Everyone is called a “beautiful writer” at some point or other, just as all flowers are eventually called pretty. Any prose above the most ordinary, anything above sea-level, makes people dizzy with adulation. “Stylists” are crowned every day, of steadily littler kingdoms. But of course there are very few really fine writers of prose. Those regarded as peacocks of rich writing often turn out to be ambitious sentimentalists (Norman Mailer, Cormac McCarthy), while the lacy loiterers praised for their “elegance” (Gore Vidal, William Gass) are rather substanceless, and those cherished for their calm emaciations, who are thought of as athletes of reduction (Robert Stone, Brian Moore), are just leathery regulars.
This is not surprising, since a prose is a vision, a totality. Great stylists should be as rare as great writers. Saul Bellow is probably the greatest writer of American prose of the twentieth century–where greatest means most abundant, various, precise, rich, lyrical. This seems a relatively uncontroversial claim. The august raciness, the Melvillean enormities and cascades (“the limp silk fresh lilac drowning water”), the Joycean wit and metaphoricity, the lancing similes with their sharp American nibs (“he was meteor-bearded like John Brown”), the happy rolling freedom of the daring uninsured sentences, the prose absolutely ripe with inheritance, bursting with the memories of Shakespeare and Lawrence yet prepared for modern emergencies, the Argus-eye for detail, and controlling all this, the firm metaphysical intelligence–all this is now thought of as Bellow’s, as ” Bellovian.” It is the prose Coleridge described as having “the hooks-and-eyes of memory.”
Reading Bellow is a special way of being alive; his prose is germinal. Earlier this year, the reader might have come across an image in Ravelstein in which the narrator describes how his neurologist, Dr. Bax, coaxed his very ill patient back from death to life: “Dr. Bax, like a skillful Indian scout of the last century, pressed his ear to the rail and heard the locomotive coming. Life would soon be back, and I would occupy my seat in the life-train. Death would shrink to its former place at the margin of the landscape.” This lovely metaphor, celebrating life, also enacts it; the prose is the life- train.
Again and again, Bellow’s writing reaches for life, for the human gust. Joyce is his only obvious twentieth-century rival. Indeed, sometimes they are eerily close. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce alights for a moment on Mr. Casey, whose fingers could not be straightened out. “And Mr Casey told him that he had got those three cramped fingers making a birthday present for Queen Victoria.” In Humboldt’s Gift, we come across the Russian Bath in Chicago: “On the second floor there had always lived aged workingstiffs, lone Ukrainian grandfathers, retired car-line employees, a pastry cook famous for his icings who had to quit because his hands became arthritic.” It is a curious historical reversal, that Joyce can sometimes sound like Bellow, or that nothing sounds more like Bellow than Lawrence’s description of the Rhine, from his short story, “The Border Line”: “old Father Rhine, flowing in greenish volume.”
This life-sown prose moves fast, logging impressions with broken speed. Rereading Herzog, one encounters too many marvels to record. There is Herzog’s mistress Ramona, sparkily described as “certainly not one of those little noli me tangerines.” And there is a brief memory of Strawforth, a fat schoolboy, with his “fat curling thumbs,” and a rabbi, “short-bearded, his nose violently pitted with black.” And Nachman, who played the harmonica in the lavatory stalls: “You heard the saliva in the cells of the tin instrument as he sucked and blew.” And the light bulb that Herzog remembers at home, ” which had a spike at the end like a German helmet. The large loose twist of tungsten filament blazed.” Herzog recalls his asthmatic brother Willie in the grip of a breathing fit: “Trying to breathe he gripped the table and rose on his toes like a cock about to crow.”
There is Valentine Gersbach and his wooden leg, “bending and straightening gracefully like a gondolier.” There is the hospital that Herzog remembers being in as a child, where the icicles hung from the hospital roof “like the teeth of fish, clear drops burning at their tips,” and the Christian lady who comes to the young Herzog to read from the Bible, her hatpin sticking out from the back of her head “like a trolley rod.” Passing a fish-shop, Herzog pauses to look at the catch: “The fish were packed together, backs arched as if they were swimming in the crushed, smoking ice, bloody bronze, slimy black- green, gray-gold–the lobsters were crowded to the glass, feelers bent.” In New York, Herzog passes a demolition crew, and this passage flows out, one of the great examples of urban realism, at once lyrical and robustly particular:
At the corner he paused to watch the work of the wrecking crew. 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 afternoon was ending, and in the widening area of demolition was a fire, fed by the wreckage. Moses heard the air, softly pulled toward the flames, felt the heat. The workmen, heaping the bonfire with wood, threw strips of molding like javelins. Paint and varnish smoked like incense. 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. The sun, now leaving for New Jersey and the west, was surrounded by a dazzling broth of atmospheric gases.
Given so much, it might be easy for a reader to become blase. Good writers tends to raise one up like canal-locks, so that one swims at their level, and forgets the medium that supports one. After a while the reader might take for granted Bellow’s exuberance of detail, and might not notice that the squares of the harmonica are called “cells,” that the tungsten filament in the bulb is seen not only as large but also wonderfully as “loose,” that the icicles have clear drops “burning at their tips” (the paradox of heat at the end of something cold, yet superbly right as a description of ice melting into water) , that the demolition ball, hard at work, is yet seen as “lazy” and “browsing” –and not “browsing in” but “browsing on” those kitchens and parlors. (Bellow adds strange prepositions to his verbs, as Lawrence does when he has a woman walking behind her lover “gloating on him from behind,” or: “Banford turtled up like a fighting cock.”)
One realizes, with a shock, that Bellow has taught one how to see and how to hear, has opened the senses. Until this moment one had not really thought of the looseness of a lightbulb filament, one had not heard the saliva bubbling in the harmonica, one had not seen well enough the nose pitted with black pores, and the demolition ball’s slow, heavy selection of its victims. A dozen good writers–Updike, DeLillo, others–can render you the window of a fish shop, and do it very well; but it is Bellow’s genius to see the lobsters “crowded to the glass” and their “feelers bent” by that glass–to see the riot of life in the dead peace of things.
Flaubert told Maupassant that “talent is a slow patience,” and that “there is a part of everything which is unexplored, because we are accustomed to using our eyes only in association with the memory of what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the smallest thing has something in it which is unknown. We must find it.” Bellow is Flaubertian in this sense: either he makes us seize, by force of metaphorical wit, new connections and linkages–”the toes of his bare feet were pressed together like Smyrna figs”; cats with “grenadier tails”; a man’s “dry-cereal mustache”- -or he notices what is unexplored: “Her throat was ever so slightly ringed or rippled by some enriching feminine deposit.”
This needs to be said because James Atlas, in his large biography, tends to neglect such qualities. He writes of Bellow as if he were writing a life of Joyce Carol Oates or Richard Ford, some middler who oddly managed to bag the Nobel Prize. It is strange, after all, to write of Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man, which appeared in 1944, that it was “almost defiantly literary– again, a Bellow trademark.” (Imagine this said of Flaubert or Joyce or Mann.) It is peculiar to analyze Herzog so biographically that the novel seems nothing more than a bitter account of a cuckolding, and then to add, as an apparent concession, that it is the writer’s most “written book: His always keen eye missed nothing.” Again, think how inadequate this sentence would be if applied to Flaubert or Proust or Joyce. Those writers, like Bellow, do not simply miss nothing; they make seeing a metaphysics, a life-project–a slow patience.
But the suspicion grows, as one reads this disappointing book, that Atlas does not want Bellow to be too literary, or too intellectual, or too political–or too himself. Atlas seems to want to imprison Bellow in Atlas’s own qualifications, to keep him penned in his petty biographical yard. Thus Atlas seems to decide that Bellow, coming from Jewish Chicago, had a kind of respect for Great Books and Big Ideas that now seems a little foolish, a bit overdone. Books, as Atlas sees it, were just Bellow’s ticket, the way out of Chicago for Bellow’s generation and for a whole generation of American Jewish intellectuals. The tone in which Atlas discusses this veneration appears to hide a condescension, as if Atlas wished that these guys could just get over all those Great Books, all that high and serious stuff.
“Bellow was just as much of a culture snob as any of the contributors to Partisan Review,” Atlas observes. “His novels are crammed with references to writers and philosophers whose gravity of thought he found intoxicating but with whom he had only a glancing familiarity–to Kant and Goethe, to Nietzsche and Max Weber and the duc de Saint-Simon. Referring to the best that has been thought and said was a literary tic.” This has the tone of a Vanity Fair profile. A culture snob! A little later, while discussing the ” defiantly literary” Dangling Man (defiant to whom?), Atlas writes: “It was as if Bellow needed to make the point that even a writer from Chicago read books. ” Twenty pages later: “Bellow was never entirely sure when he ventured into the realm of ideas; he tended to cloak his true concerns in a stilted, metaphorical language that put distance between his subject and himself.” Ten pages later: “Philosophy, then and later, was one of the unfortunate legacies of Bellow’s immersion in the University of Chicago Great Books culture. His heroes shared a penchant for belaboring ideas. They were the products of a provincial Chicago boy’s effort to show that he wasn’t provincial, that he was at home with the whole of Western thought.”
“Unfortunate” to whom? Not to most of Bellow’s readers. A hundred pages later we get this ex cathedra summation: “Bellow was not a complex thinker. He had laboriously worked his way through the classics when ‘boning up’ on the 101 Great Ideas for Mortimer Adler’s Syntopicon; he was conversant, in a literary way, with Plato and Aristotle, Kierkergaard and Nietzsche. They were part of his ‘intellectual’ credentials–his passport from the book-adoring culture of the Jewish ghetto to the New World.” But why his passport from this world? Surely these books, these references and allusions, constituted the very “book-adoring” world itself? And when did Bellow, his novels soaked in the memory of childhood, ever leave that culture? Atlas’s crudities in these passages are unfathomable. They have the sound of the profile writer quickly frying his subject on the biographical griddle, sunny side up. Why bother with anything as nubbly as an idea if it can be consigned to a personal need, a psychology, a “tic”?
First of all, what is Atlas alleging? That Bellow has not read Fear and Trembling and Thus Spake Zarathustra and Proust and Weber (“glancing familiarity,” “conversant, in a literary way”)? Or that, having read them, he did not understand them? Or–the likeliest version–that he should not have been reading them at all? Moreover, the charge is incoherent even within the terms of Atlas’s biography, since he often concedes the force of Bellow’s intellect. He knows well that Bellow–unlike, say, Mailer–has a powerful, disciplined, and educated mind, that he can read Proust and Rousseau in the original if he wishes, that he spent many years of his life teaching literature to intelligent graduate students at Chicago. Atlas quotes one critic, who described Bellow as “the outstanding ‘theoretician’ among the major novelists of our time,” and elsewhere he admits to his “range as a social critic, his wide knowledge of Western culture, and, above all, his willingness to passionately defend his art.”
Again, it needs to be said that Atlas proceeds as if he were writing the life of Stanley Elkin, not the unfolding of a will-to-greatness, whereby conversance–to use Atlas’s word–with the greatest writers and thinkers was partly noble nourishment and partly Bellow’s easy cousinhood, the dream of equivalence. Why was Dangling Man “defiantly literary”? Because, Bellow wrote at the time to his publisher, “if I thought I were merely talented and clever in a small way I would give up writing tomorrow and never write again, not so much as a letter.”
Most importantly, Atlas’s peculiar fear of ideas slights one of Bellow’s great subjects, and the source of much of his comedy. One would never know, from Atlas’s account, that Herzog concerns an intellectual’s attempt to use his wide reading, to employ his “wide knowledge of Western culture,” to orient himself in modern American society. And one would never know that the novel’s sad comedy flows from his failure to do so. Herzog is an adult child, flooded with memories of his close, stifling family life. He recalls his immigrant father, with his stern, furious face. Herzog hangs his head before great ideas, as a child might before his father. His intellectual patrimony is both parent and tyrant, and Herzog’s wild letters to the great dead–”Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression ‘the fall into the quotidian.’ When did it happen?”–are like a son’s wartime letters to his family, written at the battlefront. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are, in effect, parents, and we moderns are like spoiled children, bloated in a wealth we do not know how to spend wisely. Tommy Wilhelm, in Seize The Day complains that “the fathers were no fathers and the sons no sons.”
Herzog wants “to live in an inspired condition, to know truth, to be free, to love another, to consummate existence, to abide with death in clarity of consciousness,” as he writes to one of his imaginary correspondents. Those darting, bold, naked desiderata: they are the subjects to which Bellow has returned again and again. Joseph, the narrator of Bellow’s “defiantly literary” first novel, wonders aloud: “But I must know what I myself am.” Twenty years later Herzog is still wondering this: “We must be what we are. That is necessity. And what are we?” And twenty years after that, Zetland, in “Zetland: By A Character Witness,” asks: “What were we here for, of all strange beings and creatures the strangest?”
One of Bellow’s replies is that, in modern America, public life tends to drive out private life, and that the cultivation of individuality–the securing of the soul–becomes harder and harder. Herzog quotes Emerson: “The private life of one man shall be a more illustrious monarchy … than any kingdom in history.” But the self is not only crowded by American modernity– a theme, incidentally, that DeLillo would develop into postmodern America; it is also threatened by an age which, after the moral collapses of the two World Wars, has ceased to believe in the moral stability, or even in the reality, of the self. The “I” has become only a figure of speech, and that speech clots in our mouths. People who have never read Sartre are “touting the Void as if it were so much salable real estate,” thinks Herzog:
This little demon was impregnated with modern ideas, and one in particular excited his terrible little heart: you must sacrifice your poor, squawking, niggardly individuality–which may be nothing anyway (from an analytic viewpoint) but a persistent infantile megalomania, or (from a Marxian point of view) a stinking little bourgeois property–to historical necessity. And to truth. And truth is true only as it brings down more disgrace and dreariness upon human beings, so that if it shows anything except evil it is illusion, and not truth. But of course he, Herzog, predictably bucking such trends, had characteristically, obstinately, defiantly [ah, Atlas!], blindly but without sufficient courage or intelligence tried to be a marvelous Herzog, a Herzog who, perhaps clumsily, tried to live out marvelous qualities vaguely comprehended.
Now, one might dislike this kind of writing, and object in a principled way to its existence in fiction, and find it neurotically sentimental (in Schiller’s sense of the word, meaning modernly introspective), and take issue with Bellow’s implied optimism (that the self is not in disgrace), and with his religiousness and mysticism (“we have ground to hope that a Life is something more than such a cloud of particles, mere facticity. Go through what is comprehensible and you conclude that only the incomprehensible gives any light”). What one cannot do is deny that this is thought at all, or assume that it does not exist in the novels. Is this an example of ” belaboring” an idea, or of Bellow’s being “not a complex thinker”? Were Joyce or Woolf or even Mann complex “thinkers” in the philosophical sense that Keynes or Wittgenstein were? Of course not.
Atlas quotes Bellow in a characteristic joke about his new-born baby Gregory, who was regular in his eating habits. “So was Kant, asserted Bellow, always mindful of the Great Books.” Is this an assertion or a joke? Is Bellow being anxiously “mindful” of the Great Books, or is he drolly yoking two worlds, his sacred and his profane? It is easy to forget that many of Bellow’s heroes are failures or clowns in thought; the comedy of the novels has much to do with the prospect of the inefficacy of ideas, the piles of intellectual slack which truss these schlemiels like babies. “Oh so much human thread being wound on the most trivial spools,” the narrator laments in More Die of Heartbreak. And Herzog wonders if thought can wake him from the dream of his mad existence, in which he runs chaotically from wife to mistress. “Not if it thought becomes a second realm of confusion, another more complicated dream, the dream of intellect, the delusion of total explanations.”
Out of this disjunction between the rage to explain and the rage to experience, Bellow creates a distinct modern irony–witty, heated, cerebral. He universalizes and simultaneously mocks the universalizing impulse: “Cops have their own way of ringing a doorbell. They ring like brutes. Of course, we are entering an entirely new stage in the history of consciousness,” thinks Charlie Citrine, in his characteristic jumble, in Humboldt’s Gift. And this comedy is not only an intellectual or academic comedy; we are not merely laughing at the delusions of intellectuals, we are also experiencing the pathos of their aspirations.
Sometimes these comic creatures are not intellectuals at all, as Tommy Wilhelm is not, in Seize The Day. Perhaps nothing is more movingly comic in the whole of Bellow than the scene in The Adventures of Augie March, in which Einhorn, a Chicago autodidact, writes an obituary of his father for the local newspaper. Stiff, clumsy, noble, the obituary is foolishly, ambitiously ” intellectual,” and the reader is able to see, in a paragraph, the quavering pretensions of a generation of intelligent American Jews:
Einhorn kept me with him that evening; he didn’t want to be alone. While I sat by he wrote his father’s obituary in the form of an editorial for the neighborhood paper. “The return of the hearse from the newly covered grave leaves a man to pass through the last changes of nature who found Chicago a swamp and left it a great city. He came after the Great Fire, said to be caused by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, in flight from the conscription of the Hapsburg tyrant, and in his life as a builder proved that great places do not have to be founded on the bones of slaves, like the pyramids of Pharaohs or the capital of Peter the Great on the banks of the Neva, where thousands were trampled in the Russian marches. The lesson of an American life like my father’s, in contrast to that of the murderer of the Strelitzes and of his own son, is that achievements are compatible with decency. My father was not familiar with the observation of Plato that philosophy is the study of death, but he died nevertheless like a philosopher, saying to the ancient man who watched by his bedside in the last moments. . .” This was the vein of it, and he composed it energetically in half an hour, printing on sheets of paper at his desk, the tip of his tongue forward, scrunched up in his bathrobe and wearing his stocking cap.
I doubt that this could be bettered by Dickens or Joyce, and when we read it we are splashed by the antique streams of the greatest comedy. We begin the obituary in laughter and end it in tears, in a sublime dapple of emotions. Everything is here: the ungrammatical pompousness of the unpracticed writer (“leaves a man to pass through the last changes of nature who found Chicago a swamp”. . . “saying to the ancient man who watched by his bedside”), the rambling, feebly chanelled anarchy (“he came after the Great Fire, said to be caused by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow”), the intellectual hauteur that crumbles into non-sequitur (“my father was not familiar with the observation of Plato that philosophy is the study of death, but he died nevertheless like a philosopher” ), the historical allusions hanging off the sentences like sloths (“in flight from the conscription of the Hapsburg tyrant”), and finally Einhorn’s affecting, foolhardy American optimism, whereby this new land proves that ” great places do not have to be founded on the bones of slaves.” Such care, such favoring finesse! Note that Bellow does not have Einhorn write “Plato’s observation that,” which is the formulation that a real intellectual would use, but the more upholstered and uneasy “the observation of Plato,” a phrase whose awkwardness enshrines a certain distance from Plato. And what a delicious word “observation” is here–as if Plato were someone who tossed off mots like Wilde.
So this novelist, whose novels are actually full of references to Plato, is also able to write movingly about a man who might well be, to use Atlas’s words, only “conversant, in a literary way,” with Plato and Aristotle–but Atlas sounds as if he is writing Einhorn’s biography! And Atlas sounds a little like Einhorn himself, telling us that Pierre Bayle’s great theological and historical dictionary was a “satirical dictionary”; that Henry James’s self-description (“try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost”) was a comment about James by T.S. Eliot; that Eliot called himself a Roman Catholic, when he called himself an Anglo-Catholic; and so on.
Saul Bellow was nearly born in Russia. His father, Abraham Belo, came to Lachine, Quebec, in 1913, and Bellow was born in June, 1915. He lived in Quebec for eight years, before his father moved the family to Chicago in 1924. Abraham Bellow went to work at Dworkin’s Imperial Baking Company. Repeatedly, in novels and stories, Bellow has his protagonist dream back to the days of Bellow’s childhood on Saint Dominique Street in Lachine, or to the later years just east of Humboldt Park, in Chicago. Though his first novel is more contained than any of his later work, the true Bellovian note bursts through at one moment, when Joseph is polishing his shoes, and recalls doing the same as a child in Montreal:
I have never found another street that resembled St. Dominique . . . . Little since then has worked upon me with such force as, say, the sight of a driver trying to raise his fallen horse, of a funeral passing through the snow, or of a cripple who taunted his brother. And the pungency and staleness of its stores and cellars, the dogs, the boys, the French and immigrant women, the beggars with sores and deformities whose like I was not to meet again until I was old enough to read of Villon’s Paris. . . a cage with a rat in it thrown on a bonfire, and two quarreling drunkards, one of whom walked away bleeding, drops falling from his head like the first slow drops of a heavy rain in summer, a crooked line of drops left on the pavement as he walked.
The reference to Villon, the blood dripping heavily “like the first slow drops of a heavy rain in summer”: it is all here, in little form, in Bellow’s first novel, written in his late twenties. In Herzog, Saint Dominique Street becomes Napoleon Street, and Herzog recalls “my ancient times. Remoter than Egypt”:
Up and down the street, the brick-recessed windows were dark, filled with darkness, and schoolgirls by twos in their black skirts marched toward the convent. And wagons, sledges, drays, the horses shuddering, the air drowned in leaden green, the dung-stained ice, trails of ashes. Moses and his brothers put on the caps and prayed together,
“Ma tovu ohaleha Yaakov. . .” “How goodly are thy tents, O Israel.”
Napoleon Street, rotten, toylike, crazy and filthy, riddled, flogged with harsh weather–the bootlegger’s boys reciting ancient prayers. To this Moses’s heart was attached with great power. Here was a wider range of human feeling than he had ever again been able to find. The children of the race, by a never-failing miracle, opened their eyes on one strange world after another, age after age, and uttered the same prayer in each, eagerly loving what they found. What was wrong with Napoleon Street? thought Herzog. All he ever wanted was there. His mother did the wash, and mourned. . . . His sister Helen had long white gloves which she washed in thick suds. She wore them to her lessons at the conservatory, carrying a leather music roll . . . On a summer night she sat playing and the clear notes went through the window into the street. The square-shouldered piano had a velveteen runner, mossy green as though the lid of the piano were a slab of stone. From the runner hung a ball fringe, like hickory nuts. Moses stood behind Helen, staring at the swirling pages of Haydn and Mozart, wanting to whine like a dog. Oh, the music! thought Herzog.
In later years, family and friends were astounded by Bellow’s comprehensive recall of the tiny details that they had forgotten–the interiors of shops, the names of businesses, the way a tradesman limped. His niece, writes Atlas, wept when she read Herzog and encountered the description of her grandfather’s house: “the crescent moon in the doorbell, the chimes that play ‘Merrily We Roll Along,’ his stepmother’s shuffling footsteps in her slippers- -I’m reading this and the tears are rolling down my face. He was writing my life. That’s when I knew he was a genius.”
Yet an embrace from Atlas turns out to be akin to hitting apparently soft water at high speed–it is actually deadly. For he follows this lovely tribute with this: “The genius and the self-regard are of a piece.” But so what? Let Bellow be self-regarding if he wants to be. Atlas’s irritation at what he takes to be Bellow’s narcissism and arrogance pollutes the best part of this very diligent biography, which is its fine, detailed evocation of Bellow’s childhood and adolescence in Quebec and Chicago. Bellow’s mother died when he was seventeen, and Atlas argues, plausibly enough, that Bellow never recovered from this loss, and that his compulsive womanizing was less sexual than emotional in impulse. Atlas skillfully describes the early years, in which Bellow struggled with his uncomprehending father (“Was meinst du ‘a writer’?”), and with his lack of publication. Bellow was both very confident and very insecure.
But soon Atlas’s narrative curdles. Late in his life Bellow returned to Lachine, and in a speech there he argued that one cannot be described as only the product of one’s roots. It is not true to say “Show me where you came from and I’ll tell you what you are.” “That’s not the way things really are; we are people capable of freedom, and some of us are even willing to take chances for the sake of freedom.” A biographer should write the history of this passage to freedom, should see that a superior soul with superior gifts has to be accounted for. It is an elitist assumption, no doubt; but without such an assumption the biography of a great writer leaks away its rationale. Bellow’s “sins”–how he treated his wives, and how self-regarding he was– were committed in the process of creating an imperishable body of work. It is not so much that they should be “forgiven,” whatever this means, than that they must be judged in the light of the work of which we are the beneficiaries. An awkward but undeniable utilitarianism must be in play: the number of people hurt by Bellow is probably no more than can be counted on two hands, yet he has delighted and consoled and altered the lives of thousands of readers.
Atlas refers again and again to Bellow’s “narcissistic traits,” to his ” failure to empathize with others.” Bellow preferred Minnesota to New York, he writes, because he was “more comfortable as the odd man out . . . than among more dominating types who threatened his sense of specialness.” Again, so what? If Bellow is special, then, as Herzog has it “we must be what we are. That is necessity.” After Herzog, Atlas loses affection for the novels. He criticizes Humboldt’s Gift as an inadequate and ungenerous portrait of the poet Delmore Schwartz. It was “an act of revenge against the poet . . . the dominant note is one of self-satisfaction.” Schwartz is merely used “as a convenient vehicle for Bellow’s high-flown meditations on art and success in America.” (High-flown: there’s them ideas again!)
This astounding novel marks, for Atlas, a decline in the work: “gone also was the rigor of his early books, replaced by the jaunty tone of the garrulous, well-read, and self-important elder statesmen of Chicago who would come to dominate his books . . . the plot is as untidy as the prose.” Accordingly, the later novels are marked down. Mr. Sammler’s Planet is curmudgeonly, racist, self-pleased: “Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a novel of ideas, to describe it in its kindest light.” And The Dean’s December is racist, ” shrill”; “there is something grotesque abut the way Bellow appropriated” a celebrated Chicago murder case “for his own literary purposes.”
“For his own literary purposes”: Atlas describes Bellow’s project, his Flaubertian “slow patience,” as if it were some kind of irrelevant hobby, like keeping racing pigeons, for no greater glory. Perhaps it sounds naive to remind Atlas that Bellow appropriates these stories for us, for his readers, for his predecessors, for his art. Yet Atlas proceeds as if Bellow has no right to his freedom as a literary artist, as if that freedom had no great value.
What do I mean by freedom? If reading Bellow is a special way of being alive, that is in part because we sense in his books a writer truly living, a man singing through all his ventricles, using a prose of scudding speed, a cloud always chasing the sun of experience. That Bellow’s mode of being in his books is a special way of being in the world, and that this is contiguous with Bellow’s way of being in the world outside his books, in daily life, can be ascertained by comparing the wit of his obiter dicta and other remarks with what appears in his prose. If one laughs when Atlas quotes Bellow saying that the Partisan Review crowd “want to cook their meals over Pater’s hard gemlike flame and light their cigarettes at it,” it is in exactly the same way that one laughs for joy when Herzog looks up at the ceiling and reflects that “the spiders had the moldings under intensive cultivation, like the banks of the Rhine. Instead of grapes, encapsulated bugs hung in clusters.”
Thus Bellow’s “freedom” in life is his freedom in art. The same spirit animates the life and the work. Such a man should be allowed to soar, and it is of little historical importance that this same man was touchy, arrogant, a poor husband. Atlas seems to want to close down Bellow’s freedom, and this is no more apparent than in the wrongheaded way that he discusses Bellow’s fiction. He insists that Bellow “appropriates” the stories of his friends and throws them, unswaddled, into his novels. Atlas is continually reminding us that such-and-such a character is really so-and-so in real life, and that so- and-so was very hurt by Bellow’s theft.
But surely bellow’s style is strong enough to dissolve away these biographical powders. A writer would never take someone from life in this thieving way, for the good reason that there are only a limited number of things to say about an actual person, while there are an infinite number of things to say about an imagined person. Characters are always composites: a little of this actual person, a little of that one, and then a strong imagined element. Atlas in effect concedes this without noticing it, and contradicts himself. He writes that “as usual Bellow made no effort to disguise the models of his characters–and they weren’t pleased . . . Jonas Schwartz . . . was furious to find himself represented as the hectoring, dwarfish Sandor Himmelstein.” In Herzog Himmelstein has had part of his chest blown away in the Second World War, and is hunchbacked. He is crude and brutal. But if Bellow made no effort to disguise his characters, how could Jonas Schwartz complain about being the brutal, dwarfish Himmelstein? Either Schwartz is himself in the novel, or he has become Himmelstein, in which case he has become a composite. If he has become Himmelstein, he is no longer Schwartz.
One suspects that such people, despite their complaints, secretly want to see themselves portrayed, as certain people look at shop windows only to see their own wavering reflections. In so doing they miss the very handsome window displays that have nothing to do with them. Bellow’s old schoolfriend Dave Peltz, a Chicago contractor, was angry to find that a story which had involved him, about which he was embarrassed, and which he had asked Bellow not to reproduce in fiction, appeared in Humboldt’s Gift. He wrote to Bellow, and Bellow replied admirably, with generosity and sensitivity:
It wasn’t you who was the subject. People have written about me. Their me is not me. It couldn’t matter less. What matters is that good things be writtten. Dear God how we need them! . . . I promised not to write Your Life. But this was all I could promise. We’ve known each other forty five years and told each other thousands and thousands of anecdotes. And now, on two bars suggested by one of your anecdotes, I blew a riff . . . What harm is there in that? Your facts are unharmed by my version . . . These aren’t questions of property, are they?. . .
Now David, the nice old man who wants his collection of memory-toys to play with in old age is not you! You harm yourself with such fantasies. For the name of the game is not Social Security. What an error! Social Security is an entirely different game. The name of the game is Give All. You are welcome to my facts. You know them, I give them to you. If you have the strength to pick them up, take them with my blessing. Touch them with your imagination and I will kiss your hands . . . What you fear as the risk of friendship, namely, that I may take from the wonderful hoard is really the risk of friendship because I have the power to lift a tuft of wool from a bush and make something of it . . . So I know how to transform common matter. And when I give that transformation has that no value for you? . . . As for me I long for others to do it. I thirst for it. So should you.
His letter seems to me a model. A firm insistence, a droit d’auteur, runs throughout it, to be sure; and yet there is little harder for a successful writer than to deal with the wounded sensitivities of a less successful childhood friend. For Atlas, however, the letter stinks of self-regard. It is “a remarkable testament to the artist’s sense of self-sovereignty–the needs of art trump all other needs. It also offers a glimpse of the soaring valuation he placed upon his own work . . . and his total lack of empathy for Peltz, whom he dismissed with withering condescension as a ‘nice old man’ playing with his ‘memory-toys’ while Bellow, the great novelist, went about the serious business of making art. The ever-tolerant Peltz, in an affectionate letter of forgiveness, agreed to let be.”
“While Bellow, the great novelist, went about the serious business of making art”–the phrase pulses with resentment. But Bellow is a great novelist, and making art is a serious business, and it demanded and received from Bellow, in this instance, a serious letter. Why would he not place a ” soaring valuation upon his work”? Clearly Atlas is not going to do it. Does the reader care that Dave Peltz was a little wounded, or should the reader’s– and the biographer’s–interest not be in the production of that distinguished novel? Bellow, incidentally, does not dismiss Peltz as an old man playing with his memory-toys; he says precisely that Peltz is not that man, that such is unworthy of him.
Perhaps Atlas truly feels that Dave Peltz’s sore nerve-endings are more important than Bellow’s fiction. In any event, it seems not to occur to Atlas that perhaps Peltz forgave Bellow because he agreed with his old friend, and because he knows that his old friend is a great writer. It is not about Social Security, it is about Giving All. One recalls Bellow’s speech in Lachine, and his talking of taking a “risk” for freedom; once again, to his friend, he writes of the “risk” of friendship to a writer, and argues that the risk must be taken.
It becomes clear that Atlas is not writing the biography of a freedom-loving mind, of an imagination, but of a seducer, a bad husband, and money-earner who also happened to write some good books (though not since 1965). His biography, the fine early Chicago pages excepted, is metalled with materialities: how much Bellow earned, how many lovers he had (and the attendant crudities of revelation: “As a lover Bellow received indifferent marks…”), which friends he betrayed, which ex-wives got into which books. Atlas’s Bellow is a picaro of positivism, perpetually on the road from one brute fact to the next. (One recalls Herzog’s hope that a Life be not “mere facticity.”)
One quickly tires of Atlas’s relentless interest in Bellow’s Don Juanism. We hear rather too little about Bellow’s relations with the contemporaries whom he most admired, such as Ralph Ellison, John Berryman, John Cheever, and, younger than them, Philip Roth. When Berryman jumps off a bridge in 1972 and briefly re-enters Atlas’s narrative, the reader starts, suddenly realizing that almost nothing has been said for hundreds of pages about the poet who laughed and muttered with delight as he read the manuscript of The Adventures of Augie March, and who wrote well about precisely that area which Atlas neglects or disdains, Bellow’s intellectual and literary allusiveness. The novel, wrote Berryman, is “dominated by a recurrent allusiveness to masters of Greek, Jewish, European, and American history, literature, and philosophy . . . We might called them Overlords, or Sponsors . . . The Overlords have a double use. They stand as figures of awe and emulation to Augie … and they create historical depth, the kind of legendary perspective that our naturalism has deeply desired . . . Replacing the vague merciless forces invoked by Dreiser, they remind me of the marvelous vast heads of statues in some of Watteau’s pictures, overlooking his lovers.”
What would a proper biography of Bellow, a biography of Bellow’s imagination, have looked like? Consider this rapid sketch, late in Atlas’s book: “But he was strangely isolated. In London, he lived the life of an international literary celebrity, dining with V.S. Naipaul and Isaiah Berlin. In Paris, he drank with Samuel Beckett at the Pont-Royal. But in Chicago, he often dined alone, on ‘a piece of fish’ from Burhop’s.” It is the only reference to Bellow’s meeting Beckett in the book. Now turn to James Knowlson’s intellectually scrupulous biography of Beckett, where we learn that Beckett read Humboldt’s Gift in 1978, was very “excited” by the novel, and asked, through intermediaries, to meet Bellow. The meeting was apparently awkward; both men were shy. In Knowlson’s account, the meeting arises out of Beckett’s reading: this is what has been occupying Beckett’s mind. In Atlas’s account, the meeting is part of the big swoosh of being an “international literary celebrity.”
It might have been interesting to discover what Bellow thought about Beckett’s writing. It might have been revealing to compare their achievements, since Bellow and Beckett are the major postwar English-language writers. It is, after all, one of the significances of Bellow’s career that, in the age of Beckett, the age of late modernism, he has retained the soul-pungency of the nineteenth-century novelists, and the metaphysical leanings of the great Russians. He is like an earlier generation of writers in his determination to deliver his characters from the inessential. He once wrote that when we read ” the best nineteenth and twentieth century novelists, we soon realise that they are trying in a variety of ways to establish a definition of human nature.” In most contemporary literature, however, “this power to understand the greatest human qualities appears to be dispersed, transformed, or altogether buried.” In his Nobel lecture, he declared that “there is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which, without art, we can’t receive. Proust calls these hints our ‘true impressions.’ ”
At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, we might say that Bellow has extended the life of the novel. He has certainly reprieved realism, held its neck back from the blade of the postmodern; and he has done this by revivifying realism with modernist techniques. His prose is densely “realistic,” and yet it is hard to find in it any of the usual conventions of realism. People do not walk out of houses and onto streets, and his characters do not have “dramatic” conversations. It is almost impossible to find sentences in Bellow along the lines of “He put down his drink and left the room.” That is because most Bellovian detail appears as memory in his novels, as scenes that are filtered through a remembering mind.
Detail is modern in Bellow because it is always the impression of a detail; and yet his details still have an unmodern solidity–they are indeed “true impressions.”
My ancient times. Remoter than Egypt. No dawn, the foggy winters. In darkness, the bulb was lit. The stove was cold. Papa shook the grates, and raised an ashen dust. The grates grumbled and squealed. The puny shovel clinked underneath. The Corporals gave Papa a bad cough. The chimneys in their helmets sucked in the wind. Then the milkman came in his sleigh. The snow was spoiled and rotten with manure and litter, dead rats, frogs. The milkman in his sheepskin gave the bell a twist . . . And then Ravitch, hung over, came from his room, in his heavy sweater.
Herzog is recalling this scene–and hence that aspect, so strong in Bellow, of a kind of emotional cubism, whereby the mind returns repeatedly, but with variations, to the same details, and ponders and re-ponders. It is a relaxed stream-of-consciousness, disguised by its relaxation so that it almost seems as if it were conventional realism. Of course, Bellow learned from Joyce that the stream-of-consciousness gives realism new life, because it absolves realism of having to persuade in the conventional way. A standard realist account would try to convince us that the scene in Herzog’s kitchen was happening as we witness it, or as another character witnessed it. In such a convention, for us to “believe” in the milkman would necessitate the conjuring into life of that milkman–a plausible description of his existence. But memory can select and assert, can pounce on one small detail–the bulb with its large loose twist of tungsten–precisely because these events have happened long ago, and there is no pressure to convince us. In Bellow, realism is relieved of the pressure of simultaneity in which it often awkwardly finds itself. (“She entered the room and gave a sharp cough.”) Bellow is using detail not to persuade us of the existence of something, but almost the opposite: to confirm its absence.
Realism is elegiac, a branch of consciousness, in Joyce and Bellow. Curiously enough, the stream of consciousness, for all its reputation as the great accelerator of description, actually slows down realism, asks it to dawdle over tiny remembrances, to circle and return. The stream of consciousness is really an ally of the short story, of the anecdote, the fragment–and it is no surprise that the short story and the stream of consciousness appear in strength in literature at about the same time, towards the end of the nineteenth century, in Hamsun and Chekhov. In a short story writer such as Babel (who was translated into English in 1929, and whom Bellow would certainly have read in the 1930s), one encounters small, sharp details, broken off and removed from the large, sustaining arboretum of conventional realistic narration. Sometimes, the sound is very close to Bellow: “Even Shoyl, my grand-uncle, went along. I loved that boastful old man, for he sold fish at the market. His fat hands were moist, covered with fish-scales, and smelt of worlds chill and beautiful … Besides the salesmen, old Lieberman, who had taught me the Torah and ancient Hebrew honoured us with his presence. In our circle he was known as Monsieur Lieberman. He drank more Bessarabian wine than he should have. The ends of the traditional silk tassels poked out from beneath his waistcoat, and in ancient Hebrew he proposed my health.”
So Bellow has been an impressionist–more, a plush pointillist–and a realist at once, and he has been both well into a postmodern age, extending and securing for another generation the life of the novel, and nothing less. His work reminds us of the infinite varieties of realism–and that all writing flows from it, for realism schools its own truants, teaches its rebels (surrealism, magical realism) how to be. “He was beautiful deep eloquent fragrant original,” writes Bellow of Humboldt, in the novel that James Atlas considers high-flown and an act of revenge on Delmore Schwartz. ” Ah Humboldt had been great–handsome, high-spirited, buoyant, ingenious, electrical, noble. To be with him made you feel the sweetness of life.” It is true of Bellow, too.