SAUL BELLOW The Tolstoy of the Zulus
[E-mail] Article publié le 13 juillet 2005.
Saul Bellow, who died in April two months shy of 90, was the last of the dominant American novelists. Like Faulkner and, in the popular imagination, Hemingway through the first half of the 20th century, Bellow during most of the second half was the preeminent figure in U.S. literature. With the decline of the novel as a cultural force in the face of so many other forms of popular entertainment and storytelling, and the vast diversification of the literary landscape-the sheer number and variety of writers publishing books-the kind of artistic prestige that Bellow enjoyed is probably obsolete. Even such big guns as Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike will never be accorded the intellectual glamour and widespread respect earned by Bellow in his prime. This is partly due to changes in the culture, and partly to Bellow’s genius as the greater writer.
How did a Canada-born, multilingual, culturally conservative Europhile like Saul Bellow turn out to be the most powerfully original American writer of his time ? Surely all of these seemingly nonindigenous aspects of his character-to say nothing of his deeply Jewish identity-contributed in a big way to the author’s vision and voice. Often denounced in his later years by multiculturalists for his Eurocentric conservatism, Bellow himself was a walking, talking, thinking and writing embodiment of a multicultural sensibility. As a boy in Quebec (his family moved to Chicago when he was 9) Bellow remembered hearing and speaking so many different languages-Yiddish, French, Russian, English, Polish and Hebrew for starters-that he didn’t realize they were indeed different. In his creative maturity his style was inflected with all these elements, and combined with what he picked up on the streets of Chicago (and later New York), synthesized into a uniquely American idiom.
It was of course in The Adventures of Augie March (1953) that Bellow broke out this richly polyglot yet native idiom, cutting loose with a freewheeling lyrical narrative that is to the American novel what, a century earlier, “Song of Myself” was to American poetry-a declaration not just of independence from previous literary models but of the delicious autonomy of the individual, a part of yet apart from everything and everyone he encounters. While these themes were not unprecedented in U.S. fiction, Bellow had, like Whitman, dared to invent a new American language. Four years ahead of Kerouac’s On the Road with its jazzy riffs and wild embrace of existential freedom, Bellow’s Augie brought to its readers a phenomenal range of experience explored with a linguistically extravagant, zesty gusto seldom encountered before or since in our literature. It’s a fairly shapeless book-the opposite of its author’s first two tightly written, claustrophobic, gloomy novels, Dangling Man and The Victim-rambling in all directions for 536 pages as it records the narrator/protagonist’s unresolved pursuit of a worthwhile destiny-or as he puts it, “the refusal to lead a disappointed life”-and Augie himself, in his resistance to containment, is one of the book’s most ill-defined characters. But the charged intensity and philosophical vigor of his rambunctious story prefigures the descriptive and intellectual power of Bellow’s best novels to follow.
The small masterpiece Seize the Day (1956), another dark little “victim” tale, came next, as if to prove the author could rein in his raving muses, but if Augie March was his initial major creative statement, the heart and soul of Bellow’s work are in the big novels of his middle period : Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) and Humboldt’s Gift (1975). In each of these very different books the author’s voice booms forth full-force and his protagonists-like Augie reflecting different facets of their creator but more fully realized as distinct individuals-come to embody the comedy, angst, intellectual preoccupations, philosophical questionings, revulsion with contemporary trends, ironic romanticism, and search for wisdom and transcendence that drive his narratives. The conventional notion of plot is incidental or beside the point entirely ; Bellow’s novels are thought driven : the story unfolds largely in the main character’s mind as he struggles to negotiate the treacherous terrain of modern, mostly urban reality, a reality informed not only by the protagonist’s acute sensory perception and the remarkable range of characters he encounters-each with his or her own angle on the game of life-but by the vast range of his reading. In the rolling sea-swells of Bellovian consciousness books are bits of flotsam, something that may help keep one afloat and even save his life, but never quite sufficient to carry him safely to a peaceful port. This tension between a reverence for the major works of the Western tradition and an awareness of their limits in helping to solve the problems of living creates the ironic crosscurrents that give the author’s enormous learning its playful quality ; they keep it light even as he grapples with the heaviest questions-in short, as Eugene Henderson puts it : “What’s the best way to live ?”
Henderson, an American millionaire with a major midlife crisis-an insatiable desire for something he can’t quite identify-takes off for Africa in search of his soul and finds a series of improbable adventures that culminate in a wrestling match and philosophical apprenticeship with an African tribal king, a dignified primitive or “noble savage,” who is in turn a comic variation on an American archetype ranging from Fenimore Cooper through Twain to Hemingway. I think it was the critic Leslie Fiedler who noted the resemblance between the names Eugene Henderson and Ernest Hemingway and read Henderson the Rain King, at least in part, as a satirical take on Papa’s macho African expeditions and a shot across the old man’s bow announcing the arrival of a new contender for the crown of Fiction King.
At some point in his touchingly absurd journey Henderson has the revelation that “all travel is mental travel,” and it is this principle that propels the inner wanderings of the protagonists of most of Bellow’s subsequent novels, starting with his first great popular success, Herzog. His most nakedly personal and autobiographical narrative, and in my opinion his most perfectly realized work, this is the book that made the name of its author a household word and made him a wealthy man : it was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for more than seven months-an astonishing fact when one considers that this was an extremely cerebral performance, packed with highbrow references and manic philosophical associations, a novel whose title character is a professor of intellectual history who is having a nervous breakdown while his wife is having an affair with his best friend. Moses Herzog’s method of coping with his crisis is to fire off scores of letters in all directions, to friends, public figures, historical personages and obscure thinkers, exploring maddening conundrums of all kinds, from the erotic to the transcendental.
Herzog’s dizzying erudition-the protagonist is plagued by, among other things, the weight of his unfinishable manuscript on Romanticism and Christianity, with all the oppressive historical and spiritual baggage its title implies-is shot through with vital anguish, big ideas, funky everyday annoyances, emotional confusion, inner reflection and outward observation in equally agitated measures. The author uses his extraordinary familiarity with the works of the great thinkers and writers of Western culture to throw into relief how useless this information is in relieving Herzog of his personal misery. Yet the thinking that drives the narrative-the whole book can be read as an extravagantly digressive internal monologue-is both over the heads of most of its readers and anchored in earthy sensory perception in a way that is totally engaging, captivating, exhilarating.
How could a book of such heady intellectual content become such a phenomenal popular success ? I think that Bellow caught in Herzog the gathering torment of the decade not yet known as “the sixties”-not the clash of generations so much as the increasing burden and speed of information and the impossibility of making sense of it all. Like Joyce in Ulysses with his stream-of-consciousness technique, Bellow recorded what felt more like a sea of consciousness, shapeless and stormy and vast and lonesome for the individual lost on its heaving waters, and faithfully reflected the chaotic feeling of an overstimulated mind tossed among its uncontrollable thoughts. Even well-adjusted people of normal intelligence could relate to what Bellow was revealing about a neurotic intellectual in acute psychic crisis ; Herzog spoke in an intimate way that resonated with their deepest, most private experience, and readers responded with gratitude, recognizing in the author a kindred soul.
Neither seduced by commercial success nor distracted by critical acclaim (in addition to its huge sales, Herzog, like Augie March a decade earlier, won a National Book Award), Bellow maintained his singular independence and artistic integrity, dismaying many of his liberal admirers with his next book, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (which made him the only three-time winner of the NBA). It was here that Bellow explicitly engaged the 1960s and the social and cultural conflict of those tumultuous years, using one of his most vividly imagined creations, Artur Sammler, a 70-plus-year-old Anglophilic Polish Holocaust survivor living in New York City, as the sensibility through which to witness the turbulence of the moment. Sammler was the novel that earned Bellow his reputation as a reactionary and a racist for its sour view of the counterculture, its stereotyping of black criminality and more general “sexual niggerhood,” and its rejection of conventional wisdom about the dawn of a new age.
Oddly, in Sammler there is no mention of the war in Vietnam, which Bellow did not publicly oppose. But his vehement denunciation (via Sammler) of the sexual revolution is remarkable not least for what it doesn’t say about the author’s own well-documented promiscuity. In his excellent Bellow : A Biography, James Atlas reports on his subject’s countless liaisons during and between his five marriages, compulsively cheating not only on his wives but on his girlfriends too. But Bellow’s personal libertinism was not a public movement and therefore presumably more acceptably unique than the uncorked eroticism of Sammler’s sex-plagued world. (Bellow’s misogyny, evident throughout his novels with their bitchy wives and greedy ex-wives and man-eating mistresses, is an interesting topic for another essay.)
While most of his contemporary artists and intellectuals were protesting against the war, rallying for civil rights, supporting sexual freedom and the dawning women’s movement, and generally welcoming the convulsive changes of the period, Bellow, by way of Sammler, was irritably observing their barbaric, decadent, uncivilizing disturbances. The protagonist’s recurrent worry-that things are getting so out of hand on earth that escaping to the moon might be the only option-is brought home to him in countless ways by the eccentric people, most of them members of his own extended transplanted family, who surround him.
I confess that when I first read Sammler soon after publication it struck me as an incredibly cranky lament by a writer I had loved enough up to that point to have written my senior project on him just a couple of years before. Why was my hero condemning the bearded, long-haired, drug-crazed, peace-loving, love-spreading, groovy likes of me ? Reading it again more recently I recognized not only the brilliance of Bellow’s descriptions and characterizations-his sensory sharpness and psychological insight-but the invigorating quality of his thought and the courage it took for him to come out with a book and a vision so thoroughly at odds with the prevailing assumptions of the time.
Sammler is indeed a cranky alter kocker but his critique of the excesses and idiocies taken for enlightened thinking in the late 1960s is bracing, even today. Through dark ironic humor, perceptual clarity, explicit complaint and the fascinatingly digressive inner monologue of his central character Bellow presents and defends an Old World detachment, dignity and stoicism besieged by the anarchy of what felt at the time like a revolution. To take a stand against such dramatic-and for some, welcome and exciting-change when it seemed inevitable showed the author as the radical nonconformist he was and remained throughout his career, refusing to align himself for long with any school of political thought, fiercely protecting his independence, whatever the consequences.
The book that won Bellow a Pulitzer and put him over the top for the Nobel Prize in the Bicentennial year of 1976 was Humboldt’s Gift, the author’s homage to his friend the poet Delmore Schwartz, a drug-addicted alcoholic genius who died, broke and demented, at 53. Humboldt, like the later More Die of Heartbreak and Ravelstein, and like a long line of other American novels, is a tale of male friendship, but more than that it is a “great poem of death” as Whitman called for, an argument against mortality, a resurrection in irrepressible prose of a lost unique human being. It’s a rich portrait of an archetype, the cursed or tragic artist consumed by the fires raging in his soul and destroyed by a society indifferent to his art. It’s also very funny, like most of Bellow’s best work.
While the Nobel may have marked his peak both as a creator and as a dominating figure of our literature, Bellow never rested on his laurels. In The Dean’s December (1982) and More Die of Heartbreak (1987) he carries on his arguments with contemporary culture, but by now the narrative voice, though still energetic, begins to sound a little more, not just at odds but out of sync with the times, hard as it tries to engage itself. The author’s reflections feel somehow reheated, resentful of their own irrelevance, irritable, quarreling with a world that doesn’t really care what he thinks. You can sense the desperation of a major intellectual force beginning to sense that its time has past. It’s still an interesting mind, but no longer quite so revelatory or original as it was.
Yet his last published novel, Ravelstein (2000), is fully alive with Bellow’s souped-up sensibility, even at 85, smelling and noticing and complaining, thinking and questioning, settling scores, rescuing dead friends-in this case neoconservative scholar and author Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind)-riffing on all things considerable and never just going through the motions.
Bellow’s alliance with Bloom in the culture wars was epitomized by an infamous remark he made to an interviewer in the late 1980s when he was asked about multiculturalism and his preference for the dead white men of Europe as his literary heroes. Surely with the mischievous intent of provoking the politically correct, Bellow asked jokingly, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus ? The Proust of the Papuans ? I’d be glad to read him.” (This from an ex-anthropology major who’d once edited a magazine called Noble Savage.) If Americans, in Bellow’s Sammleresque view, have regressed into ignoble savagery, permitting their culture to decline into a Babel of absolute relativity ; if whatever’s hip is the new orthodoxy and deconstruction the prevailing trend of intellectual analysis ; if values are up for grabs and the old white guys are being boiled alive in postmodern mumbo-jumbo, maybe Saul Bellow himself had become the Tolstoy of our Zuluized zeitgeist, reaching back to his ancestors’ Russia for the moral courage and epic inspiration to ask tough questions in books that refuse to settle into a complacent classicism.
For Bellow, even in his final years, was incorrigibly contemporary. Every one of his books is an inquiry into the vexations and contradictions of its historical moment. Refusing to fade away or sink into superannuity, he maintained his lifelong commitment and fidelity to what Whitman, even in the bitter disillusionment of his Democratic Vistas, called “the prophetic vision, the joy of being tossed in the brave turmoil of these times.” My guess is that Bellow’s time will come back around.
Kessler is the editor of The Redwood Coast Review
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