Robin Yassin-Kassab

Why I Love Saul Bellow

with 6 comments

Written five years ago, on the wonderful, appalling Bellow.

saul bellow - Fay Godwin Archive at the British LibraryThere are many reasons for loving Saul Bellow’s work, and some reasons not to. I was first directed to Bellow by a friend of mine who is Jewish, the English-speaking grandchild of Russian immigrants, and interested in his heritage. He therefore has one easy point of access to Bellow, whose protagonists are usually first or second generation Jewish immigrants, which I do not. My friend suggested I read “Ravelstein.” Because I trust his literary judgment, I dutifully struggled through. Not a lot happens in this slim volume, but a lot of details, a lot of memories, are accumulated around the eponymous professor, an opinionated neo-conservative flaunting his newly acquired wealth in Paris. There are many references to expensive brand names and other status symbols. Ravelstein receives updates on the 1991 Gulf War from a previous student who is now important at the Pentagon. (I later discovered that Ravelstein is a fictionalized Allen Bloom, one of  Mrs Thatcher’s favourite thinkers, and his pentagon protégé is based on Paul Wolfowitz). None of this endeared the character to me. I get emotional about neo-conservatives. I spit when I hear Wolfowitz’s name. Although there is a great deal of irony – and serious comment on social mobility – in the treatment of these arriviste Jews (the transformation of the Turnbull and Asser clothing label into Kisser and Asser is only the most obvious of the gags), all the luxury in the novel irritated me.

Still, when I finally finished reading what I now recognized to be a lament, I was strangely moved. This was enough to make me battle on, through “Herzog” and “Seize the Day,” despite all the difficulties. For Bellow is not easy to read. If your attention wanders for even a moment you are forced to reread. Otherwise you are lost. And if you are not an expert on Heidegger or Spinoza, for example, Bellow can make you feel very uneducated, very inadequate.

What else? Bellow is a Zionist. His non-fiction book “To Jerusalem and Back” is a nasty piece of work. Part of a generation of Jews who struggled for recognition in American literature and academia, he seemed to resent other ethnic minorities who attempted to follow. All that is wrong in sixties America is symbolised in “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” by – believe it or not – a black man’s penis aggressively displayed. Progressive it isn’t. But still. But still.

It wasn’t until I reached “Henderson the Rain King” that something clicked and I began to love Bellow. Then I understood his writing to be metaphysical in the same way that Donne’s poetry is metaphysical: using witty conceits to represent the world and the soul with all the vocabulary and thought made available by the age, from biology, economics, and politics to philosophy and literature. And like Shakespeare, Bellow encompasses the highest and lowest culture, plays to all the seats in the theatre, represents all classes on the world stage. So one of Ijah Brodsky’s cousins (“Cousins”) is a gangster, another is a (cab-driving) philosopher and natural scientist. Ijah himself remembers reading Aristotle on Chicago’s elevated train track, passing over the slums. Augie March, too, keeps alive by shoplifting philosophical tomes.

Perhaps “Henderson” was my way in because, like “Augie March,” it is more conventionally plotted than most of the work. Both novels are, in the main, chronologically ordered. Both are organised around journeys (in Africa/ through jobs and relationships) and both, because they are philosophical or spiritual journeys, can be properly described as peripatetic.

Elsewhere, however, Bellow’s plots are seldom linear. They are more often a series of lateral jumps, or have a Russian doll structure, revealing story within story and memory within memory. We approach the essence of Bellow when we realize that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum, “Character is plot,” is better applied to Bellow than it is to Fitzgerald’s own stories.

Character is built first by skillful application of detail. Here is an example from “Cousins,” when a simple movement becomes suggestive of an attitude: “She sat straighter, rejecting the back of the chair.”

Then there are similes which attain to surrealism, as in this sentence from “What Kind of Day Did You Have” – “The clever, lucky old Berlin Jew, whose head was like a round sourdough loaf, all uneven and dusted with flour, had asked the right questions.”

In the same story there is this description of Victor Wulpy, which again forces the reader to do some intense mental work: “His colour was hectic.”

The metaphorical force with which Bellow treats human beings is also in evidence when he characterises cities or natural phenomena: “Katrina didn’t like the look of the sky – a kind of colic in the clouds, and snow gusts spitting and twisting on the fields of concrete.” The anthropomorphism of giving the clouds colic completely recasts the conventional description of snow flurries ‘spitting and twisting:’ now they spit and twist as a person does when tortured by indigestion. Thus does Bellow shatter clichés, of letter and spirit.

There is frequently a Dickensian correlation between physique and character. The word ‘type’ crops up often in character descriptions. This approach to character is most clearly articulated in Chief Dahfu’s theories of physiognomy in “Henderson,” theories that we suspect are, to some extent, the writer’s own. Bellow’s narrators and protagonists are usually large, physically imposing men, their bodies acting as symbols of their energetic inner lives. Henderson is brutal and physical. His story delineates his passage from pig to lion to human (here is one of Bellow’s best jokes: Henderson is one of Bellow’s few non-Jewish characters, but is nevertheless defined by his contempt for Jews. The logic of the novel states that long proximity to a particular animal will imprint a human being with the personality of that animal, and Henderson decides, when asked by a fellow soldier what he will do after the war, to become a pig farmer only because the soldier is a Jew, and Henderson wishes to insult him).

Another overweening egotist, Gersbach, Moses Herzog’s former best friend and his wife’s lover, is large, ruddy, and has a wooden leg. The domineering intellectual Victor Wulpy (“What Kind of Day Did you Have?”) is towering and unbalanced, with an immobile knee. These physical peculiarities point to inner failings as surely as Rosa Dartle’s inflamed scar in “David Copperfield.” The hero (perhaps the only character in Bellow’s novels who can be called a hero) of “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” is another tall figure, whose blind eye is a constant reminder of his terrible European past (the Holocaust) and an indicator of his current emotional blindness, shocked as he is by the urban jungle of 60s New York. Mr. Sammler’s development to engage more humanly with a world he first experiences as brutal and animalistic governs the meager plot of this novel.

The tone of Bellow’s characters is also determined by fixed or obsessional intellectual references. Charlie Citrine’s repeated musings on Steiner’s theosophy (“Humboldt’s Gift”) is as specific to his personality as one of Sterne’s ‘hobby horses’ is to his people. A variation on this method is giving a character a particular mental habit which kicks in in response to pressure. So Herzog, most comically and most tragically, writes his letters to dead thinkers, and Hattie in “Leaving the Yellow House” berates herself for putting things off, and then postpones action once again.

This is from “Cousins:”

“People nowadays don’t trust you if you don’t show them your trivial humanity – Leopold Bloom in the outhouse, his rising stink, his wife’s goat udders, or whatever. The chosen standards for common humanity have moved towards this lower range of facts.”

Bellow’s characters are undermined by their physicality, by sex, age, disability, clumsiness, mental instability, as well as by lower passions such as racism or misogyny, but they have their angelic aspects too. Although they are confined by their bodies, and by the social body, it is their raging inner life that defines them most clearly. Bellow’s technique is a restrained stream-of-consciousness. Here he leaves Dickens far behind in the 19th century, and is more relaxed and less showy than Joyce.

This determines the treatment of time in Bellow’s writing. Time doesn’t follow the clock, but rather the logic of narratorial consciousness. As Wrangel says in “What Kind of Day Did You Have?”: “The psyche has a different calendar.”

The novels and stories are framed by memory, the psyche’s calendar. The reader reaches the present moment at the end of “Augie March,” with a remembering Augie in late middle age trying and (mainly) failing to abstract sense from his memoirs. Ravelstein is a memoir of a life and a death. Humboldt’s Gift is to a large extent a puzzled remembering and reevaluation of the success and decline of the poet Humboldt. A remembered episode in “Mosby’s Memoirs” serves to condemn Mosby’s meanness of spirit. The beautiful story “A Silver Dish” hinges around the protagonist’s memory of two moments when he was physically close to his father, once to wrestle, once to hold the old man as he died. “Zetland: By a Character Witness” opens with the very characteristic line: “Yes, I knew the guy.”

Bellow’s work is sometimes called ‘life-affirming.’ This is certainly not true in any sunny, Californian sense. There isn’t much positive thinking in his writing. But he does affirm the soul, in his focus on character (plot, culture and time are all viewed through the prism of character), and in his quasi-mystical view of an observing centre of consciousness in human beings. Including in himself, the writer.  In a 1966 interview in The Paris Review Bellow talks of recording the “impressions arising from a source of which we know little… a primitive prompter or commentator within… that observing instrument in us.”

And he deals with the biggest themes, such as belief, and the unknown, and death. Here Mr. Sammler reflects on the latter:

“Then we watch these living speed like birds over the surface of a water, and one will dive or plunge but not come up again and never be seen any more. And in our turn we will never be seen again, once gone through that surface. But then we have no proof that there is no depth under the surface. We cannot even say that out knowledge of death is shallow. There is no knowledge.”

And here, in “A Silver Dish”, again with metaphorical accuracy, and most movingly, the death of Woody’s mother and of his other relatives is described:

“And behind her all the others, like kids at the playground, were waiting their turn to go down the slide: one on each step, and moving towards the top.”

Bellow deals with the minutiae of life and through it with the experience of being alive. With the soul, the spirit. In this respect he is what we lack in this time, a serious religious writer.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 30, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Posted in Culture

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6 Responses

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  1. No. No. No. I hate Bellow. Metaphysical or not, he belongs to that certain group of male US writers that just navel-gazed (well, actually, they were gazing a few inches below the navel) and navel-gazed, and some of whom were appallingly misyogynist and racist. The only one of that group I can stand in very very very very small doses is Roth. And thank god, he has pretty much repeated himself to such an extent (at least after American Pastoral) that one doesn’t feel like one needs to read any of his new stuff!


    October 24, 2009 at 11:00 pm

  2. It’s the writing, Laleh. It’s just so damn good. I said he was a Zionist, and for me it doesnt get much worse. Also a racist, certainly, and perhaps misogynistic too. But I love the writing. If Ariel Sharon had written his books, I’d still love them. A lot of it comes down to, quite simply, sentence rhythm.

    I cant judge writing by ‘content’. For instance, I like Dostoyevsky, but the man was a lunatic. His ‘message’ was that all Russia should be obedient to absolute monarchy and the Orthodox church. A loon! But the writing is great.

    I’ve just reread Henderson the Rain King. It is so very good. I may write another, more up-to-date piece on why I love Bellow.


    October 25, 2009 at 1:51 pm

  3. […] prose, which leaves British writing of the last century far behind. I am astounded by Faulkner, Bellow, Updike and Roth (when they’re good), Cheever, Scott Fitzgerald, and now Joshua Ferris. Formulaic […]

    • Nice write-up. I like Bellow too, It is rare to find someone of (I am supposing) Muslim antecedents who can see over the mound of (as good as) inherited prejudice that poisons the joy so many might get from reading this guy.

      Tom Allen

      October 19, 2015 at 2:51 pm

  4. Great blog, thanks for sharing.


    February 23, 2010 at 10:21 am

  5. Bellow is the worst novelist of the twentieth century. I can’t believe that people would read a guy who picked up Letters of Strindberg to Harriet Bosse and said to himself, “This is great stuff; let’s turn it into a novel.”

    Pullman Daniels

    July 22, 2010 at 9:47 pm

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