out: each heart, as Bellow once noted, beats only for itself. A certain self–centredness is surely bound to hang over any biography, as over any life. To write a book about Saul Bellow and then complain about the amount of undiluted Saul Bellow in it comes close to unfairness – like grilling someone at a party about their career and then complaining that they seemed a little career–obsessed.
The best comment on Bellow comes from his shrink, who confessed, after many years of administering Reichian therapy: ‘To put it quite frankly, I never quite figured this man out.’ He added that even when Bellow was caught in the middle of some domestic travail, ‘I could never make up my mind how unhappy he was’. This frank bafflement is infinitely suggestive, and furthers an understanding of Bellow’s achievement more than any amount of mother issues or narcissistic complexes. Read and reread his work as you may, it is well–nigh impossible to say how unhappy he is exactly – whether the work is ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’. At a distance certain novels seem written on the up – Augie, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift. Others – Seize The Day, Mr Sammler’s Planet, The Dean’s December – seem written from under a king–sized depression. But close to, certainty crumbles: the two moods break up and bleed into one another, the joys come limned with sadness, the anguish tinged with wit. Bellow suffers in great style.
Take Herzog, having a high old time feeling down about himself: ‘To his own parents he had been an ungrateful child. To his country, an indifferent citizen. To his brothers and sisters, affectionate but remote. With his friends, an egotist. With love, lazy. With brightness, dull. With power, passive. With his own soul evasive. Satisfied with his own severity, positively enjoying the hardness and factual rigour of his judgment, he lay on his sofa, his arms rising behind him, his legs extended without aim.’ That final sentence is the killer, detecting self–satisfaction where you least expect it, as if consciousness were a false–bottomed drawer. It is one thing to purge yourself ruthlessly of vanity, but an altogether different order of insight to detect still more vanity in the severity of your attempt. The self–regard of self–criticism: this is prime Bellow territory, treacherous underfoot, fogged with self–doubt, and delimited by boundaries that seem to shift and shimmer the more you look at them. Is self–knowledge a form of transcendence or simply another trap?
Herzog sets the pattern for most of Bellow’s future protagonists: a bruised and brooding, soft and sore of heart, apt to panic under pressure, and with a weakness for abstract thought so chronic they almost seem in the grip of a brain fever – a swoon of higher thought. Bellow’s novels are seized by such constant, if casual, urges towards transcendence that at times they seem like the child’s balloon in The Dean’s December, ‘snatched upwards’ by the Chicago winds. His heroes are men caught in the updraft, dangling men all, unable to stop the ascent of their thought balloons, equally unable to let them go. ‘Could I say that morning I had been reading Hegel’s Phenomenology, the pages of freedom and death?’ thinks Charlie Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift. ‘Could I say that I had been thinking about the history of human consciousness with special emphasis on the question of boredom? Could I say that for years now I had been preoccupied with this theme and that I had discussed it with the late poet Von Humboldt Fleisher?’
For many readers, the simple response to this will be ‘no’. Miss Ferguson, Bellow’s high–school teacher, used to chant the words “Be specific!’ to the tune of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. I’d love to know what she thought of her ex–pupil’s novels, with their speedy powers of generalisation and inflation, like over–sensitive life rafts. For we are here at the much–debated heart of Bellow’s achievement, the moment of truth, the point where fans and mere admirers part company – where those who are capable of being World–Historical before 9am in the morning shoulder the burden of their World–History city, while the rest of us shrink under the bed–covers. In short: what is the correct height at which to pitch our admiration for Bellow’s ideas?
One of the more instructive antagonisms that Bellow nursed through–out his career was with Nabokov. The two men took one of those instant snarling–dog antagonisms toward one another, Nabokov dismissing Bellow as a ‘miserable mediocrity’, Bellow gently condescending to Lolita: ‘I could write a better novel from Lolit’as poitn of view.’ It’s not too hard to see why this should be. For Nabokov, a novel of ideas was a contradiction in terms, novels no more needing to concern themselves with ideas than with dairy products. If your novel happens to be about a philosopher, there’s no ducking a certain amount of Hegel, just as if your novel is about a milkman, then a certain amount of Dairylea is t be expected. But the amounts are the same – no more and no less. Bellow, however, is a self–confessed ‘greatness freak’. His heroes are plumed philosophers, tenured intellectuals, great men wreathed in thought. Their unabashed grandiloquence embarrasses a slovenly anti–heroic century, but it also loosens Bellow’s hold on the Great American Novel, precisely because his protagonists have the head–start of their own greatness before the novel has even begun. How much of an aesthetic challenge is it to smuggle intelligence into a novel about an intelligent person?
Hence the slight frictionlessness – the suspicious ease – of Bellows later books, as if he were simply decanting his sensibility whole onto the page. As Martin Amis said in his review of The Dean’s December: ‘not a jot of Bellow’s intellectualism is withheld’, which is one way of putting it. Another might be that the books are straight brain transplants. Amis is one of Bellow’s more generous and perceptive critics, but he can sometimes sound like a force–fed man trying to convince himself that he’s a bit peckish. Later in that review, he praises something he calls Bellow’s ‘didactic generosity, as if such a unicorn could actually exist.
It can’t, of course. Didacticism is death, whichever way you cut it, and as the intellectual musculature of the novels increases, their blood thins, their fictive tissue weakens – the hero’s swoons of thought seeming more like fiction’s dead faint. The key text here is Humboldt’s Gift, which isn’t so much comic as light–headed, giddy: failed seriousness sending up its failure as it falls. ‘This wasn’t the time to remember certain words of John Stuart Mill, but I remembered them anyway,’ thinks Charlie Citrine, while getting arrested, of all things. When, eleven years earlier, Herzog got arrested, you really felt the hard crunch of reality – not to mention the actual thwack of a car bumper – muscling in on his cogitations. But throughout Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie’s collision with reality is softened, finessed by an inexplicably reciprocated friendship with the gangster Canile – one of the ‘reality instructors’ who traditionally serve in Bellow’s fiction to bring his heroes down to earth. The difference here being that Canile, incredibly, seems aware of his literary function – taking Citrine on a helpful tour of Chicago’s seamier sides with the words, ‘I figure it’s your duty to examine American society from the White House to Skid Row’. No it’s not, just as it’s not Canile’s duty to point it out. At times, Bellow seems to enlist his entire cast to carry out duties which are, strictly speaking, his alone to perform. His themes come self–indexing– his characters characterise themselves – his writer heroes do his writing for him.
All this is maddening, but it never quite proves fatal. For the net effect is the required one: American society from the White House to Skid Row does get itself examined. For 300 pages of a Saul Bellow novel, Saul Bellow is doing the writing, and Bellow in full flood is something to behold. Humboldt’s Gift also happens to be Bellow’s best Chicago novel – and the images of urban hellfire worked into The Dean’s December are as haunting a vision of modern apocalypse as you could wish for. Of course, there is a bathetic, over–strident side to the Bellow Jeremiad – sometimes when he sets about describing the inner circles of the moronic inferno – whether it be Hitchcock movies, or the Beatles, or Nintendo, or, most recently ‘The Simpsons, jittering away on TV’ – he has an uncanny knack of describing exactly what I happened to be doing last Thursday night. But with didactic talent, disagreement is the true test, because it frees you up to roam the books unfettered, scouting for epigrammatic and descriptive gems: an ex–wife whose ‘fig leaf turned out to be a price tag’ – the debt collector who ‘breathed the air as if he were stealing it’ – a father ‘brought down by the heavy tackle of death’ – a corpse’s face with ‘the subtracted look of the just dead’ – the wrinkles on a lover’s face identified as the work of “Death, the artist, very slow’.
Bellow has matched him. Death has been a lifelong subject for Bellow – a life’s work, requiring all the patience and cunning of the enemy – and all of his heroes have had to make room for it. From Einhorn, that ‘Thanatopsis stoic’ doing daily battle with the ‘cheating old rascal with bones showing in buckskin fringes – to Sammler, emboldened by his ‘earth–departure objectivity’, now free to make ‘sober, decent terms with death’ – right up to Ravelstein, a memoir of his friend Allan Bloom, who died in 1992 of AIDS. Bellow’s last novella was written after his own most recent skirmish with the grave – courtesy of that Red Snapper, which Bellow ate while on holiday with his fifth wife, Janis, in the West Indies. It sent him into convulsions, and then a coma and had him in intensive care for three weeks. ‘I was given up for dead. The doctors told me so themselves,’ he recalled, ‘I had some brilliant hallucinations, so great that what I was writing dwindled by contrast with these visions.’ The incident makes its way into Ravelstein, whose narrator, Chick, also makes a Lazarus–like recovery: ‘If I had stopped to consider it, I would have been aware that I was underground digging myself out with my bare hands.’
What keeps Chick alive is his promise to write a memoir of his late friend, Abe Ravelstein, a world–class brain whose book on American academia has made him millions. Now holed up in a luxury penthouse, his Japanese kimono parted to reveal ‘legs paler than milk’, Ravelstein discourses on everything from Thucydides to Mel Brooks. We never get to hear many of those ideas first–hand – enough to recognise a facsimile of Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, but no more. Chick is as keen to note the appearance of this head as it contents: ‘On his bald head you felt that what you were looking at were the finger marks of its shaper.’ Bellow has always known that the best way to get to souls is through bodies – he is the fleshiest of transcendentalists – but here his method is given added punch because body and soul are at ware with one another. For Ravelstein is dying: ‘this head was rolling toward the grave.’
The result is a portrait designed to revivify the dead, but also written to keep the writer alive – almost an I–V drip of ink, feeding both ways. ‘Ravelstein expected me to make good on my promise – To keep my word I’d have to live. Of course there was an obvious corollary: once the memoir was written, I love my protection, and I became as expendable as anybody else.’ The memoir could well prove Bellow’s last full–length work – I hope not, but the man is 84. If anything, Ravelstein feels even later than that, a work from beyond the grave – a self–penned obituary handed out from the coffin, written right up to the line. And as epitaphs go, it’s pretty accurate. Two friends, both dying, having one final head–to–head across a hospital bed, finding the words they want for the things they still have to say: the image sets the benchmark for the exacting level of truth Bellow has set for himself in his fiction. For Chick on Ravelstein, read Bellow on Bellow: ‘This was his way of laying open a subject – not entirely flattering, but then he never flattered anyone, nor did he level with you in order to put you down. He simply believed that willingness to let the self–esteem structure be attacked and burned to the ground was a measure of your seriousness. A man should be able to hear, and to bear, and the worst that can be said about him.’"
— my review of James Atlas's Saul Bellow for Arete magazine, 2000