Bellow, Saul 1915–2005
Bellow, Saul 1915–2005
PERSONAL: Born Solomon Bellows, June 10, 1915 (some sources say July 10, 1915), in Lachine, Quebec, Canada; came to United States, c. 1924; died April 5, 2005, in Brookline, MA; son of Abraham (a Russian emigré and businessman) and Liza (Gordon) Bellow; married Anita Goshkin (a social worker), December 31, 1937 (divorced); married Alexandra Tschacbasov, February 1, 1956 (divorced); married Susan Glassman (a teacher), 1961 (divorced); married Alexandra Ionesco Tuleca (a mathematician), 1974 (divorced); married Janis Freedman (a professor), 1989; children: (first marriage) Gregory, (second marriage) Adam, (third marriage) Daniel, (fifth marriage) Naomi-Rose. Education: Attended University of Chicago, 1933–35; Northwestern University, B.S. (with honors), 1937; graduate study at University of Wisconsin, 1937.
CAREER: Author and educator. Worked on WPA Writers' Project, writing biographies of authors; Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College, Chicago, IL, instructor, 1938–42; Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, member of editorial department of "Great Books" project, 1943–46; University of Minnesota at Minneapolis, member of English department, 1946, assistant professor, 1948–49, associate professor of English, 1954–59; Boston University, Boston, MA, professor of English, beginning 1993. New York University, New York, NY, visiting lecturer, 1950–52; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, creative writing fellow, 1952–53; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, faculty member, 1953–54; University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, visiting professor of English, 1961; University of Chicago, Chicago, celebrity-in-residence, 1962, became Grunier Distinguished Services Professor, member of committee on social thought, 1962–93, chair, 1970–76. Presented Jefferson Lecture for National Endowment for the Humanities in 1977; Tanner Lecturer at Oxford University. Fellow, Academy for Policy Study, 1966, and Brandford College of Yale University. Military service: U.S. Merchant Marine, 1944–45.
MEMBER: Authors League of America, American Academy of Arts and Letters, PEN, Yaddo Corporation.
AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship in Paris and Rome, 1948; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1952; National Book Awards, 1954, for The Adventures of Augie March, 1965, for Herzog, and 1971, for Mr. Sammler's Planet; O. Henry Award, 1956, for "The Gonzaga Manuscripts," and 1980, for "A Silver Dish"; Ford grants, 1959, 1960; Friends of Literature Fiction Award, 1960; James L. Dow Award, 1964; Prix International de Litterature (France), 1965, for Herzog; Jewish Heritage Award, B'nai B'rith, 1968; Croix de Chevalier (France), 1968; Formentor Prize, 1970; Pulitzer Prize, 1976, for Humboldt's Gift; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1976; Gold Medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1977; Emerson-Thoreau Medal, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1977; Neil Gunn International fellowship, 1977; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, 1978; Commander, Legion of Honor (France), 1983; Malaparte prize (Italy), 1984; Commander, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1985; National Medal of Arts, 1988, for "outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States"; Lifetime Achievement Award, National Book Award, 1990. D.Litt from Northwestern University, 1962, Bard College, 1963, New York University, 1970, Harvard University, 1972, Yale University, 1972, McGill University, 1973, Brandeis University, 1974, Hebrew Union College, 1976, and Trinity College, Dublin, 1976.
Dangling Man, Vanguard (New York, NY), 1944, reprinted, Penguin (New York, NY), 1988.
The Victim, Vanguard (New York, NY), 1947.
The Adventures of Augie March (also see below), Viking (New York, NY), 1953, with an introduction by Lionel Trilling, Modern Library (New York, NY), 1965, with an introduction by Martin Amis, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995, with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
Henderson the Rain King (also see below), Viking (New York, NY), 1959, reprinted, Penguin (New York, NY), 1996.
Herzog (early drafts published in Esquire, July, 1961, and July, 1963, in Commentary, July, 1964, and in Saturday Evening Post, August 8, 1964; also see below), Viking (New York, NY), 1964, reprinted, Penguin (New York, NY), 2003.
Mr. Sammler's Planet (originally appeared in a different form in Atlantic; also see below), Viking (New York, NY), 1970, with an introduction by Stanley Crouch, Penguin (New York, NY), 1996.
Humboldt's Gift, Viking (New York, NY), 1975, with illustrations by Herb Tauss, Franklin Library (Franklin, PA), 1980, reprinted, Penguin (New York, NY), 1996.
The Dean's December, Harper (New York, NY), 1982, with illustrations by Robert Heindel, Franklin Library (Franklin Center, PA), 1982, reprinted, Penguin (New York, NY), 1998.
More Die of Heartbreak, Morrow (New York, NY), 1987.
Ravelstein, Viking (New York, NY), 2000.
Mosby's Memoirs, and Other Stories (contains "Leaving the Yellow House," "The Old System," "Looking for Mr. Green," "The Gonzaga Manuscripts," and "A Father-to-Be"; also see below), Viking (New York, NY), 1968, reprinted, Penguin (New York, NY), 1996.
Him with His Foot in His Mouth, and Other Stories (contains "Cousins," "A Silver Dish," "What Kind of Day Did You Have?," and "Zetland: By a Character Witness"), Harper (New York, NY), 1984, reprinted, Penguin (New York, NY), 1998.
Collected Stories, preface by Janis Bellow, introduction by James Wood, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.
Contributor of short stories to anthologies, including Partisan Reader: Ten Years of Partisan Review, 1934–1944, edited by William Phillips and Philip Rahv, introduction by Lionel Trilling, Dial (New York, NY), 1946; Nelson Algren's Own Book of Lonesome Monsters, edited by Nelson Algren, Geis, 1963; and How We Live: Contemporary Life in Contemporary Fiction, edited by Penny Chapin Hills and L. Rust Hills, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1968.
The Last Analysis, a Play (first produced on Broadway, 1964); first version published as Bummidge, revised version, Viking (New York, NY), 1965.
Under the Weather (three one-act comedies: Orange Souffle first published in Esquire, January, 1965; A Wen published in Esquire, October, 1965; and Out from Under), first produced in London, England, 1966; produced on Broadway, 1966.
Also author of play The Wrecker, published in New World Writing 6 (also see below), 1954.
Seize the Day; With Three Short Stories and a One-Act Play (novella; also contains stories "Father-to-Be," "The Gonzaga Manuscripts," and "Looking for Mr. Green," and play, The Wrecker), Viking (New York, NY), 1956, play published separately as Seize the Day, 1961, with introduction by Alfred Kazin, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1968, with an introduction by Cynthia Ozick, Penguin (New York, NY), 1996.
(Translator of title story) Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gimpel the Fool, and Other Stories, Noonday Press, 1957.
(Author of text, with C. Zervos) Jesse Reichek, Dessins, Cahiers d'Art (Paris, France), 1960.
(Editor, with Keith Botsford [first three volumes also with Jack Ludwig]) The Noble Savage, five volumes, Meridian.
Recent American Fiction; A Lecture Presented under the Auspices of the Gertrude Clarke Whitall Poetry and Literature Fund, Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1963.
(Editor and author of introduction) Great Jewish Short Stories, Dell (New York, NY), 1963.
Acceptance Speech by Saul Bellow, Author of "Herzog," Fiction Winner National Book Awards, March 9, 1965, privately printed, 1965.
Like You're Nobody: The Letters of Louis Gallo to Saul Bellow, 1961–1962, plus Oedipus Schmoedipus, the Story That Started It All, New Dimensions Press (New York, NY), 1966.
The Portable Saul Bellow (contains Henderson the Rain King and Seize the Day, plus selections from The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, "Leaving the Yellow House," "The Old System," and "Mosby's Memoirs"), introduction by Gabriel Josipovici, Viking (New York, NY), 1974.
To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (memoirs), Viking (New York, NY), 1976.
The Nobel Lecture (first published in American Scholar, 1977), Targ Editions, 1979.
Herzog (sound recording of Bellow reading excerpts from novel), Caedmon (New York, NY), 1978.
A Theft (novella; also see below), Penguin (New York, NY), 1989.
The Bellarosa Connection (novella; also see below), Penguin (New York, NY), 1989.
Something to Remember Me By: Three Tales (novellas; contains A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection), Viking (New York, NY), 1991.
It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future (essays), Viking (New York, NY), 1994.
Conversations with Saul Bellow, edited by Gloria L. Cronin and Ben Siegel, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1994.
The Actual (novella), Viking (New York, NY), 1997.
Novels, 1944–1953 (selections), Library of America (New York, NY), 2003.
Also author of "Deep Readers of the World, Beware!," 1959, and The Future of the Moon, 1970. Contributor to books, including The Open Form: Essays for Our Time, edited by Alfred Kazin, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1961; The Great Ideas Today, six volumes, edited by Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1961–66; To the Young Writer, edited by A.L. Bader, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1963; First Person Singular: Essays for the Sixties, edited by Herbert Gold, Dial (New York, NY), 1963; Saul Bellow and the Critics, edited by Irving Malin, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1967; The Art and the Public (essays), edited by James E. Miller, Jr., and Paul D. Herring, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1967; and Technology and the Frontiers of Knowledge, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1975. Also contributor to periodicals, including Partisan Review, Hudson Review, Sewanee Review, New Yorker, New Republic, Nation, New Leader, Saturday Review, Holiday, Reporter, Horizon, Esquire, Commentary, and New York Times Book Review. Founder and coeditor of Noble Savage, 1960–62; founder, News from the Republic of Letters, 1997.
Author of forewords to books by others, including Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, by Feodor Dostoevsky, Criterion Books, 1955; The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom, Simon & Schuster, 1987; and Tales of Grabowski: Transformations, Escape, and Other Stories, by John Auerbach, Toby, 2003. Author of afterword, Con Man: A Master Swindler's Own Story, J.R. Weil, as told to W.T. Brannon, Broadway Books (New York, NY), 2004.
A collection of Bellow's manuscripts, including most of his novels, correspondence, and memorabilia, is housed at the Regenstein Library, University of Chicago. The Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, holds several manuscripts of Seize the Day.
ADAPTATIONS: The Wrecker was televised in 1964; a sound recording of the Chicago Radio Theatre presentation of the plays Orange Souffle and The Wrecker was produced by All-Media Dramatic Workshop, 1978; a television adaptation of Seize the Day, featuring Robin Williams and a cameo appearance by Bellow, was produced by Public Broadcasting Service, 1987.
SIDELIGHTS: Pulitzer Prize-and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow is considered a leading figure in twentieth-century American literature. In his writing and teaching, Bellow champions human and moral possibilities in the face of personal and social struggle. He also takes to task intellectuals, artists, and social commentators who focus on value-free function, technique, practice, and experimentation. In a Times Literary Supplement article, Julian Symons compared Bellow to two British "other-sayers," George Orwell and Wyndham Lewis. "In the United States," wrote Symons, "Saul Bellow has … been saying unpopular things about American culture in general, and about the relationship between the society and its literature in particular." Continues Symons: "When he says American intellectuals are becoming more and more alike, and 'often as philistine as the masses from which they have emerged' he has to be listened to."
In his 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech, Bellow reaffirmed his conviction that art was more important than science in exploring significant values in twentieth-century human experience. Following Marcel Proust, Bellow explained in his speech, "Only art penetrates what pride, passion, intelligence and habit erect on all sides—the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which, without art, we can't receive. Proust calls these hints our 'true impressions.'… The value of literature lies in these intermittent true impressions…. What [Joseph] Conrad said was true: art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential." To Bellow, the novel is "a sort of latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter"; as such, the novel performs the same function that Robert Frost claimed for poetry; it provides "a momentary stay against confusion," and in a world where confusion has become king, momentary stillnesses and humble sanctuaries for the spirit are not insignificant contributions.
Joseph, the Kafkaesque protagonist and Dostoevskian underground figure of Dangling Man, Bellow's first novel, exists between the military nightmare of World War II and civilian economic opportunism, between the material world of action and the ideal world of thought, between detachment and involvement, life and death. A compulsive diarist and a man condemned to an existential freedom without moral precedent, Joseph is, as Tony Tanner described him in Saul Bellow, "a man up to his neck in modern history. Joseph oscillates between corrosive inertia and compulsive self-inquiry, wrestling with irresolvable paradoxes of world and spirit which have a drastically deleterious effect on his character and bring him to the point of futility and exhaustion." As Joseph mismanages his freedom and perceives ever more vividly the disparity between his "ideal constructions" and the "craters of the spirit" that the real world places daily in his path, he grows less confident of his ability to understand the universe or to discern his proper identity in it. Finally, in quasi-optimistic desperation, Joseph decides that he will find no answers in his detached state; thus he insists that his draft board subject him immediately to the same fate his countrymen are enduring. Marcus Klein viewed this movement toward community as part of a pattern in the contemporary American novel, a "strategy of accommodation." In After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-Century Klein observed, "Joseph must give himself to idiopathic freedom, and that way is madness, or submit to the community's ordinary, violent reality. He hurries his draft call. He surrenders."
Asa Leventhal, in Bellow's The Victim, is a good man, a middle-aged, happily married Jew who has unknowingly caused the gentile Kirby Allbee to lose his job. In his subsequent decline, Allbee becomes a drunk, loses his wife in an auto accident, and blames Leventhal—and by extension all Jews—for his wretchedness. Because he has always felt very tentative about his place in the scheme of things, Leventhal is susceptible to All-bee's unwarranted accusations and subsequent persecutions. Determining what he owes to himself and what he owes to others—that is, how he should live as a good man—becomes Leventhal's primary concern and the integrating principle in the novel.
The Victim develops on two levels, the realistic and the symbolic. At the realistic levels, its themes are guilt, fear of failure, anti-Semitism, and existential responsibility; these themes are embodied in the characterizations, the dialogue, and patterns of metaphor, especially those involving tickets and acting. These matters expand, however, to become questions of Death and Evil at the symbolic level. Bellow draws heavily on classical mythology for the encounters of Leventhal with death, and on the American myth of guilt and redemption, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, for his confrontation with guilt in the person of Allbee.
A bildungsroman, or novel of education, and a quest novel, The Adventures of Augie March traces Augie's erratic pursuit of a worthwhile fate. Telling his own story "free style," Augie relives his experiences for the reader, from his boyhood in Chicago and his wanderings in Michigan, Mexico, and the African Sea to his maturity as a husband and import businessman in Paris. Augie encounters a Chaucerian pilgrimage of Bellovian characters, and from each Augie learns something about "bitterness in his chosen thing" and thus something about his search for a worthwhile fate. He does not find the fate he imagined, but he does affirm the validity of the search: "Columbus too," says Augie, "thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America."
Despite Bellow's admission that he went "too far" and violated formal unity, The Adventures of Augie March does have a firm organizing principle, the tension of opposites. Refusing to lead a disappointed life, Augie seeks a worthwhile fate in accordance with what he calls the "axial lines of life," which lead one to "truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony." Augie is a free and optimistic spirit, but Bellow exposes him to characters, ideas, and situations inimical to his freedom and his optimism. The figure Kayo Obermark supplies a name for the negative factors, moha, the limitations imposed by the finite and imperfect, "the Bronx cheer of the conditioning forces." Einhorn's and Georgie's handicaps, Simon's monomania and loveless marriage, the superficiality of the Magnuses, the varied victimizations of Jimmy Klein and Mim Villars, the limited love of Stella, the lost children everywhere—all testify to the power of moha and assail the fortress of Augie's dream of happiness on the axial lines of life. But Augie stands firm in his optimism, earning the book's affirmative vision through his awareness of life's dark side and his resilience in the face of it. "It is important to keep in mind," observed Brigitte Scheer-Schaezler in her study Saul Bellow, "that Augie's desire for life in the sun is not motivated by a shunning of action or a rejection of consciousness but arises from his knowledge of darkness, the darkness which he says has widened his outlook." "Indeed," said Sarah Blacher Cohen in the Saul Bellow Journal, "Augie is the picaresque apostle who, meeting up with errant humanity, eagerly listens to their confessions and generously pardons their sins, even blessing them for their anti-trespasses."
Whereas Augie defines his humanity through his charm, striving, and compassion, Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day defines his humanity through his slovenliness, selfishness, and suffering—and, most importantly, through his desire to be better than he is. "The shrill quality of the marriage relationship between Tommy and his wife," Robert Detweiler wrote in Saul Bellow: A Critical Essay, "may echo Bellow's own situation at the time. He worked on the story while living in a desert shack in Nevada and waiting out the residency requirements for a divorce."
An antihero, Wilhelm has messed up his life. By changing his name (Saul Bellow was born Solomon Bellows), dropping out of school, and failing in business, Tommy has embarrassed and alienated his father, Dr. Adler, a selfish retired physician. Out of his foolish pride, Wilhelm has quit a good job and now can find no other. His mismanagement of his life has led to estrangement from his wife and painful separation from his two boys. In loneliness and desperation, Wilhelm has turned for companionship and advice to a kind of surrogate father, Dr. Tamkin, a quack psychologist, aspiring poet, slick operator in the stock market, and mainline Bellovian reality-instructor. On the titular day depicted in Seize the Day, Wilhelm's serial miscalculations and bad judgments bring him to his knees. His father and wife turn deaf ears to his appeals for help, Tamkin abandons him after misguiding him into losing his last savings in the stock market, and Tommy ends the day crying unceasingly in a funeral home over the body of a stranger. Writing in Saul Bellow: A Collection of Critical Essays, M. Gilbert Porter observed that "the unity of effect achieved in Seize the Day results from the skillful blending of all the elements of fiction in tightly constructed scenic units functioning very much like poetic images built around a controlling metaphor," the image of Wilhelm drowning.
At age fifty-five the manic gentile Henderson, in Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, stands six feet four and weighs two hundred and thirty pounds. He has an M.A. from a prestigious eastern university, a second wife, seven children, a three-million-dollar estate, and a voice within him crying, "I want, I want, I want," testifying both to his unhappiness and his yet-unfulfilled aspiration. Although he has most of the things Madison Avenue equates with human happiness, Henderson feels a central element is missing from his life. His vigorous but bumbling quest to discover that element leads him through whimsical pig-farming, gratuitous violence, and antisocial behavior to Africa, where through exotic experiences with African tribes he determines that he can "burst the spirit's sleep" and still the voice within him by serving others as a physician, in emulation of his hero, Sir Wilfred Grenfill. In the final scene, Henderson's dance around the New York-bound plane with a lion cub and a Persian orphan during the refueling stop in symbolic Newfoundland is a rhapsodic celebration of his movement toward community and his confirmed new vision of the possibilities of life over death: "God does not shoot dice with our souls," cries the joyful Henderson, "and therefore grun-tu-molani…. I believe there is justice, and that much is promised." According to Walter Clemons and Jack Kroll in a Newsweek interview with the author, "Of all his characters, Bellow has said, Henderson, the quixotic seeker of higher truth, is most like himself."
The theme of the novel is a recurrent one in Bellow's fiction: that the world is tough and mysterious, that man is subject to great errors and subsequent pain, but that he yearns for nobility and joy and feels in his deepest soul that such things are possible. "Henderson the Rain King is clearly Bellow's most full-blown comic novel," wrote Sarah Blacher Cohen in Saul Bellow's Enigmatic Laughter. "The dreaded nightmare experiences of the earlier realistic novels are transformed into the playful and dreamlike episodes of romance. The comic flaws which the early heroes were often too obtuse to notice are magnified in Henderson, who both flamboyantly exhibits them and exorcizes them through his own jocose language."
One man's frantic attempts to formulate a synthesis to shore up his disintegrating life is the substance of Bellow's 1964 novel, Herzog. Herzog seeks clarity and justice as a professor of history with a Ph.D. and an impressive professional bibliography. But with the discovery that his wife, Madeleine, and his good friend Gersbach have made him a cuckold and abandoned him to his isolated personal fate, Herzog finds himself lost in the modernist waste land of cynical "reality instructors" and existential nothingness, "down in the mire of post-Renaissance, post-humanistic, post-Cartesian dissolution, next door to the void." Such hostile territory is particularly hard on a sensitive intellectual whose sensibilities are at war with his intellect. With his feelings, he resists the negations of the reality instructors, but the chaotic evidence of his personal life makes an intellectual assent to their conclusions almost irresistible. His final transcendence of their teachings and his own anguish in the pastoral setting of Ludeyville testifies to the power Herzog discovers in simple being and the "law of the heart"; at peace at last, he says, "I am pretty well satisfied to be, to be just as it is willed, and for as long as I may remain in occupancy."
Some critics have argued that the stress and resolution in Herzog is typical of the Bellow canon. "It is this problem," Alfred Kazin said in Contemporaries, "first of representing all that a man intends and plans and then of getting him not merely to recognize the countervailing strength of life but to humble himself before it, that is the real situation in all Bellow's novels." Where Kazin found acceptance and submission, Ihab Hassan, in Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, saw affirmation in the protagonist as the sequel to his conflict between self and the world: "the movement is from acid defeat to acceptance, and from acceptance to celebration. The querulous and ill-natured hero becomes prodigal and quixotic. In this process something of the dignity that the fictional hero has lost to history is restored to him."
Bellow's seventh novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet, is an indignant depiction of contemporary America from the perspective of one of Bellow's most formidable "men thinking," Sammler, a Krakow-born Anglophile in his seventies and a Jewish survivor of a Nazi pogrom in Poland. His war injuries have left him with a tempered detachment and vision in only one eye. Thus Sammler sees outward and inward. His good right eye records characters, actions, and events in the world around him. His blind left eye subjects current events to introspective analysis, the historical and philosophical perspective. "The damaged eye seemed to turn in another direction, to be preoccupied separately with different matters." The novel oscillates from action to reflection as Sammler tries to make sense of a planet that seems to be coming unglued. Within that general strategy there are complementary movements from past to present, from public to private, from life to death. Three obliquely related plots provide the structural matrix of the narrative: 1) a pickpocket who plies his trade on the Forty-second Street bus and exposes himself to Sammler to warn him not to interfere; 2) a book manuscript on space travel and inhabitation of the moon, stolen from its author by Sammler's daughter, Shula; and 3) the slow dying of Dr. Gruner from an aneurysm in his brain.
Bellow told Jane Howard in an interview for Life that Mr. Sammler's Planet is his own favorite work: "I had a high degree of excitement writing it … and finished it in record time. It's my first thoroughly nonapologetic venture into ideas. In Herzog … and Henderson the Rain King I was kidding my way to Jesus, but here I'm baring myself nakedly." The novel and this statement about it marked a shift in proportion in Bellow's art, as abstraction began to overshadow concretion. The change has elicited mixed responses. Robert R. Dutton, in Saul Bellow, called the novel "Bellow's highest technical achievement," and Scheer-Schaezler, in support of what she called "enlarged vision," described the book as representative of "Bellow's effort to turn the novel into a medium of inquiry. In Bellow's most recent novels, experiences are not so much being undergone as discussed in a probing approach that may well be called essayis-tic." In the same vein, Nathan A. Scott, Jr. declared approvingly in Three American Moralists: Mailer, Bellow, Trilling that Bellow's "insistently didactic intention has had the effect of making rhetoric itself—rather than action and character—the main source of the essential energies in his fiction. And there is perhaps no other comparable body of work in the literature of the contemporary novel so drenched in ideas and speculations and theories, even commandments."
Humboldt's Gift is the story of intellectual Chicagoan Charlie Citrine, a Pulitzer prize-winning biographer and dramatist. Citrine approaches the completion of his sixth decade in the company of the nimbus of his deceased poetic mentor, Von Humboldt Fleisher, and the nemesis of his self-appointed materialistic advisor, Rinaldo Cantabile, both manic manipulators. The dead poet speaks to Citrine of his obligation to his creative spirit, art as power. The minor-league Mafioso Cantabile urges capitalistic enterprise, art as profit. Citrine ultimately frees himself from both figures, and at the end walks from the new grave he has provided for Humboldt into an ambivalently emerging spring to begin a meditative life away from the distractions of dissident voices and grotesque behavior. Charlie's compulsive flights into metaphysical explanations have to contend with the corrective pragmatism of his earthy mistress, Renata: "I prefer to take things as billions of people have throughout history. You work, you get bread, you lose a leg, kiss some fellows, have a baby, you live to be eighty and bug hell out of everybody, or you get hung or drowned. But you don't spend years trying to dope your way out of the human condition…. I think when you're dead you're dead, and that's that." Such views led Renata to abandon the hyperintellectual Citrine and choose an undertaker for a husband. Charlie resists Renata's reality-instructor text by clinging to a message from the dead poet: "Remember: we are not natural beings but supernatural beings," a spiritual reinforcement of Charlie's natural impulses that represents Humboldt's real gift to his protege.
The humor that dominates Humboldt's Gift is absent in Bellow's ninth novel, The Dean's December. As a journalist turned academic, Dean Albert Corde has accompanied his Rumanian-born wife, Minna, to Bucharest to attend her dying mother, Valeria. Isolated in his room or cruising the streets as a "hungry observer" and a "moralist of seeing," Corde observes Bucharest and reflects on Chicago, a city whose "whirling lives" typify the chaotic American reality. The communist and the capitalist cities are grim places of different but related forms of disorder, injustice, repression, and destruction. They are yoked by violence together, for death is everywhere: "I imagine, sometimes," Corde thinks, "that if a film could be made of one's life, every other frame would be death." This macabre mood is sustained throughout the novel even though at the end, after Valeria's death, Corde is comforted briefly by a renewed closeness to his wife that somehow has its counterpart in his closeness to the heavens in the great telescope of the Mount Palomar Observatory. He is cold there, he tells his guide as they descend: "But I almost mind coming down more"—that is, coming down to earth, where robbery, rape, murder, prejudice, and political injustice mock the human quest for order, beauty, love, and justice.
Some of the darkness of The Dean's December grew out of Bellow's personal experience. Bellow told Will-iam Kennedy in Esquire that he wrote the novel "in a year and a half … and had no idea it was coming. One of these things that came over me. My wife's mother was dying in Bucharest, and I went with her to give her some support, which in that place one badly needs. The old mother died while we were there." Part of the grimness grew out of actual conditions and events, like a sensational Chicago rape case and the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago, but most of the pessimism came from Bellow's increasing conviction that the decline of civilization is magnified in American cities. Malcolm Bradbury wrote in The Modern American Novel that The Dean's December "confirms the later Bellow as the novelist of a world which has lost cultural bearings, moved into an age of boredom and terror, violence and indifference, private wealth and public squalor." Bellow himself has been very explicit about his intentions in the novel. He told Matthew C. Roudane in an interview for Contemporary Literature that the decaying city has its counterpart in an "inner slum": "What I [mean is] there is a correspondence between outer and inner, between the brutalized city and the psyche of its citizens. Given their human resources I don't see how people today can experience life at all. Politicians, public figures, professors address 'modern problems' solely in terms of employment. They assume that unemployment causes incoherence, sexual disorders, the abandonment of children, robbery, rape and murder. Plainly, they have no imagination of these evils. They don't even see them." Ironically, an exchange of styles seems to occur, in effect, between Corde and Bellow. The passionate intensity that allows Corde's journalism to rise to the stature of art—as Bellow describes it here—leads Bellow's prose in the novel as a whole to assume the condition of journalism, the documentary, or, as Roudane observed, "a nonfiction novelistic style," an extension of the essayistic prose that has become increasingly prominent in Bellow's more recent novels.
Bellow returns to the comic mode in his tenth novel, More Die of Heartbreak, a turgid, almost plotless story of two academics connected less by their blood kinship than by their similarly oblique relations to women and to everyday reality. The narrator is thirty-five-year-old Kenneth Tractenberg, a professor of Russian literature at a university in the Midwest. His beloved uncle, Benn Crader, is an internationally respected botanist whose specialty is Arctic lichens and whose patterns of practical misjudgment make him think of himself as "a phoenix who runs with arsonists." Kenneth, though, admires his uncle for reasons that are not clear. Kenneth's philandering father offers his son a sarcastic but perhaps accurate explanation: "you're one of those continuing-education types and you think Benn still has something to teach you." Although intelligent and ceaselessly introspective, Kenneth and Uncle Benn are curious naifs. Kenneth is at great pains to marry Treckie, the mother of his illegitimate daughter and a woman who rejects him to live with a sadist and travel the flea-market circuits. Uncle Benn marries a spoiled rich girl, Matilda Layamon, whose physician father maneuvers to recover Benn's lost inheritance from crooked Uncle Vilitzer so that Matilda can continue to live a life of pampered ease. Benn escapes both the solicitousness of Kenneth and the machinations of the Layamons, finally, by retreating to the North Pole to study lichens.
Critical response to More Die of Heartbreak has been characterized by qualified praise and reluctantly held reservations. "Kenneth's free-ranging mind allows Bellow to put just about everything real and imaginable into this novel," noted Robert Wilson in USA Today. "Even so, Kenneth does not seem to me to be among the best of Bellow's characters, nor this among the best of Bellow's comic novels. Kenneth wore me out, especially when his divagations took us so far from the plot that it was barely a memory." Clemons, writing in Newsweek, found the supporting characters more appealing than the principals: "It's a slight drawback to More Die of Heartbreak that the innocents in the foreground, Uncle Benn and Kenneth, are upstaged by their captivating adversaries…. Our time with Benn and Kenneth is well spent for the sake of the rascals to whom they introduce us."
The title of The Actual, Bellow's 1997 novella, refers to Amy Wustrin, high school sweetheart of the middle-aged narrator Harry Trellman. The diffident Harry never pursued her while they were in school, and as an adult Harry traveled the world on business and rarely saw Amy. She married a bold, brash lawyer, Jay Wustrin, but now Jay is dead, Harry has returned to their native Chicago, and he now has his chance: "Half a century of feeling is invested in her, of fantasy, speculation, absorption, of imaginary conversation," he tells the reader. However, Harry's feelings for Amy are a counterpoint to the central narrative, which involves aging tycoon Sigmund Adletsky, who is bored and, as the New Republic's James Wood wrote, "asks Harry to act as a kind of intellectual informer for him—to provide the old man with advice, entertainment, cultural scraps." In a surprising twist, "it is Adletsky, whom Harry assumed to be uninterested in such things, who brings [Harry and Amy] together." Wood went on to observe: "That Bellow's characters wear their moral age so visibly, as a tree stump is ringed in years, tells us something about his metaphysics. In his fictional world—and The Actual is a fine example—people do not stream with motives. They are embodied souls." Hence the central activity in the story takes place internally, rather than externally.
Richard Canning in New Statesman described Harry as "the latest of Saul Bellow's great observer-narrators," who like Augie March and Moses Herzog "draws back from outright misanthropy in the face of the 'common-place person' around him—but chiefly by reflecting on the consolations of being quite distinct from them." Canning went on to note that, "In proving true to his first love, Trellman acts on his belief that people don't change"; Amy, on the other hand, is a great question, and the reader is left unsure of her affections. Louis Begley of the New York Times Book Review concluded that The Actual "is not a young man's piece of fiction, and our expectations for it must be adjusted accordingly. It is instead something far more rare: the work of a great master still locked in unequal combat with Eros and Time."
Bellow's novel Ravelstein raised a fuss in literary and academic circles not so much because of its story, but because of the actual events behind the story. The book, many agreed, is a fictionalized tale of the relationship between Bellow and his friend Allan Bloom, author of the best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom, a hero among conservatives, died in 1992, reportedly of liver failure. In Ravelstein, however, Ravel-stein, secretly a homosexual, dies of an AIDS-related illness. This idea that the novel is principally an "outing" of Bellow's late friend upset Bellow, who told Time interviewer Andrea Sachs: "This is a problem that writers of fiction always have to face in this country. People are literal minded, and they say 'Is it true? If it is true, is it factually accurate? If it isn't factually accurate, why isn't it factually accurate?' Then you tie yourself into knots, because writing a novel in some ways resembles writing a biography, but it really isn't. It is full of invention." "There is a character based on Bloom … in Ravelstein," commented Louis Menand in the New York Review of Books. "Everyone knows this, since Bellow himself has said it. But it is odd how quick people have been to read the book as a memoir—as an essentially plotless, meditative, lightly fictionalized tribute to an unusual man and an unusual friendship…. The inner novel is not about Ravelstein. Ravelstein is, in fact, the least novelized character in the book." Perspectives on Political Science contributor David K. Nichols also thought that many readers missed the point of the book. "The biggest mistake that reviewers make is their failure to appreciate both the political and intellectual weight of Ravelstein," Nichols wrote. "It is a book about ideas, and it is also a very political book."
Bellow's novel is narrated by Chick, Ravelstein's close friend. Ravelstein repeatedly asks Chick to write his biography and Chick promises to one day do so. "Chick realizes a memoir won't be an easy task," commented Stephen Goode in Insight on the News, in part because Chick doesn't understand the genius Ravelstein's theories, and to the extent that he does understand them, he doesn't necessarily agree with them. But when Chick gets suddenly ill while on vacation, he remembers his promise to his friend and also remembers his courage in the face of debilitating, life-threatening illness. He writes Ravelstein's story, but it turns out as more of a memoir of their friendship and of Chick's own life than as a biography of Ravelstein. The story "does not progress in a linear fashion," Curt Leviant wrote in Midstream; "rather it shifts and curves and folds around itself, following the forward and rearward thrusts of memory."
Critics responded enthusiastically to Ravelstein. David W. Henderson in Library Journal called the book "at once witty, erudite, and compassionate." A Kirkus Reviews critic described the work as the "work of a master, who has lost none of his unique ability to entertain, enthrall, and enlighten." Goode concluded that Ravelstein "isn't Bellow working with all stops pulled out. But it is a poignant, beautifully wrought book that says a lot about the mysteries of genuine friendship and what others can mean to us."
Although he has always been better known for his fictional explorations of contemporary life, Bellow has also confronted social issues through essays published in various periodicals and through lectures. Many of these are reprinted in Bellow's first collection of nonfiction writing, It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future. "Here, in these nonfiction writings," Mark Harris noted in Chicago's Tribune Books, "Bellow draws upon those powers of observation basic to his fiction: his minutely detailed descriptions of people and places and striking conclusions about wonders of the world he has seen in many places." Spectator contributor Tom Shone also observed a kinship between these essays and Bellow's fiction: "Like his novels, Saul Bellow's journalism throngs with memorable grotesques."
New York Times Book Review contributor Peter S. Prescott found that "the best entries in It All Adds Up are autobiographical—sharp vignettes of the author at a certain time and in a specific place—or memories of friends and colleagues like John Berryman, John Cheever and Isaac Rosenfeld." Mordecai Richler offered a similar view in the National Review, writing that "a couple of the most enjoyable pieces in It All Adds Up are memoirs of Chicago. His prodigious gifts as a novelist beyond dispute, Mr. Bellow turns out to be a first-rate reporter as well." Christian Science Monitor reviewer Merle Rubin also observed that "some of Bellow's pronouncements betray a sort of dismissive irritability toward the claims of feminists, homosexuals, and multiculturalists." Yet, as Richler concluded, It All Adds Up can be read as a "thoughtful, provocative, and only occasionally querulous addendum to the work of a novelist who has given us more aesthetic bliss than most."
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