JUNE 11, 2015
ROLAND BARTHES once said that “the only sort of interview that one could, if forced to, defend would be where the author is asked to articulate what he cannot write.” One could set a similar standard for the literary biography, demanding that it construe from the writer’s life what can’t be conveyed through his or her work. The less the author has concealed, the more redundant the biographer’s task. Saul Bellow will always pose a unique problem here because of how thoroughly he dissected his own life for the novels and short stories he published over the course of half a century. In his zeal to articulate himself, he seems to have left nothing for the interviewer, let alone the unfortunate biographer.
For decades after the 1953 publication of The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow was regularly deemed the preeminent American novelist. Although his readership has shrunk in the 21st century, a handful of passionate Bellowites, most of them British — Martin Amis, James Wood, Ian McEwan — have insured his continued presence in the literary conversation. With the centenary of his birth and the 10-year anniversary of his death, that conversation has picked up again, spurred by the publication of two new books: a collection of Bellow’s essays, reviews, interviews, and talks entitled There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, edited by Benjamin Taylor; and the first fat volume of a two-part biography by Zachary Leader called The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915–1964.
The shadow of James Atlas’s authorized biography, titled Bellow: A Biography, hangs over this Season of Saul. Its appearance in 2000 disappointed many who felt that Atlas had kept a great writer “penned in his petty biographical yard,” in Wood’s description, reducing masterpieces like Herzog to the byproducts of love triangles, divorce, and revenge. Leader seems to make an implicit pledge to undo Atlas’s damage when he announces up front that the “detailed attention given to Bellow’s writing in this biography will show or remind readers how rich and deep it is, and how pleasurable.”
Those pleasures are vast. The essence of a great stylist like Fitzgerald can be captured in single, solid sentences, like this one from Gatsby: “My own house was an eye-sore, but it was a small eye-sore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires — all for eighty dollars a month.” But for Bellow, an artist of excess, one needs lengthier quotations. Here’s one from 1970’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet:
Sammler in his Gymnasium days once translated from Saint Augustine: “The Devil hath established his cities in the North.” He thought of this often. In Cracow before World War I he had another version of it — desperate darkness, the dreary liquid yellow mud to a depth of two inches over cobblestones in the Jewish streets. People needed their candles, their lamps and their copper kettles, their slices of lemon in the image of the sun. This was the conquest of grimness with the aid always of Mediterranean symbols. Dark environments overcome by imported religious signs and local domestic amenities. Without the power of the North, its mines, its industries, the world would never have reached its astonishing modern form. And regardless of Augustine, Sammler had always loved his Northern cities, especially London, the blessings of its gloom, of coal smoke, gray rains, and the mental and human opportunities of a dark muffled environment. There one came to terms with obscurity, with low tones, one did not demand full clarity of mind or motive. But now Augustine’s odd statement required a new interpretation.
The paragraph from which this excerpt is taken runs for two-and-a-half pages, and at times it feels like an endurance test, a soloist letting his fluency run its course without regard for the audience. At the same time, it entrenches itself in the bigger work rather than demanding that the story pause to accommodate it. The rhythm is typically Bellovian, rising and falling and rising again, a cycle of climax and anti-climax, where Bellow establishes a theme, interprets it, only to then discard his reading as obsolete and begin afresh. There’s also a subversive novelistic stratagem at work. Even when they’re on their own turf, with their favorite intellectual toys, we’re not to take the proclamations of Bellow’s cerebral supermen too seriously.
Note, too, the couplings of what is intuitively antithetical: Blessings of its gloom, and the opportunities of a dark muffled environment. In his dazzling book Shakespeare’s Language, Frank Kermode wrote that in the key linguistic principle in Hamlet, “the meaning of the whole depends upon a kind of unnaturalness in the doubling, a sort of pathological intensification of the device.” Bellow’s descriptions reflect that same pathology. Moses Herzog looks “with despair on the thriving luxuriant life of the plants,” so that the plants’ thriving luxuriant life can’t be separated from the despair they inflict on Herzog — just as heaven for Ophelia can’t be separated from “the steep and thorny way to” it. One of Herzog’s tutors has “timid, whole-souled blue eyes.” For the narrator of Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie Citrine, the task of arranging life is “one great gorgeous tantalizing misleading disastrous project.” Augie March’s mentally challenged brother Georgie has a “pale, mind-crippled, impotent handsomeness.” Timid and whole-souled, gorgeous and disastrous, impotent and handsome: such inversions establish a lively schematic that runs through Bellow’s writing.
Moses Herzog describes himself as “a prisoner of perception, a compulsory witness.” More apt, perhaps, would have been to say compulsive witness, which would apply to just about all of Bellow’s protagonists. They are compulsive about perceiving, about witnessing, as if their testimony will soon be all that’s left. Their descriptions dissect people and things down to the subatomic. To die, in Humboldt’s Gift, is to “give back these loaned minerals that comprise us.” A heaving kid in Augie March is “tearing air into his chest.” Herzog watches a wrecking crew at work, where the
great metal ball swung at the walls, passed easily through brick, and entered the rooms, the lazy weight browsing on kitchens and parlors. Everything it touched wavered and burst, spilled down. There rose a white tranquil cloud of plaster dust. […] The old flooring burned gratefully — the funeral of exhausted objects. Scaffolds walled with pink, white, green doors quivered as the six-wheeled trucks carried off fallen brick.
For Bellow, the impulse to describe was a literary creed, especially when it came to people’s physical appearances. Leader quotes him saying that “if a man or woman looked a certain way then it meant something to me, about their character.” Augie’s friend Dingbat’s hair is
violent, brilliant, black, treated, ripple-marked. Bantam, thin-muscled, swift, almost frail, he had an absolutely unreasonable face. To be distinguished from brutal — it wasn’t that, there was all kind of sentiment in it. But wild, down-twisting, squint-eyed, unchangeably firm and wrong in thoughts, with the prickles coming black through his un-methodical after-shave talcum.
Another character in Augie March has “a kitty-cornered little smile and extortionist’s eyes.” A Theft’s Clara Velde’s “unusually big” head is not just a detail: “In a person of an inert character a head of such size might have seemed a deformity; in Clara, because she had so much personal force, it came across as ruggedly handsome. She needed that head; a mind like hers demanded space.” And then there’s the immortal description, in Herzog, of Valentine Gersbach, with his one wooden leg “bending and straightening gracefully like a gondolier.” In the process of describing these fictional characters, Bellow changed the way we observe: one can’t look at an eccentric physique without wondering what Bellow would do with it.
Leader’s most interesting decision may be to divide his project into two volumes, ending this one with the 1964 publication and success of Herzog, thus covering Bellow’s ascent from obscurity to “the pinnacle of American letters.” Volume I, therefore, has two peaks: first The Adventures of Augie March and then — after the well-regarded, though to my mind weak, Seize the Day and Henderson the Rain King — the still higher elevation of Herzog. Leader occasionally keeps the promise he makes in the preface quoted above, offering perceptive analysis of the novels. Unfortunately, this analysis is surrounded by an overabundance of trivial detail — do we really need to know, for example, that the entrance to Monk Park in Lachine, Quebec, where Bellow played as a kid, “is at Seventh Avenue, across a simple iron footbridge”? — and an extreme deference to his subject. Leader seems to think Bellow’s account of any situation, and especially the novelized account, is always the most telling and authentic. Whether it’s a girlfriend’s wariness of young Saul’s quick temper, or Saul’s disdain for that girl’s father, he gives Bellow’s fiction the last word. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the point were to show how Bellow carved the raw material of his life to his literary purposes, but that’s not the case: Leader uses the fiction to explain the facts, not vice versa. By the end, one comes to expect lines like this: “If Bellow accused [his then wife] Sasha of having extravagant tastes, she accused him of being fussy about food and drink, like Moses Herzog who was ‘normally particular about food.’” Even when presenting Sasha’s side of the story (he quotes from her memoir in the same paragraph both before and after this sentence), Leader can’t seem to resist letting Bellow’s fiction overshadow the proceedings.
And because he’s been quoting from the novels so copiously throughout, inevitably Leader starts repeating himself when later discussing the novels as novels. This makes for exhausting reading. Only in the final chapter, in the context of Herzog, does Leader acknowledge that
to look to the novel for what really happened — who did the provoking, how much violence there actually was, who lied or shaded the truth — or even what Bellow thought happened, is futile. The novel offers evidence of what Bellow made of his experience, by which is meant how he turned the thoughts and feelings it raised into art.
In stressing this, it seems, Leader is consciously addressing and averting the charge, leveled at Atlas by Wood and others, of biographical reductionism, particularly with respect to Herzog. But Leader hasn’t earned his own conclusion here.
Leader also allows his biases off the leash in this final chapter, including in its major theme, the matrimonial and post-matrimonial combat between Bellow and Sasha that would feed Herzog. For example, Bellow once accused his ex-wife of deliberately moving from Chicago to New York just as he took a position at the University of Chicago in order to keep him away from his son, Adam. In her memoir, Sasha claimed not to have known that Saul was moving to Chicago. Leader says, “This may be true, but just as Sasha may not have known of the move, Bellow may not have known she didn’t know.” Getting into the speculative weeds like this is feeble. Later, he faults Jack Ludwig’s review of Herzog for being compromised by his personal association with the people on whom the novel’s characters are based. (Ludwig was the man who betrayed Bellow’s friendship and support to have an affair with Sasha, and subsequently inspired the Valentine Gersbach character.) In his review, Ludwig complains about the overbearing way Herzog represents those around him: “There is no Eisenhower but Herzog’s Eisenhower, no Mady but Herzog’s, no Doctor Edwig but his.” In response, Leader asks, “Why talk here of Mady’s ‘other side’ unless you’re thinking of a real-life model? Or unless you’re the sort of critic who asks how many children Lady Macbeth had, a question no self-respecting literary academic would ask in 1963.” Whether Ludwig’s objection was informed by his relationship to Sasha or not, the criticism is legitimate. It’s true that Herzog’s unapologetically subjective and idiosyncratic filter warps everything and everyone it touches. Readers may disagree about the effect, but to point it out is not necessarily to betray a personal stake.
To be sure, Leader does a good job of delineating the formation of Bellow’s idiosyncratic aesthetic. The primary influences — the Jewish immigrant experience, the city of Chicago (the “city of stockyards, steel and gangsters,” in Bellow’s words), the Yiddish language, the New Testament — each get their due. Leader suggests that Bellow’s gushing style reflected his Russian roots (his parents fled St. Petersburg for Quebec shortly before Bellow’s birth in 1915), and certainly this is in keeping with his admiration for “Russian emotionalism” and the “passionate outbursts” that Bellow later argued made a personality like Nikita Khrushchev compelling to Americans who by tradition leaned toward the hard-boiled, the asphyxiation of feeling.
But this came later; as the son of Russian immigrants, who wasn’t legally an American until 1943, young Saul couldn’t afford such outbursts. He believed that the essence of being American was inhibition, under Protestant and puritanical invigilation; in language it was marked by a strict adherence to the rules of composition and grammar. In an interview with The Paris Review, Bellow said that the resulting “Flaubertian standard” of his first two novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), ultimately prevented him from expressing “a variety of things I knew intimately,” and that he “fought free because I had to.” The Victim, written in this spirit of compliance, nevertheless shows signs of resistance; its sentences swell with an internal pressure that would then burst forth in The Adventures of Augie March. The intervening epiphanic moment, according to Bellow (and part of Bellow lore forevermore), came during his stint in Paris in the late 1940s, funded by a Guggenheim fellowship, when Bellow watched municipal workers cleaning a Parisian street by letting water run from a hydrant; a “touch of sun,” he told Philip Roth in an interview, formed a “sunny iridescence” in the water and freed something in the depressed writer. He decided to take a short break from the novel he was working on then and, upon resuming, “have at least as much freedom of movement as this running water.” Elsewhere he said that Augie March came in floods, and all he had to do “was be there with buckets to catch it.” What he “caught” in the novel’s opening lines became its own moment in American literature:
I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
Though Herzog is often (and correctly) cited as Bellow’s best book, Augie March remains Bellow’s candidate for Great American Novel — in a 1995 essay, Martin Amis memorably said, “Search no further. All the trails went cold forty-two years ago.” Herzog charts an intellectual’s mental and emotional disintegration as he tries to come to terms with heartbreak and the modern world; Augie March, by contrast, charts the process of becoming American. At the novel’s heart is the city of Chicago, which Bellow claimed elsewhere “was a place where matter ruled, a place where stone was value and value stone,” its power lying “in things and the methods by which things were produced.” Though he would go on to equal and even exceed it in verbal artistry and intelligence, Bellow would never write a book like Augie March again, one that grappled with America not just as an idea, but a fleshy, material, and public place. In short, it said something about the country — and what a Jewish kid has to do to survive it.
Bellow’s later books, by contrast, say more about Saul Bellow. The ’60s were the era of his greatest triumph (Herzog was published in 1964), but the decade also marked the beginning of the crisis that would ultimately put him at odds with the literary and intellectual zeitgeist. In a 1963 essay entitled “Recent Fiction: A Tour of Inspection,” collected in There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, Bellow writes that “an industrialized mass society cannot accommodate any sizable population of Prometheans and geniuses.” In Western literature, the transition from the 18th to 20th century marked first the death of the heroic individual and then of individualism itself. As the Viennese poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who Bellow quotes here, put it, “Individuality is an arabesque we have discarded.” Bellow writes of a “romantic youthfulness […] that refuses to make itself responsible for the world.” In a writer like John Updike, he suggests, this refusal of responsibility takes the form of stories examining adolescence, as the “enforced passivity of the individual confronted by the huge power of modern organizations resembles the impotence of childhood.”
That might have been true when Bellow wrote the essay, in 1963, but America changed in the ensuing decade, demanding reengagement. The memorable American novels of the 1970s — E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971), Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers (1975), and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), to take a tiny sample — involved coming to grips with America’s public life, be it Vietnam, the extremes of anti-communism, or race. The Vietnam War would also figure prominently in Updike’s Rabbit Redux (1971). Bellow made no such transition from personal to political themes. Mr. Sammler’s Planet, published in 1970, makes no reference to Vietnam. Instead, the passage of time is reflected, in Bellow’s later novels, in ever-deeper meditation on the intellectual self in crisis and a rising preoccupation with dead lovers and dead friends.
Some have held Bellow’s insularity against him; because of the unremitting pleasures of language and character in his novels, I can’t. But it’s true that the insularity makes him less interesting to read about after Augie March, particularly when his biographer refuses to leave his side. One wouldn’t know from Leader’s final chapter, for example, that in the time it covers, Americans elected their youngest-ever president and lost him to an assassin’s bullet. Atlas, too, omits the event. Nor do we get a read on the very thing that sustained Bellow even as he helped shape it: American literature. Repeated references to Ralph Ellison occur because the two men were close friends, but the similarities of theme and character between Invisible Man and Augie March, published one year apart, are left unexplored.
Leader describes Bellow’s own thoughts about the novel’s future, including an essay in which he concludes that “the time may have come for the recombination of information and feeling in the novel,” and that the “problem of the novelist in this generation […] is to discover how to return, after his long absence, to the world.” Yet, again, because Leader hews so close to his subject and his private concerns, the reader doesn’t get perspective on broader debates within the American academy or popular criticism at the time. This is all the more unfortunate given how rich a time it was in American literature: On the Road was published in 1957; Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road in 1961; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962. None of these figure here.
Other important writers of the time are mentioned only in passing, such as the playwright Edward Albee, who joined Bellow and Robert Lowell as a tutor at a writing conference. Albee’s boozy masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was published in 1962, winning the Tony Award for best play the following year, and is one of the seminal American literary works of the ’60s, whose cascade of language, wit, digression, pathos, and matrimonial combat is comparable to Herzog’s. And, like Augie March before it, Albee’s play was neither naturalistic nor avant-garde, but claimed a place between the two, on the one hand allowing for verbal excess, on the other containing it within the standard limits of storytelling. Albee’s appearance on the same platform as Bellow, naturally a deliberate choice by the organizer, presents an opportunity to illustrate what was shaking in American literary culture at the time, but Leader doesn’t seize it.
Later he does give us some glimpses of the artistic tenor of the ’60s, but they are just glimpses. There are references, for instance, to the symbolic division forming in the ’60s between Bellow and Norman Mailer. Leader mentions that the contents of Partisan Review’s spring 1965 issue included, along with a review of Herzog, Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Marat/Sade/Artaud” and a debate between Nat Hentoff and Michael Harrington about “The New Radicalism.” He then quotes a letter from Philip Rahv to Saul complaining of his rival PR editors “lining up with the swingers, particularly the camp culturati led by Susan Sontag,” for whom the decidedly heterosexual Bellow is “typed as a square.”
For the radical author of Augie March and Herzog to be so dismissed suggests a significant new wave in the arts. The resulting cultural battles, which forever affected Bellow’s reputation, are important, and perhaps will get their due in the next volume, but there are few signs that Leader is setting things up for such a discussion. There are notable controversies to come, especially regarding Bellow’s attitudes on race (first prompted by the depiction of a black pickpocket in Mr. Sammler’s Planet) and his embrace of the political and cultural right in the 1980s and ’90s, eclipsing a Trotskyist youth. And yet Bellow retained his place at the top of American letters, as Mr. Sammler’s Planet won the 1971 National Book Award (like Augie March and Herzog before it), Humboldt’s Gift won the Pulitzer in 1976, and Bellow received the Nobel the same year. Seeing how Leader handles this mixed legacy is one of the reasons to look forward to the second installment.
“Maybe America didn’t need art and inner miracles,” Charlie Citrine muses in Humboldt’s Gift. “It had so many outer ones. The USA was a big operation, very big. The more it, the less we.” But if Bellow the artist felt increasingly alienated from the “big operation” of America in the late 20th century, he gave himself more space to contemplate that lesser “we,” and in his work after Herzog he continued to give us as vigorous a picture as we would get of the human character, with all its mental and physical humiliations as it dealt with death. Late in Humboldt’s Gift, Citrine observes of a male rival, an undertaker named Flonzaley, with whom Citrine’s lover, Renata, is having an affair:
Flonzaley with his corpses would never run out of money. The course of nature itself was behind him. Cancers and aneurysms, coronaries and hemorrhages stood behind his wealth and guaranteed him bliss. All these dead, like the glorious court of Jerusalem, chanting, “Live forever, Solomon Flonzaley!”
That “course of nature” was behind Bellow’s fiction, too, even when he parted ways with the cultural mainstream, and we can approach Leader’s next volume chanting, “Live forever, Saul Bellow.”