He Was an American, Quebec-Born

Saul Bellow’s legacy.

The following lines from Saul Bellow’s Herzog(1964) appear on the epigraph page of Ian McEwan’s Saturday:

For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do …

One might raise an eyebrow at the number of verb-free sentences here, except that this is the staccato yet connected manner in which some serious people actually talk, and have always talked. In those few terse sentences one sees bodied forth the anguish of Mr. Sammler at the collapse of civility in New York, and the unease of Herzog himself, that great kvetch and writer of letters of complaint, and the distress of the dean in The Dean’s December as he contemplates the brutish modern hideousness that is assailing his beloved Chicago. 

There is a querulous, even slightly reactionary, tone to this passage. (Civilization is going down the tubes … what else is new?) But don’t miss the nostalgia for “the late failure of radical hopes,” or the concern about the military-industrial complex. Above all, don’t overlook that last sentence, which for me always evokes Auden’s 1 September 1939:

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man
Each language pours its own
Competitive excuse

Modern urban life, in other words, is worthwhile partly because it is risky. And it does represent civilization, hard won. The summa of Bellow’s long-maintained tension between optimism and pessimism, about America and about humanity, was certainly his masterpiece The Adventures of Augie March. It would be trite to say that it was this novel that earned him the Nobel laureateship, though it must have done. Much better to say that with this work he took American immigrants out of the ghetto and sent them blinking into the sunshine of the Mexican border, with many stops along the way. As Delmore Schwartz phrased it in an early review:

For the first time in fiction America’s social mobility has been transformed into a spiritual energy which is not doomed to flight, renunciation, exile, denunciation, the agonized hyper-intelligence of Henry James, or the hysterical cheering of Walter Whitman.

Bellow was born in Quebec and smuggled across the Great Lakes when he was an infant. His first language was Yiddish. It wasn’t until he tried to enlist in the U.S. armed forces in 1941 that he discovered he had been an illegal immigrant the whole time, and had to go back “home” to start applying all over again. (This insecurity is the subtext of Dangling Man and of the postwar TheVictim.) At a certain point, I am guessing, he realized that he could outperform those whose native tongue and literary tradition was English. This is a part of Augie March’s struggle to read the great books that he steals for others, and of his feeling that mankind has “a universal eligibility to be noble”: “What did Danton lose his head for, or why was there a Napoleon, if it wasn’t to make a nobility of us all?”

In early life Bellow was both on the “left” and at an angle to it, by way of a youthful Trotskyism and a membership in the Partisan Review crowd. As he became less idealistic in one way—satirizing his old PR pal Delmore Schwartz in Humboldt’s Gift and eventually honoring his newer friend Allan Bloom in Ravelstein—it was still nobility he searched for. Albert Corde in The Dean’s December may have to deal with the scum of Chicago, and his wife may have to suffer from the vulgar, fraudulent dictatorship of her native Romania, but she can still book time at a vast telescope and spend it gazing at the stars.

Bellow’s version of neoconservatism made him a few enemies. And there are hints, here and there, of anti-black paranoia in Mr. Sammler’s Planet and in some other characters and settings. His nonfiction book To Jerusalem and Back managed to visit the Holy Land and avoid meeting any non-Jews. But, despite the ethnic emphasis of much of his work, Bellow will always attract readers by the scope and universality and humor of his themes. He was not, in my opinion, what people glibly call “an elitist.” He was a deep humanist, with a proper contempt for—this is a great phrase from Humboldt’s Gift—”the mental rabble of the wised-up world.”

In a recent essay, one of our finer critics, Lee Siegel, asks what is it with Bellow and a number of non-American writers. Martin Amis had an almost father-son relationship with him (and it can’t be said that this was for lack of a literary parent). James Wood co-taught a class with him at Harvard. Ian McEwan’s most successful and daring novel, Saturday, pays homage to a Bellovian inspiration. (And the abrupt, nasty street confrontation in that book has a lot in common with the irruption of the oafish Cantabile in Humboldt’s Gift.) What other American novelist has had such a direct and startling influence on non-Americans who are young enough to be his children? The answer is to be found somewhere in the rest of the excerpt with which I began, as its narrator hits rock bottom and begins to soar upward:

As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you yourself enjoyed old-fashioned Values? You—you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot. There, Herzog, thought Herzog, since you ask for the instance, is the way it runs.