source: Tom Cono
Saul Bellow (1915-2005), “the genius of portraiture,” straddled the modernism of early twentieth century literature and the postmodernism and detached irony of its middle and later years. In doing so, some would say he bestrode the American literary landscape. Just as many would disagree. For every Irving Malin (“Saul Bellow is the most important living American novelist”) there is a Norman Mailer (“I cannot take him seriously as a major novelist.”) Given that, during his career, Bellow frequently tilted against the windmills of both the literary and critical elites, it is unsurprising that he engendered so much feeling. He is a writer who makes the reader take a stance.
Nonetheless, Bellow did not see himself as being confrontational. “I am going against the stream,” he said. “That’s not an attitude. Attitudes are foolishness. It’s just that there’s no use doing anything else is there?” The stream he was swimming against was the culture of despair and alienation which was dominant in American literature, what Chirantan Kulshrestha describes as “the ideology of exaggerated wretchedness.” In reacting against false optimism, Bellow felt, writers had too often gone to the opposite extreme. Still in thrall to the modernists and their “legacy of pessimism,” still wallowing in wastelands, writers were acceding to the wider cultural expectation to “say no powerfully, ‘in the accent of thunder.’” Where, Bellow asked, was there real life, written realistically?
It is in the question of reality and art that Bellow moved further away from the accepted stance of the day. Kulshrestha perceives that Bellow had left behind early twentieth-century writers’ hostility to the reality of the present and, like mid-century writers, believed that art could not be a substitute for life. “Life or reality, for Bellow, is intractable and mysterious,” he notes. Because it stepped beyond intellectual systems it could not be exchanged for art. Art could, though, be a powerful means of interpreting reality, as seen in the works of many mid-century writers like Camus, Faulkner, Moravia et al. Bellow differed from them, too, however, because he refused to believe in a “lost paradise” or to accept a life-view tinged by a sense of loss. Instead, his fiction was, as Michael Glenday notes, “an effort to grasp a more authentic reality.” Bellow himself states that: “one of my themes is the American denial of real reality, our devices for evading it, our refusal to face what is all too obvious and palpable.” Glenday summarises this as a means for Bellow to expose “the inauthenticity of the everyday.”
In fighting for realism, Bellow took a stance against what he saw as the macho destructiveness of the prevailing modernist mood, its relentless pessimism. “I don’t see that we need to call for the destruction of the world in hope of a phoenix,” he wrote. Instead, Bellow concentrated on examining the human condition. Writing of Him with his foot in his mouth, Cynthia Ozick states there is:
no romantic aping of archaisms or nostalgias; no restraints born out of theories of form or faddish tenets of experimentalism or ideological crypticness; no Neanderthal flatness in the name of cleanliness of prose, no gods of nihilism; no gods of subjectivity; no philosophy of parody.
Gloria Cronin summarises Bellow’s stance against the current orthodoxy most succinctly:
No other post WW11 American writer has analyzed so completely and so humanely the effects of American cultural anxiety with the age of technology and rationalism, existentialism and the legacy of high modernism.
Bellow’s objections to the orthodoxies of the day – be they modernist or post-modernist – were not superficial: rather, they go a long way to explain his extraordinary, rich, humane prose style. In an interview with Jo Brans, he declared that, unlike Joyce, he had no interest in writing for the literary intelligensia. Although he denied he was trying to teach people how to live, he did accept that he believed he had “something of importance to transmit.” He saw himself “as a historian. Every novelist is a historian.” And what do historians do but relate the story of people? Thus, character – or the representation of humanity – is an essential component of the Bellow ouevre. He concluded his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1976 by stating:
A novel is balanced between a few true impressions and the multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life. It tells us that for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part, that these many existences signify something, tend to something, fulfill something; it promises us meaning, harmony and even justice.
This is what Joyce Carol Oates alludes to in her portrait of Bellow:
“big ideas”, though obsessively aired, aria-like indeed, seem to us pretexts to enable the author to display, and to admire, and to analyze, the phenomona he loves best: the haunting contours and textures of the physical world, and the mystery of human personality in its extraordinary variety.”
Bellow focused on the individual as a way of understanding the general. He was essentially an optimist who saw beauty in humanity, but who nonetheless deprecated the isolation felt by many in a society which crowded the individual. Christopher Taylor identifies one of Bellow’s great themes as “the fate of the individual in an age which, Bellow feels, doesn’t put a proper value on individualism.” Robert Baker describes the “two themes that pervade [Bellow’s] work – the horrible price of insularity… and, transcending this, the common humanity shared by all.”
It is here that Bellow rebelled once more against contemporary rhetoric. In his Nobel speech, he quoted Alain Robbe-Grillet:
The novel of characters belongs entirely in the past… Individuals have been wiped out… The exclusive cult of the ‘human’ has given way to a larger consciousness, one that is less anthropocentric.
Bellow countered: “Can it be that human beings are at a dead end?” He rounded on the intellectual community – “another group of mummies” – which had “laid down the law”: “It amuses me that these serious essayists should be allowed to sign the death notices of literary forms… We must not make bosses of our intellectuals.”
Although he conceded that “there is no reason why a novelist should not drop “character” if the strategy stimulates him,” Bellow was clear on the importance of character in his work:
A "character" has his own logic. He goes his way, one goes with him; he has some perceptions, one perceives them with him. You do him justice, you don't grind your axe. I have no axe to grind, one way or the other.
Thus, it can be said that character dominates Bellow’s work. It is through character that his novels and stories gain their narrative depth; it is through the detailing of minor, often contradictory truths – those weaknesses and foibles in all of us – that his voice is formed; it is through thought and belief – and the testing of belief in times of stress – that his vision of humanity emerges.
Therefore, it may be argued that Bellow’s narrative style is more straightforward than those of his predecessors and many of his contemporaries. By concentrating on character, he can reveal his truths through narrative. Glenday notes that: “Unlike Hemingway…or James… Bellow does not rely upon symbolical properties to give narrative depth.”
This is not to say that he aimed to be straightforward or didactic. In his essay on the future of fiction, he stated:
we have developed in American fiction a strange combination of extreme naivete in the characters and of profundity implicit in the writing, in the techniques themselves and in the language, but the language of thought itself is banned, it is considered dangerous and destructive.
He cited as evidence Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea where the reader is offered:
a sort of Christian endurance… The attempt to represent ideas while sternly forbidding thought begins to look like a curious and highly sophisticated game. It shows a great skepticism of the strength of art.
There is no question that Bellow thought himself a novelist of ideas, and that he used his work to project his own, essentially optimistic, outlook on the world. However, for a man whose entire career was spent in pursuit of his own artistic goals, regardless of current literary tastes, it is unsurprising that there are dissenting voices. Bellow was clear that character led and narrative followed. Of Mr Sammler’s Planet, he wrote: “One doesn't arbitrarily invent these [character traits] in order to put anything across.”
Allan Massie, however, notes that he was “more interested in ideas than in fiction, or rather interested in fiction chiefly as a vehicle for argument.” Further, he argues that far from being an acute chronicler of human behaviour, Bellow “has a deficient sense of how other people behave.” Sanford Pinsker, writing of Him With His Foot In His Mouth and Other Stories, notes that the collection “mercifully” doesn’t preach, as some of his recent novels had done. Sam Phipps writes that Bellow “has always loved the sound of his own literary voice too much to worry about reining himself in.” And David Galloway says:
The imaginative structure fails to provide adequate support for the intellectual structure, so that at crucial moments the author’s ideas fail to be embodied in character, action, or image.
Thus, the author who decried the didacticism of others stands charged with the same thing, while it is suggested that his characterisation, far from being integral to the narrative, is seen as unconvincing.
Who is right? The answer, as always, lies in the middle. Certainly, as he grew older Bellow’s novels became more preachy, less interesting, but it is in his shorter fiction that the qualities of his writing continue to shine. Massie suggests his novels will date and become “old hat” and – since, from Dangling Man onwards, they are undoubtedly products of their time – he may well be right. But in Bellow’s shorter fiction there is the thread of genius. It is in his short stories that character comes to the fore and can truly be said to be fundamental to the narrative drive, to lead the story naturally, to establish a voice and convey a vision which is fresh and original and the equal of any writing in the twentieth century.