The intelligent, literate young man at the TV production office where I work—aged 26 or 27—shocked me recently by admitting that he hadn’t read anything by Saul Bellow.
My colleague, an English major with an Ivy League degree, wanted to know which of Bellow’s novels to read first. To my surprise I had no immediate answer. And on the 100th anniversary of the great Saul’s birth, I’m still searching. I have no doubt about Bellow’s place atop the heap of post-World War II American novelists. But I worry about his appeal to members of my co-worker’s generation.
This concern began 10 years ago when my wife and I attended Bellow’s memorial at the 92nd Street Y. Moments before the program began, I looked around and noticed that we were the youngest people in the house. (A minute later, Jonathan Franzen—a few years my junior—arrived alone and sat down behind us, but that was pretty much the extent of the youth movement.)
The question then is whether Bellow’s discursive style, his descriptive gifts, and his philosophical asides, would sustain the interest of my smart young colleague given the much discussed short attention span of his generation, as well as its hunger for plot born out of a steady diet of formulaic film and television in which the narrative hook is stuck in early and pulls the viewer along. What might this mean for Bellow’s literary legacy?
Added to these concerns is Bellow’s reputation for cultural conservatism, which seems to be at odds with the way literature is often discussed these days. Of course it’s wrong—stupid, really—to attach a label to a writer with a mind as complex as Bellow’s. But it doesn’t help matters that he is often blamed for attacking multiculturalism when he posed the now-notorious question, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” Bellow said he was inaccurately quoted by the journalist who published the remark. Yet the comment adheres to Bellow—the nonviolent equivalent of Norman Mailer’s stabbing of his second wife. It is that which will never be forgiven. Well, whether Bellow said it or not, I admire his response to the controversy published in The New York Times in 1994:
“In any reasonably open society, the absurdity of a petty thought-police campaign provoked by the inane magnification of ‘discriminatory’ remarks about the Papuans and the Zulus would be laughed at. To be serious in this fanatical style is a sort of Stalinism—the Stalinist seriousness and fidelity to the party line that senior citizens like me remember all too well.”
But back to my co-worker’s question about where to start with Bellow. Martin Amis—one of Bellow’s most ardent admirers—says Bellow’s 1953 picaresque breakout novel, The Adventures of Augie March, is the great American novel. One need “look no further.” To this I would add only that it is self-consciously the great American novel, from the deliberate evocation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in its title to its implicit insistence that the life of a Jewish nobody from the Midwest—much like the ill-bred but intelligent and moral Huck—is emblematic of the entire vast country.
So why not simply start with Augie March?
Any reader, I hope, would be seduced by the well-known muscular, deeply American opening lines of Bellow’s early masterpiece: “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 …” This is where Bellow famously found his mature voice, marrying erudition with a knowledge of the street and the contemporary urban vernacular. It was as if Mark Twain had soaked up all of the big ideas from the great books—ideas that Bellow seemed to have at his fingertips—and nonchalantly worked them into an sprawling narrative that features, among others, a lunatic, a prize fighter, and a woman who trains an eagle to kill lizards. Augie March is a young man’s book, a story that, as Bellow himself put it, is “a widening spiral that begins in the parish, ghetto, slum and spreads into the greater world.”
Yet diving into Augie March is a big commitment. Would my colleague plow through all 586 of the oversized pages of the Penguin Classics edition with its tiny type? It’s a bit like asking someone to get married on the first date.
What about Bellow’s short pre-Augie novels, Dangling Man and The Victim? Neither book is much longer than a novella, but Bellow was not yet fully himself when he wrote these novels. They are, as Bellow later put it, “straight and respectable.” Bellow at his finest is anything but that.
Going through a subjective list of my personal favorites, I wondered if perhaps Bellow’s fertile middle period would be the best place to begin. If Augie March put Bellow on the map, Herzog made him rich—or at least comfortable. This difficult, brilliant comic novel was on the bestseller list for close to a year. Yet to read Herzog today is to be amazed that this erudite, discursive, largely plotless—and at times, it must be said, a bit whiny—novel was, of all things, popular. Though one suspects it was more purchased than read, or at least more started than finished. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t a fine, deeply enjoyable novel marked by, as Herzog himself puts it, “The wit you can have only when you consider death very plainly, when you consider what a human being really is.”
I always read with a pencil in hand, and part of me judges the quality of a novel by how many sentences I underline in admiration as I go along. And Herzog—with its ingenious central conceit of a middle-aged intellectual in crisis writing letters to his friends and enemies, contemporary leaders, and historical figures—does very well by this measure.
“Every community has a class of people dangerous to the rest,” Herzog writes to The New York Times, in a letter that is never sent. “I don’t mean the criminals … I mean the leaders. Invariably the most dangerous people seek the power.” Bellow certainly has a way with one-liners (see the short story “Him with His Foot in His Mouth” about a man who can’t help making wonderfully offensive wisecracks). To me, though, Bellow’s greatest gift is his ability to cut to the center of a character’s soul, to use that mysterious word that pops up in Bellow again and again. He was truly a soul man, as in this lyrical yet worldly passage from Herzog—a moment of reverie as Herzog waits for a ferry at Woods Hole:
“His heart was greatly stirred by the open horizon; the deep colors; the faint iodine pungency of the Atlantic rising from weeds and mollusks; the white, fine, heavy sand; but principally by the green transparency as he looked down to the stony bottom webbed with golden lines. Never still. If his soul could cast a reflection so brilliant, and so intensely sweet, he might beg God to make such use of him. But that would be too simple. But that would be too childish. The actual sphere is not clear like this, but turbulent, angry. A vast human action is going on. Death watches. So if you have some happiness, conceal it. And when your heart is full, keep your mouth shut also.”
Still, despite its abundance of pleasures, I wonder if Herzog, the chronicle of a middle-aged academic with a fondness for analyzing his personal woes through the filter of Hegel, Freud, Spinoza, and other deep thinkers, would seduce a twentysomething reader. “Why did I always have to fall among theoreticians?” Augie March asks. Well, the answer is that Bellow has a weakness for them, though, of course, he sees the comedy in their constant straining for meaning. In Herzog, Bellow was, as he later claimed, “making fun of pedantry.” Yes, but he was also—at least by today’s standards—being a bit pedantic.
So, moving forward in my list of most loved Bellow novels, there’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Here Bellow writes with complete authority about the inner life of a learned Holocaust survivor enduring the costume drama taking place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the sexual and political upheavals of the 1960s:
“Just look … at this imitative anarchy of the streets—these Chinese revolutionary tunics, these babes in unisex toyland, these surrealist warchiefs, Western stagecoach drivers—Ph.D.s in philosophy, some of them … They sought originality. They were obviously derivative. And of what—of Paiutes, of Fidel Castro? No, of Hollywood extras. Acting mythic. Casting themselves into chaos, hoping to adhere to higher consciousness, to be washed up on the shores of truth.”
It’s a brilliant work, riddled though it is with more than a whiff of sexism, as well as un-politically correct asides on race and class. Though I recently read it with almost uninterrupted pleasure, maybe a twentysomething reader should wait a few decades before tackling Sammler.
Which brings us to Humbolt’s Gift, Bellow’s mid-career masterpiece. It’s a an eccentric novel, not-so-loosely based on Bellow’s great friend, the brilliant, mad poet Delmore Schwartz. The novel’s narrator, the semi-autobiographical Bellow stand-in Charlie Citrine, is a devotee of the Austrian philosopher/mystic Rudolf Steiner, and the novel’s eccentricity comes in the form of in-depth digressions about Steiner’s brand of theosophy. There are splendid passages in which Citrine lies down and just thinks for page after page. This sort of thing doesn’t often happen in contemporary fiction, and lord knows it slows down the plot, such as it is. But of course in these—and other—digressions lie the book’s greatness.
Late in the novel, Citrine says, “There’s the most extraordinary, unheard-of poetry buried in America, but none of the conventional means known to culture can even begin to extract it. But now that is true of the world as a whole. The agony is too deep, the disorder too big for art enterprises undertaken in the old way.” This may be true, but with Humbolt, Bellow does a fine job of putting a measure of that “unheard poetry” onto the page. But once again, I’m forced to conclude that for all of its pleasures, Humbolt is likely not the best way to seduce a young man into loving Saul Bellow.
So what about More Die of Heartbreak, the story of a botanist with a worldwide reputation and a genius for communicating with plants of all kinds? Benn Crader has what his nephew—the narrator of the novel—calls “the magics.” Benn is a brilliant, quietly charismatic man, a great spirit. Yet like so many of Bellow’s gifted heroes or anti-heroes, his love life is a disaster. The renowned scientist is set to marry into a wealthy, domineering Chicago family, which is masterfully portrayed by Bellow, who clearly knew the type. The family wants to shape Benn into a man worldly enough—and rich enough—to satisfy their pretty young daughter. Of course the family’s manipulations are likely to come at the cost of Benn’s soul, the loss of his magic.
A character in More Die of Heartbreak says, “You can’t know life or human relations, you don’t understand society, if you haven’t read Balzac. As for people who haven’t read Cousin Pons and Cousin Bette, I don’t see what kind of guidance system they can have when somebody gives them the business, they can’t interpret how they’re being shafted.”
The same might be said of people who haven’t read Bellow. And More Die of Heartbreak makes an excellent, subtly cautionary gift for any friend you believe is contemplating marriage to the wrong person. But it is perhaps not the best book for a young person just starting out in life.
All of which sends me back to Augie March. That’s where my colleague should start. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it’s challenging. But so is Bellow, so is much of literature. But then there’s the allure of great, energetic sentences like this well-known description of Augie and his friends riding the elevator in Chicago’s City Hall:
“In the cage we rose and dropped, rubbing elbows with bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hothouse and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not-caring, and hopes of tremendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whiskey and beer.”
Maybe none of this will appeal. But I’m reminded of what John Updike told Dick Cavett on TV when Cavett asked Updike what he would say to someone who confessed they’d started Anna Karenina but couldn’t get into it. “I would say that isn’t Tolstoy’s fault,” the witty Updike replied.
And while it surely isn’t Bellow’s fault if my colleague isn’t drawn into Augie March, my advice would be to wait a few years and try again. Saul Bellow will always be there waiting to be discovered by readers wanting to be wised up, to borrow one of Bellow’s phrases. He’ll be there for readers who are ready to be carried away by his seemingly endless flow of great, loose-limbed, learned, earthy, ironic, soulful, Yiddish-inflected, utterly America, wisecrack-filled sentences.