On Tuesday, April 5, Saul Bellow died in his home in Brookline, Mass., at the age of 89. (Read Slate’s obit here.) Bellow was the Nobel Prize-winning author of, among other novels, The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift, and, most recently, Ravelstein. He is known for having captured the vitality of the American street and the hybrid energies of the immigrant experience in America; he did so in prose of inimitable density and power. His influence on American fiction is nearly as refractive and boisterous as his prose. To capture a sense of just how extensively Bellow has affected contemporary fiction, Slate invited a number of writers and critics to offer a few thoughts on the nature of his influence, or to single out a book for comment.
—Meghan O’Rourke, Slate culture editor
In Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie Citrine is about to be pumped for gossip by the columnist Mike Schneiderman. “In the right context, I was good copy,” thinks Citrine. “People in Chicago are impressed with the fact that I am taken seriously elsewhere.” And of course Saul Bellow is Charlie Citrine. But he is also every other male character in the book, including Ronald (“Rinaldo”) Cantabile, who only a page later is asking Citrine, “What the fuck is the matter with you?” Bellow could do every tone of the American voice, and somewhere underneath his range of mimicry he had the basic tone, the deep rhythm of the American demotic that could bring even his most directly expository prose to poetic life. At the Playboy Club, Rinaldo, a member, “walked away from his supercar, the Bechstein of automobiles.” No wonder Martin Amis admired Bellow. In any part of the world that the voice of America could reach, for any writer who wanted to get the uncontrollable abundance of the moronic inferno under the control of a shaped sentence, Bellow was the Man. He was taken seriously elsewhere.
Humboldt’s Gift is my favorite Bellow novel at the moment only because it was the first one I picked up after the news of his death came through. At one time or another I have been enthralled by every book he wrote, but I have always tried to forget each one as soon as possible, because he makes me think that he has used up the world, with nothing left over for the rest of us. Philip Roth, strangely enough, doesn’t have that effect. He opens the world up: Reading Portnoy’s Complaint made me want to go on being a writer. Herzog made me wonder if it wasn’t too late to become an accountant. So really I didn’t even like Bellow’s work, let alone love it. I was flattened by it. Arguing about him with Martin Amis, I always asked, “What about the wives?” I was trying to take comfort from the only theme Bellow skimped. Martin answered me with a glance that said, “What the fuck is the matter with you?” One of the marks of a great writer is that he is always present when other writers talk shop. Bellow was always there, and always will be, until the age of American cultural imperialism is over. It wasn’t just that he was that good. He was that powerful.
I met Bellow in Partisan Review circles early in his career. We were all aware of his great worth—a feeling he seemed to share in a suitable way. I also remember about town a number of young women who, when introduced, would say: Hello, I’m Saul Bellow’s girlfriend. Thus, the brilliance of Dangling Man made its mark.
I’ve never been able to make it all the way through The Adventures of Augie March, but I’ve read those totemic first pages over and over and over, and loved them every time. Bellow’s often credited with bringing the big intellectual ideas of modernity into the great barbaric yawp of American letters, but I think he should also be seen as a great American humorist, who saw that ideas were funny, and made them funny in an American way. He indulged in big-think but he was never a snob. And somehow he recognized that the immigrant experience is, in this land of hybrids, a native experience. To be a first-generation American was not, for Bellow, about coming from some old country so much as it was about embodying and exuding the essence of the new country. He was, consciously, and in every sense, an original. Still, while he’s thought of as a writer who’s always thrusting himself and his characters out into the world with huge appetite, I love best his two novels about men who are largely confined to single rooms—his first book, Dangling Man, and, much later, Seize the Day. In Dangling Man, you get immediately the same sense of vernacular agility that came to be the hallmark of Bellow’s voice, and yet what’s most amazing is to see this writer from the Jewish-immigrant streets of Chicago writing, in 1944, a novel that makes existentialism totally American—at pretty much the same moment that the French thought they were inventing it. Saul Bellow understood totally how the little guy can be tragic and also how much cosmic comedy always hovers around that tragedy.
The night I learned of Saul Bellow’s death, I hurried to my “Bellow Cabinet,” where I kept the papers, manuscripts, letters, drafts of discarded novels, transcripts of interviews—the biographical detritus left in the wake of my decade-long labor on his life. I wanted to find the journals I kept to record this strange and exciting literary odyssey. The page that follows recounts his response to the publication in The New Yorker of a selection from those journals—an act of folly committed at the instigation of Bill Buford, the magazine’s fiction editor, who had discovered them interleaved with the manuscript when he was excerpting it for Granta:
August 14, 1995After two weeks of agonizing, I pick up the phone to call Bellow—it is two months since my journals came out, and I have resisted every impulse to find out what he thought of them. But I’ve also known that I had to make the call; it was the only honorable course—if I hadn’t, it would have been some tacit acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Since I don’t feel I did wrong, the call must be made. (Also, maybe I miss seeing him; this possibility, too, must be considered). He answers the phone; sounding strong: “Hello, Mr. Bellow. This is Jim Atlas.”Bellow (not friendly, not hostile, not surprised): “Hello, Mr. Bellow.” (Note this amazing Freudian slip.)Slightly nervous: “Well, I’m in Vermont, and I thought I would give you a call, see how you’re doing, and whether I might come and see you.”“I’ve had health problems.”I break in: “Yes, I know, but people who’ve seen you at Marlboro [a woman who was here for dinner the other night mentioned seeing him at the afternoon concerts] say you look well.”B: “I may look well, but it’s like a jukebox: all aglow on the outside, but full of complicated machinery on the inside. Also, I’m trying to finish a book, and I’ve had heavy teaching responsibilities at B.U. So I really don’t see where I would have the time.”Me, chastened. “As you wish.”B, rather sharply: “It’s not as I wish, it’s the way I am.” (Meaning, perhaps, “I’m not doing this to punish you; it’s how things are.” And even: “And you made it this way.” But that’s pure speculation.)”I’ll tell you a story,” says Bellow. “A wise man is asked the difference between ignorance and indifference. He answers, I don’t know and I don’t care.”I laugh, and say, referring deliberately to my recent literary transgression: “I’ll write that down and think about it.””You do that.”I say, “I wish you well, and have a good summer.”Hanging up, I feel shaken: I really did it this time. He’s not going to see me. But of course he has no reason to see me; and I don’t really need to see him. That part of our relationship is over. There will be no reconciliation: you can’t push things as far as I did and still have the dad’s love. But as Anna says when I relate all this: “You’re growing up.” And why not? I am 46. B wasn’t as hostile as he could have been—as hostile as he was to Mark Harris in their phone calls post-Drumlin Woodchuck, which I’ve listened to on tape—and he didn’t entirely close the door on me. In fact, I think he’s doing the right thing not to see me: I’ve declared my independence, he should declare his. He doesn’t need me. A useful and pithy expression from my long-ago past surfaces involuntarily: Oi.
The next summer I was rehabilitated, and the show went on for another five years. We sat under the apple tree in his Vermont yard and went over his letter while squirrels scampered underfoot. What did he think of my biography? I don’t know and I don’t care, but I loved him all the same.
I discovered Saul Bellow in Humboldt’s Gift. Until then, I’d always known Bellow as somebody my parents read. My philosopher father, Lenn Goodman, kept his books on a shelf in his office. Among them was Mr. Sammler’s Planet, with a folded letter Bellow had sent in answer to some philosophical questions. There was also a paperback Adventures of Augie March that my father urged me to read in high school, but I confess I never got past the first few pages. Then, in college, I came upon a dog-eared copy of Humboldt’s Gift and couldn’t put the thing down. The book was so wild and wooly, so full of fun and contradictions. It was the great novel uncorseted and ripped up at the seams. My favorite fiction writers at the time (Austen, Eliot, James) were mostly English, feminine or effete, and here was this loud, masculine, American, cigar-chomping book. Here was intellect and raucous laughter, a wild ramble far beyond the formal gardens I’d been studying. I suppose I’d lost myself a bit in tea and crumpets until I got the call in Humboldt’s Gift—a great bellowing welcome to sit down at the bar.
I first met Saul Bellow some 20 years ago in Bucharest at a small official gathering at the Romanian Writers Union. Our socialist democracy needed a few Romanian Jewish writers to greet the famous American Jewish writer.
The gloom of the last decade of the communist dictatorship in Romania, acutely described by Bellow in The Dean’s December, quickly became apparent in the large, elegant official meeting room. An established Romanian publisher, who had published the Romanian translation of Humboldt’s Gift, rose with the joyous energy of a man half his age to resurrect the ancient topic: “Who is behind you, Mr. Bellow?”
The sunny lightness of the spring day was all at once overwhelmed by that “darkness at noon” which we all knew so well. Nobody in the audience had any difficulty grasping the implication of the not overly subtle question about this invisible but ubiquitous conspiracy of Romania’s chosen demons. And yet, our guest, with his skeptical, gentle smile and his elegant courtesy, appeared not to have noticed the interrogator’s aggression. “Who gave you the Big Prize, Mr. Bellow?” “Who is behind you, Saul Bellow?” the Romanian intellectual repeated.
Mr. Bellow maintained the smile and the courtesy and, in his own sweet time, told us two little stories about the personal consequences of winning the Nobel Prize.
The first was about a Chicago policeman who, for many years, had greeted Saul Bellow daily at the corner of his street and, unaware of the Nobel Prize Universal Literary Event that had taken place, offered the same simple, friendly, and conventional greeting that he always had. “Good morning.” “Good morning.”
The second incident pertained to a high-school friend of the writer’s, whom he hadn’t seen for decades. Unexpectedly bumping into him on a Chicago street—again after returning from Stockholm—Bellow was pleased to hear news from him about their schoolmates and hear about the friend himself. At last, the friend remembered to exhibit some curiosity of his own. “And you, Saul, what do you do for a living? How do you make a buck?”
A kind of belated answer to that question was given by Saul Bellow when I saw him, a year ago, at a family dinner in Vermont. Asked about his position on American culture, Saul answered, with his usual smile: “When I was young and I chose my way in life, I knew that society would be against me. However, I also knew that I would win. And that it would be a small victory.”
Right now, like the pope and other freshly departed, Saul Bellow is being eulogized with undiscriminating abandon. On the basis of his whole body of work, six decades’ worth, he richly deserves it. My own feelings about Bellow have always wavered between extreme ups and downs. But by the time I read Ravelstein in 2000 and reviewed his Collected Stories in 2002, they were soaring. Like any gifted storyteller, he knew how to furnish a good ending. His early books didn’t captivate me until long after I first read him. I didn’t know Jews like the ones he described and didn’t quite believe they existed. I was first excited by the zany portrait of the unhinged modern intellectual in Herzog. I could cite some of Herzog’s letters by heart. Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift were warm, generous books about beleaguered men, people suffering operatically, though they had brought some of their troubles on themselves. “Oh, these Jews—these Jews! Their feelings, their hearts!” So reflects the scientist, Dr. Braun, observing them coolly with a mixture of fascination and detachment. In all Bellow’s work I love most his family stories, including “The Old System,” “Cousins,” and “The Silver Dish,” and his fictional portraits of old friends like Harold Rosenberg, Allan Bloom, and Isaac Rosenfeld. In his old age Bellow became a poet of memory, enlisting death to probe the mystery of all human attachment.
But Bellow was complicated, hard to pin down. He sometimes betrayed a mean streak that could leave me in a rage. Mr. Sammler’s Planet, so evocative of New York in its hellish years, is written in a tone of lofty, cultured disdain—especially toward women, blacks, students—that does not simply pertain to the character of Sammler himself. On a more trivial note, I recently saw an essay in which Bellow compared critics to a deaf man tuning a piano. (I read it twice to make sure it didn’t simply say tone-deaf, a jibe that would have been more reasonably nasty.) Belittling critics is an authorial reflex, but Bellow had bite and I couldn’t resist taking this personally, as he took some things I wrote about him. Still, has any modern writer been more warmly welcomed by critics? But Bellow had many tricks up his sleeve. He wrote Seize the Day, a masterpiece about a man in a trap, struggling to breathe as his life closes in around him. The flood of tears at the end of this book, tears for humanity itself, gave us what may be the deepest moment in his work. And the villain of the story, a great creation in his own right, is a cold, unfeeling father not unlike the sainted Mr. Sammler.
For a long time Bellow was an embattled, occasionally political figure, drawn irresistibly to controversy. His position on the cultural scene did not mean much to British writers and critics. Instead, they took him for a master of sentences and images, an exemplar of creative license, putting his own spin on the tiniest turn of phrase. This view of him was narrow but refreshing for it sidetracked the fallible human being, who could turn resentful and bitter, and restored Bellow the writer, whose work, teeming with people and ideas, overflows with a self-renewing vitality.
Bellow was the first writer to speak not to my own experience, but to a largeness latent in my experience that I had not known was there until I began to read him. That is his power as a writer, to hit the top and the bottom of existence, what it is and what it can be, at the same time. His words, so particular, sensuous, and vivid, are also flecked with a general human knowledge that stretches toward eternity. You can glimpse the clear blue sky of larger possibilities through his very syllables. I write the qualifier “very” and one of Bellow’s phrases immediately comes to mind: “the very bushes might have been on welfare.” The association is strange, it doesn’t follow from anything, but it happens all the time–his language is always with me, and the vague echo of one of his constructions is enough to trigger my memory. That description, suspended between the rueful and the comical, is from Humboldt’s Gift, the first novel by Bellow I read, bought off a paperback rack in the department store where I—then seventeen—was working in the men’s section. In that single phrase, you go from the particular sensuous phenomenon of a bush to a general social experience—to an existential category, in fact. Bellow’s language is like the upward journey of a poor kid, from the concentrated, avid self out to the wider world. His characters, too, are both real fleshy earthbound people and outsized ideas about life. Augie March, Herzog, Humboldt are people and arguments.
Bellow once wrote that he enjoyed this epigram by the Victorian novelist Samuel Butler: “Life is like learning how to play the violin and having to give concerts at the same time.” Reading Bellow was, when I first encountered him, like developing an aspiration about how to live and fulfilling it at the same time. Before I grew a self, I even pretended that I was Bellow—or my conception of Bellow—loftily quoting Hegel and Sombart to puzzled women on dates. And then one day, when I stopped taking myself so seriously, I recognized that Bellow’s brainy heroes were also satires of abstract living. What I had thought was a heroic way to live was in fact the stuff of comedy, a spectacle of best-laid mental plans foiled by character and circumstance. It was a relief to see the humor in Bellow where I had once so grandiosely misconstrued his satire as spiritual instructions. It was even the beginning of a critique of him, a necessary exercise if I was to leave home, the second home I had made for myself in Bellow’s imagination.
I met Bellow once and told him that I loved him. I’m glad I have the memory of that or I would find his death unbearable. Even now, as I’m getting misty-eyed, another of his phrases floats into my consciousness: “The Russian-Jewish art of tears.” That he lived somewhere on earth consoled me for a long time. The planet feels lighter without him.
When Saul Bellow asked, rhetorically, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” he not only damaged his reputation among those readers who could not only mention a few, but he made a rhetorical error that showed his age, and the conservatism of age. For Bellow, Jewish-American authors like himself and Bernard Malamud were marginal, still; he could not imagine a world in which his experience was not at the heart of urban dissent. But with the emergence, in recent years, of such novelists as Edwidge Danticat and Zadie Smith (not to mention the continued ascendancy of V.S. Naipaul), Bellow revealed, in his casual and hateful remark, how little he knew of the world outside of his experience.
Do any of us escape whatever closed community we grow up in? And do famous writers ever grow past the stories they become well known for? He was not a novelist who challenged himself by continually looking to the world for stories about the world’s ever-changing landscape; rather, he wrote, again and again, about those symbols that italicized the peculiarities of his difference. (Remember the black man exposing himself on the subway in Mr. Sammler’s Planet? Blackness as “raw,” unfettered sexuality only made Mr. Sammler’s worried mind seem more fine.) Still, Bellow was a writer, and an important one, limited, in the end, by believing in this: that he and others like him were the center of a world that eventually passed them by.
Bellow for me was about scale, imagination and the transformation of the stuff of life into the stuff of fiction, the personal into the international/global—his was not just the stuff of literature but the stuff of social comment—a thinker, an intellectual and a brilliant craftsman, and an inspiration to any of us who dream of a long life as writers of fiction.
Herzog is my favorite book, by anyone, anywhere, anytime. It has been since I read it, when I was about 27. I’d been interested in Bellow long before that, having grown up near Chicago and having heard my father periodically mention his name or point out that Bellow, native son, had won yet another award. But I didn’t expect to like Bellow much, in part because there was something so somber about his name and face; he really did have a dour appearance, with his raincoats and hats and heavy-lidded eyes. When I finally read Bellow, Herzog first, I was shocked by how quickly I was hooked and stunned by how hard the book hit me. To this day it’s the only book I began again the minute I finished it. I still find it hard to explain why such a novel, essentially about a crisis of middle age, killed me when I was in my 20s, and I still can’t find anyone else my age who likes that book very much. I know it had a lot to do with the sentences—easily the most beautiful, most musical I’d yet read. But the main thing I found in Herzog, and continued to find in Bellow’s books (not all of them, but at least half), was the way he could remind you, in every paragraph, about virtually every level of existence—the physical, the emotional, the intellectual—while doing so with grace and constant humor; the way he threw a net around everything worthwhile in life and dumped his catch on every page. No one, outside perhaps Marquez, can describe everything—and so much sadness and pain!—in a way that makes you want to bleed and cry just to feel it the way he writes about it. But really, Bellow could write about anything with leaping, bounding passion—even things he’d never seen. Here’s a crazy thing: I’ve brought Henderson the Rain King to Africa with me three times, even though Bellow’s (hugely underappreciated) novel of Africa was written before he’d even visited the continent. How did he do that? Really, goddamnit, how did he do that? Henderson is, I think, his second-best book, though few agree. In it, his protagonist, Henderson—a lionlike man looking for answers in Africa—meets King Dahfu, a tribal chief with a Western education and with the same insatiable intellectual appetite as Henderson, and, more to the point, as Bellow. Bellow’s best characters—really almost all of his characters—have a bottomless curiosity about ideas, and they sponge philosophy, high-minded or crackpotted, from academics, from gangsters, from flower-shop owners, and from African chieftains. Though Henderson has contemplated suicide, he finds himself so damned interested in everything—his famous refrain is “I want! I want!”—that he finds it impossible to off himself. King Dahfu, like Bellow’s other fictional mentors (based on everyone from Allan Bloom to Delmore Schwartz), eventually reveals himself to be both brilliant and confused, dangerous and enlightened. And from and through Dahfu, Henderson gets a bit closer to some answers that will at least get him out of Africa and back home. When he’s still getting to know Dahfu, Henderson says this of the chief:
I might as well say at this place that he had a hunch about the lions; about the human mind; about the imagination, the intelligence, and the future of the human race. Because, you see, intelligence is free now (he said), and it can start anywhere or go anywhere. And it is possible that he lost his head, and that he was carried away by his ideas. This was because he was no mere dreamer but one of those dreamer-doers, a guy with a program. And when I say he lost his head, what I mean is not that his judgment abandoned him but that his enthusiasms and visions swept him far out.
Maybe it’s because he’s gone, but I find myself applying everything Bellow wrote to Bellow himself, especially this passage, late in the same book, when Dahfu is dead and Henderson finds himself overcome, much as anyone who was ennobled by Bellow’s prose might find him- or herself strangely overcome this week:
At one time, much earlier in this life of mine, suffering had a certain spice. Later on it started to lose this spice; it became merely dirty, and, as I told my son Edward in California, I couldn’t bear it anymore. Damn! I was tired of being such a monster of grief. But now, with the king’s death, it was no longer a topic and it had no spice at all. It was only terrible. Weeping and mourning I was put into the stone room by the old Bunam and his white-eyed assistant. Though the words came out broken, I repeated the one thing, ‘It’s wasted on dummies.’ (Life is.) ‘They give it to dummies and fools.’ (We are where other men ought to be.) But maybe time was invented so that misery might have an end. So that it shouldn’t last forever? There may be something in this. And bliss, just the opposite, is eternal? There is no time in bliss. All the clocks were thrown out of heaven.
I admit that, along with the usual admiration for his sentences, I have always been fascinated by the Saul Bellow woman. Feminists have long denounced his female characters as cartoons, all the more enraging because he was a writer capable of an uncommon, Nobel Prize-winning elaboration of character, and in some way they are cartoons, but one has to admire them nonetheless.
The Saul Bellow woman is infinitely generous, colorful, voluptuous, pliable, passionate, beautiful, full of appetite, slightly exotic, or actually foreign, with a great appreciation of the intellect, and a penchant for lingerie (there is also the manipulative, intelligent, malevolent ex-wife, but I won’t write about her here). It is a very great power Bellow attributes to simple feminine ways: a shrimp dinner well cooked, the ability to reassure, sexual warmth, a massage, and this is what is interesting. That men as brilliant and complicated as a Herzog, or a Charlie Citrine, would be soothed and succored by such small gestures of traditional and predictable femininity. It is true that Bellow’s Renatas and Ramonas do not necessarily feel like “fully realized characters,” but that is not the point of them. The Saul Bellow woman is, in some way, an outdated figure, a voluptuous figure of the past; she is not, certainly, fashionable now, not politically correct; but I believe she still lurks in the heart of the Herzogs that walk among us, and it would be a mistake to dismiss or underestimate her. Bellow tapped into something deep and persistent: what female warmth means to men, the tiny things that women do to save them; he showed how fragile and boyish and needy even the most arrogant, brilliant men are at core. In the elaboration of this fantasy of a woman lies one small portion of Bellow’s chatty, capacious genius.
Saul Bellow and I corresponded and talked a good deal over the telephone after he had read a book of my essays. We enjoyed a memorable evening with our ladies at a Chicago restaurant where he said the gangsters used to gather in the evenings, eat Italian food, and ponder the possibilities and dangers of their lives in the muck- and blood-spattered glitter of crime. He was, of course, quite witty and seemed at the same time above it all, but clearly maintained one foot on the ground. Bellow understood the energy and the irritations of modern life but seemed to have little nostalgia for the way it had been. He was too interested in the present, no matter how much it disappointed him. But then his vision of life was that it appeared to be an intersection of dreams, vivid experiences, and disappointments. He did not believe that one could think one’s way out of the circumstances of existence.
A few years ago, after a conversation at his home in Brookline, Mass., he was considering writing a novel based on what he had made of the young James Baldwin in Paris, the masterful and burdened Ralph Ellison in New York, and Harold Washington, who invited him to his office and talked about books with him while mayor of Chicago. Bellow had very pointed observations about each man and felt that, if he could figure out how to give it form, “That would really catch them off guard, wouldn’t it?” he laughed.
I don’t have a favorite book by Bellow—I really think of all of his work, taken together, as the big book of Bellow, something I can open up and read in when I want to remind myself what great writing can do, or if I have a particular need. The opening of Herzog, filled with the intensity of a troubled man thinking aloud and yet sustained by these oddly tranquil descriptions of nature, the stars, the shape a mouse leaves in a loaf of bread. The last paragraph of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a prayer addressed to God that ends with a kind of post-Holocaust affirmation of moral responsibility as enduring as the end of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy: “we know we know we know.” Or the earthy sublimity of his physical descriptions—the “blue-cheese mottling of old men’s ankles,” noted in the Russian baths in Humboldt’s Gift. Somewhere in his memoirs, Gorky said of Tolstoy something like, “While he was alive I never could feel an orphan in the world.” That’s what Bellow’s presence in the world was like, a kind of sheltering genius, because he was able to see the world and transmute it with accuracy and wonder—and the more accurate he was the more wonder you felt, so that mimesis took on an almost mystical aura which, dark as Bellow could be, seemed to suggest something hopeful about the universe, and elevated the role of the writer to the highest possible sphere.
One admired the books more than one enjoyed them—a required condition for Nobel laureateship? There was always something a bit oppressive about his magnitude. Among great writers he was the one you least cared to meet, which may itself be evidence of his greatness. One actually thinks of him in terms of what he wrote, not for anything he did.
He avoided the paradox that beset most American novelists of his era, who will be remembered more for their nonfiction than their novels: Mailer, Vidal, Baldwin, McCarthy, Didion; the list goes on. One sensed that he thought nonfiction (he wrote little of it) was beneath him. In this, too, I suppose, he was unusual—in continuing to harbor the idea that certain things are beneath one, that one can actually waste one’s intelligence and talents. Maybe it’s this severity, this standard-setting, that makes any writer feel a trace of relief at his passing.
Saul Bellow was the champion American novelist of the 20th century; he has no real competition. He was to prose what de Kooning was to paint: our first true master of dissonance, of the racket of life, the clang and rudeness of it, the gestures and gesticulations, the noise, that unimagined beauty. Then, too, Bellow was a prodigy of torque, of the kind of sentence (only Henry James seems to have been able to write them as regularly and at will) that twists in the middle and strikes back at you, so that you get to the end and say, “—What?—What was that?—What did he just say?” Thus, for example, the narrator of More Die of Heartbreak, on his uncle’s face:
The eye sockets resembled a figure eight lying on its side and this occasionally had the effect of turning you topsy-turvy and put strange thoughts into your head — like: This is the faculty of seeing; of seeing itself; what eyes actually are for. Or: the light pries these organs out of us creatures for purposes of its own.
Impossible to over-praise writing like that, or imitate it, or forget it.
My favorite work by Saul Bellow was actually his foreword to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which I read when I was in high school. I found it incredibly inspiring. Bellow wrote about wanting to decide for himself how his schooling would determine the course of his life, about how “the soul has to find and hold its ground against hostile forces.” These words traveled with me to college, where I took them out from time to time, when everyone seemed to be going one way and I wanted to go another. Bellow said up front that he didn’t necessarily write for his contemporaries, but for readers who had yet to materialize. In spite of this—or because of this—of course he was terribly popular. Why?
I keep coming back to this foreword, where Bellow openly confessed that he was “moved” by Bloom’s argument, and praised him for being “earnest.” Now, many people today see earnestness as a liability, but perhaps this was the secret of Bellow’s success. After all, even those who didn’t understand his books loved reading them. He once said in jest that he was “for all the good things and against all the bad ones,” but there was more to this than posturing. Behind all the humor was a man who clearly believed in certain things; although he could be devastating in defending his positions, he was never a smirker. I believe it was this earnestness that made Saul Bellow golden.
Saul Bellow wrote classic intellectual comedies. They are ornaments of a subculture now in serious decline—the milieu of FM classical music stations, foreign-language movie houses, hole-in-the-wall used book stores, the three-act play. A fascinatingly representative mind is reflected in Bellow’s novels. His trajectory (one of his earliest writings appeared in Retort, an anarchist ephemerid) went from left to right, through Trotskyism, Reichianism, Freudianism, anguished liberalism, to neocondom. Bellow’s rueful dramatizations of his elective affinities (and of his losing battles with the fair sex) will live. His books are brilliant, imposing, bracing, essentially cold, least convincing (to me) when they essay the lyrical or the sentimental.
What Saul Bellow achieved in his art he achieved without tricks: no magic realism, typographical jiggering, no inanimate objects as narrators. His expansive, detailed, widely allusive, radically traditional mode of attack is pure. For writers to aspire to its elegant force is one thing. Equaling it will be another.