presented as part of Bennington College MFA lecture series, June 2005
After you add up the awe and deduct the shock, what legacy has Saul Bellow left to American letters? One reader’s attempt to balance brilliant prose with provincial politics.
Only a critic who intends to give a lecture about Saul Bellow wonders if enough has been said. We can hardly round a library stack without eyeing spines on one of Bellow’s five marriages or fourteen novels, about his Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel speech of 1976, his moral might and spiritual inquiries, his prose style, or now, about the legacy he left American letters. It sometimes seems everyone has, at one point or another, surveyed Bellow’s domain: James Wood and Sven Birkerts. Martin Amis, Margaret Drabble. Christopher Hitchens, Stanley Crouch, James Atlas, to name just a few. But then Bellow is, according to many critics, second only to Henry James or to William Faulkner in the pantheon of great American stylists; Bellow even topped one discerning critic’s list for his then-new tricks with diction, stacking major philosophical facecards in the decks of smack-talking Chicago jokers … and still managing to walk away with winning stories.
Yes, however we may rank Bellow’s game, the response to his death at the age of 89 this last fifth of April proved his place, as a standing-room-only crush of admirers materialized instantly in the quarterly pages, recognitions bursting like the glitter of fireworks just above our heads, much of it familiar: all our love for his prolix plotlessness, the epic mental quests, the style and speed of narrative, the inwardness of it all, and the glorious words themselves. But in magazines & on the Web, in review after review, in the biographies, the critical collections, and the memoirs of jilted intimates, we note one conspicuous absence. Would no one provide more than a gloss of a key factor of Bellow’s uncommon variety of realism—the offense of it all?
It is ever-present in Bellow’s books, as it is in interviews, his essays, his shorter works, the loose language thrust between such lofty thoughts—Henderson and his “savages,” the “cunts” in Humboldt’s Gift, and the “queer antics and faggot behavior” in a book like Ravelstein. These words bind together to form stories populated not only by the predominantly male Jewish protagonists modeled in part after the author himself, but a squad of stock characters, as well—Rinaldo Cantabile, the wanna-be Italian don; the violently anti-Semitic Ukranian gardener who once guarded a concentration camp; Sono, the sexy Japanese lover; King Dahfu, the sabre-rattling, superstitious African tribal leader; and of course, the inevitable and always heart-rending Irish drunks, like Mr. McKern, who without even managing to attain consciousness plays a pivotal role in the story “Something to Remember Me By.”
So this is serious. Yet we still struggle to find even a passing reference to such matters in reviews. Maybe we’re too tidy, neatly depositing politics outside the door of literary analysis. Or perhaps it’s just no fun; critiquing Bellow is too grand an opportunity to meditate on all that, like describing the ocean to one who’s never been—aren’t we more inclined to begin with the scale and the shimmer, the motion and the way it gently plays up light before getting into the treachery of riptides, the sharks at the fathomless depths?
We stubbornly resist; after all, there is so much more to say about one of literature’s most lauded than how he has failed us. And I agree. In part. Bellow’s language calls for commendation. The Economist obituary captured what I think best defines him—the rangy, raucous diction. They called it “colloquial and mandarin, lofty, streetwise and intimate.” The entire spectrum from high formality to the vulgar vernacular provides Bellow’s work its popular accessibility; the stories are so dense and full of possibility that they literally seem to morph into new material for each critic. Sometimes to such an extreme that we wonder if we’ve read the same book. Lorin Stein’s essay reprinted in Salon upon Bellow’s death, for example, compares Bellow’s characters not to those created by the usual all-male team, the endurance athletes of storytelling—Melville, Joyce, James, Proust, Cervantes, Flaubert—but to the men of Almodóvar and John Waters, and then to the mustachioed undercover agents in the Beastie Boys video, Sabotage. Ardent MCA devotee that I am, this likening remains an impenetrable mystery to me.
Still, Stein’s assessment is important, not only because it shows how literature can be of, by, and for many minds at once, but also because Stein is one of the first I found who ventures beyond the mere mention of the biases, so often cited by what seems like obligation, and into the messy task of charting the racial territory herself; she suggests that Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a novel that in part takes black-Jewish tension as its difficult premise, is “about blackness as fantasy, whiteness as the badge of the solipsist.”
Now, this presents some problems. It affords Bellow much more credit as a political polemicist than he would ever even accept. Bellow’s protagonist, Mr. Arthur Sammler, is a Holocaust survivor deeply disturbed by his surroundings, the new world order of stinky bohemians, distracted women, and daft proletarians. His fate and outlook both shift as he watches a crime unfold; “Sammler, feeling his head small, shrunk with strain, the teeth tensed, still was looking at the patent-leather bag riding, picked, on the woman’s hip, finding that he was irritated with her. That she felt nothing. What an idiot!”
In outrage, Sammler sets out on a quest to pursue the man of color who picked the pocketbook. The character and situation exist to give Sammler a platform from which to entertain his conflicted views on, among other issues, the romantic appeal of outlaws, the establishment’s vulnerability to subversion, and the greater state of the Union. “Mr. Sammler had to admit that once he had seen the pickpocket at work,” Bellow wrote, “he wanted very much to see the thing again. He didn’t know why.”
If we were to meditate on this passage as Stein’s arranged it (blackness, fantasy; whiteness, solipsism), would we not find ourselves with whiteness as the deepest realizable reality and blackness a chimerical plaything? It is dead wrong to read Sammler as any attempt to posture a critical commentary on race relations. No such superstructure exists; spying on a petty thief along the same daily bus route is a diversionary tactic that speeds plot development. It is the grounding reality that opens the story up to the lucid dreaming of the protagonist. Bellow always gives us this basic tension to occupy our practical interests as he does his best work, what he called in an interview with Sven in AGNI online, the “chronicling of the inner life.”
So this much is clear: skin color and racial origins are never leveraged for symbolic appeal in Sammler. Race and ethnicity are coarse, contentious constants for Bellow, articles of genuine antagonism in which he very much believes and which he exploits for dramatic effect. I offer no congratulations for such dependencies, nor do I feel the need to develop heady symbolism that prettifies a book that depicts an “African prince” stealing from innocent white elders, describing him as looming like a “puma,” staring with the “effrontery of a big animal,” and presenting like “a great black beast.”
Affronted by the crass racial caricatures, we may be tempted to second Stein’s decision to sweep Bellow’s words under the rug, saying “none of [his] novels has aged gracefully.” But is that where our conversation ends? Considering it was written in 1970, I’m frankly not sure the book ever knew an era that considered such offensive language graceful. And furthermore, surely we can find a way to discuss Bellow comprehensively, noting that an author can be in possession of both narrow views and broad talents and still produce brilliant storylines.
I remember having “end of an era” thoughts when I first learned Bellow had died, but then I had to ask myself to what era Bellow actually belonged? He rejected the idea that history could direct one’s life and art and insisted that true art tends to nothing but what he called our “phenomenal surroundings.” It all sounded so easy as to come off a little grand, if not downright smug. But when I read a tribute in The New Yorker, written—unexpectedly—by Joan Acocella, their long-time ballet critic, proof of Bellow’s earnest convictions somehow clicked into place.
Acocella veered within a metaphorical inch of the Bellovian province I’m after here today. She wrote of Bellow’s “long, baroque, history-swallowing sentences,” “sentences [that] occur on almost every page. They are like hall closets,” she wrote. “You open them and everything falls out.”
We leap back from the figurative gesture here, not only because we respond to the comic tumble of mops and lampshades, of snowboards and tennis rackets, but also because we know well that every closet contains splintered skeletons, each an ugly artifact of our haunted, stunted minds. Everyone, especially he who claims to be free of clutter, stows away prejudices somewhere.
So for days after I read Acocella’s review, the closet kept creaking ajar and calling me in. I kept coming back to it, visions of Bellow hunched there, perspiring by the harsh light of his creative industry. I watched Bellow in my mind, reaching into the metaphorical dark without trepidation, flinging every last item of his overstocked closet backwards over his shoulder and hard, far, fast, all of it, everything, with the utmost abandon. Martin Amis wrote that “Bellow sees more than we see—sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches. Compared with him, the rest of us are only fitfully sentient.” So Acocella got it right; Sammler is but one of many Bellovian protagonists who sort their mental chaos on the page; Bellow depicts it with what James Wood called his “hilarious pathos,” with his reckless stylings, unrelenting curiosity, and unqualified openness. He is a rarity in that he inventories every disgrace, spares us none of it, not the high-flying philosophy crammed with mythic references and intensely opinionated interpretations, nor the grim proofs of what I believe are his often low, shameful, elitist views.
One of Bellow’s best and most important books, Humboldt’s Gift, is the one that, unjustifiably, takes the toughest blows of all for its portraiture. It is, even more than Bellow’s other works, many novels all at once, centering on a successful author named Charlie Citrine whose personal and professional prospects hang in the balance.
Citrine feels his way through the beginnings, ends, and aftershocks of his disastrous relationships with four different women, loses his religion, resists the Freudian fixations of the day, comically embroils himself in Mafioso intrigue, and spends the rest of his time sorting the diminished memories and oddball legacies of his literary mentor, Humboldt Von Fleisher, based on the poet Delmore Schwartz.
In her incredibly hard-hitting Village Voice article entitled Why Do These Men Hate Women?, Vivian Gornick dressed Bellow down for the book, along with Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth. “One wants to weep with shame over the shabbiness and emotional cowardice of the best American writers,” she wrote.
“The self-absorption of an arrested psyche, the sullen vanities of disappointed men, the forfeited talents of writers” could all be reduced to “blood-congested urgencies” and a “dreadful fear of mortality.” The work of the great prose artists ultimately failed “to mature, to say something valuable to us about our world.”
Humboldt’s Gift is an eloquent indictment of the traditional American enterprise of destroying its artists Citrine reflects lengthily on Schwartz, but also on Edgar Allan Poe, Hart Crane, Randall Jarrell, and John Berryman. We might add Sara Teasdale, Sylvia Plath, Lucy Grealy, and Reetika Vazirani. Citrine takes a hard, unforgiving look at our culture when he acidly states, “poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, ‘If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn’t get through this either.” If we fail to feel the critical—forgive me the word—message in such a voice, to hear “something valuable in it,” we must admit the resistance amounts to our own cynical corruption, our own awfully ironic intolerance.
On several levels, Gornick is undeniably correct. The guys in Humboldt’s Gift, at too many turns, portray women as mere pull-string dolls. She critiques, “The wife figure flashes: Touch me, I will evoke for you everything in life that is perpetually doing you in. The mistress figure flashes. Touch me. I will evoke for you everything in life that is perpetually holding out on you.” But these are the willfully electrified lines of tension that exist between Citrine and his ex-wife Denise, between Citrine and his lover Renata. Gornick writes that Bellow is “isolated from our life, and [he] know[s] it.” I cannot say what life this is. I am well over a half-century younger than Bellow and I see evidence of his types everywhere I turn, in both genders. In fact, when Citrine and Denise argue over his obsessive lament for Humboldt, Denise asks, “So you feel bad about your pal Humboldt! But how come you haven’t looked him up?” Citrine thinks to himself, “These were hard questions, very intelligent. She didn’t let me get away with a thing.” At that instant, I did not even need a physical description of the scene, nor was one offered up, because Bellow recreates the sensate hover in our every interaction; he probes the human emotions we feel to the nervy roots of our teeth. We have watched men and women stand before us, how they think these thoughts, show their analysis in their expressions. Bellow allows us to feel it all right alongside Denise. No derivative emotion or mealy-mouthed exposition, just the necessary action.
But then, I neither expect nor desire humanist portraiture from my literature. I do not hope that Denise will become a model of my own life somehow improved, nor the promise of a sisterhood glorified. I am a fiercely committed feminist, and pugnacious when I need to be, but I’d side first with JFK when he says, “Let us welcome controversial books” (though I would add only if well-written, please). And let me also be clear (and perhaps, defensive) when I assert that I do believe in the change a book can inspire; I carry Sam Hamill’s collection Poets Against the War around with me. And I admire Jose Saramago, Antonio Tabucchi, Wislawa Szymborska, Elfriede Jelinek, Salman Rushdie, and Gunter Grass for writing literature that fights causes, that makes statements our leaders desperately need to hear; and we must have more of it.
But reading Marx’s proposal that books are “the basis of all social progress,” we would be incautious and incorrect to assume he means only a vision of where we might arrive as we improve. Books are just as valuable for the sorry articulation of where we are right now. In offering us the very real, erratic, awful, narcissistic, and often enormously offensive vitality of characters, wholly drawn, Bellow instructs. We need the uncompromised antagonism of his own mind in the world, the desperate efforts of his backwards people to live at full tilt, guiding their way by the light of the “moronic inferno.”
And besides, though the bimbo Polly, the castrating ex-wife Denise, and the busty, “deliciously damp” Renata disappoint and distract with the simplicity of their construction, we would be remiss to overlook characters like Demmie Vonghel, an early love interest of Citrine’s in Humboldt’s Gift.
Once we shoulder past the typical Bellovian physical review—Demmie had, by the way, hair like the “curtains of a neat house,” blue eyes with clean whites, a confrontational upturned nose, teeth that forced her mouth open, and a face “like you might have seen in a Conestoga wagon a century ago”—we find she also studied classics at Bryn Mawr and taught Latin, she knew over three thousand Bible verses, was expertly familiar with all kinds of pharmaceuticals. Sure, she was blessed with beautiful legs, but she also possessed what Citrine identified as “strength of soul.” She talked trash when she played cards. She bragged a rap sheet for hot wiring cars. Except that she later dies in a plane crash, as such ideal characters are wont to do, can you tell me what the problem is with this woman? I, for one, would be pleased to find myself seated beside her in a bar.
Her problems, like anyone’s in Bellow’s work, serve a purpose. Demmie informs the protagonist’s developing perspective in essential ways, just as past loves do in our own lives, revealing what James Wood beautifully called Bellow’s “coiled ironies.” It is this woman, after all, sitting with Citrine’s manuscript in her lap and hurtling to her doom on a plane bound back to earth, whose theme in life is “the miraculous survival of goodness.” Bellow is sensitive to the flimsiness of our optimistic appraisals and has created a character to embody it. Each character’s exaggerated identity distorts in this way, like a Hirschfield portrait. No, not exactly complimentary, but altered intentionally to provoke feelings, frustrate expectation, surprise assumption, and, yes, maybe even offend convention. Is this not what strongest fiction does? We’ve had a stretch of nearly three decades since Gornick’s piece was published in the Village Voice and all our various feminisms have gone their separate ways, but I wonder today whether a response is even more dearly needed now than it was then. Are we losing the capability, as we so clearly have with Hollywood celebrities and their public performances, to distinguish quite literally between fact and fiction?
I’ll approach the inherent value of flawed characters this way: which would we prefer from our art, to be offended or bored? Citrine says, in a moment when I strongly suspect the author’s voice intrudes, “some people are so actual that they beat down my critical powers. Once they’re there—inarguable, incontestable—nothing can be done about them. Their reality matters more than my practical interests. Beyond a certain point of vividness I become passionately attached.” I’m sure we all but a few of us congratulate ourselves here today, and challenge the novelists, bring that actual, attach me to your passions! Offend me! Dare me. But the numbers tell a different story, one of appetites for blander stuff. The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom tells us that over the last decade, out of twenty different requests to remove books from our library shelves, offensive language was among the top three complaints, occupying 16% of all national challenges.
Paradoxically, our sensitivities increase as the input multiplies, and the flow of critical thought is being ruinously routed by mandated lines of thought. Though the numbers fluctuate from year to year and the ALA claims for every request to ban a book that at least five go unreported, requests submitted to libraries for the banning of offensive books increased by 255% from 1990 to 2004. The most recent numbers show requests increased 21% from 2003 to 2004. From the last year of Clinton’s presidency to the first of Dubya’s moralizing platform of intolerance began, requests increased by 37%, the largest increase in over a decade.
So let’s all catch our breath. Salman Rushdie recently wrote in an LA Times op-ed piece that “we love relatively few books in our lives, and those books become part of the way we see our lives; we read our lives through them, and their descriptions of the inner and outer worlds become mixed up with ours—they become ours. Love does this, hate does not.” But this is not so. Do we not best remember what we hate and pity the most? Well I know, whatever it says about me, I do: I think of Joseph, the diarist of Bellow’s first published book, Dangling Man. It is, as with most offense in Bellow, his flip assertions that trouble most. He employs terms like ‘darky entertainers,’ welters endlessly in feminine pheromones, lengthily observing every stretched neck that crosses his view, all the wanton eyes, the large bosoms, and the apparently omnipresent plump bottoms. Yet I attend to this character. I take in his fictional life. Why? Because however rank his rotten lust, he still challenges me and every reader if not only to consider the alternatives he overlooks when he thinks, “I would rather die in the war than consume its benefits.”
Such thoughts stop us cold and force reflection. The ugly depths are not a domain exclusive to Bellow, of course. In other works, we remember the difficult characters because they strut and fret in our minds well beyond their hour upon the page: Humbert Humbert, Raskalnikov, Coetzee’s Magistrate, or King Lear and the “ruinous disorders [that] follow us disquietly to our graves.” Characters that offend me, however frustrated it leaves me, remain—like the nasty, vengeful Robert Wilson in Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. And I think I will live my life with the horrific last scene of Elfriede Jelinek’s Wonderful Wonderful Times wedged whole at the forefront of my mind. This is what happens when a character in text transitions to a memorable personality. However loathe we may be to admit it, if we have read them, we know Bellow’s people by heart in this awful way.
In Herzog, a Bellow novel I love, a man named Moses Herzog writes a hurried series of letters, attacking everyone and forgiving no one as he comes hysterically unhinged. The narration reads, “Moses refused to know evil. But he could not refuse to experience it.” We have the luxury of refusing neither the knowledge nor the experience of evil ourselves. Bellow gave us everything he had—what he loved and believed, everyone he needed and wanted and argued with and discarded, all that he endured. He also reported with precision how the frost looked frozen on sills, what he could read of the newspapers blurring by in the subway, what he imagined of Africa, all he regretted having done to his family, how deeply he feared for the culture he loved, all the lives he vetted and the prejudices he affirmed, everything deferred and accepted, all of it.
Cornel West insists we must be “charitable and compassionate toward any political perspective from which we can gain insight and wisdom to empower us." It is not my business as a critic to defend or deride another author’s private bigotries. I’d not think to do it and, besides, I’ve read enough interviews with Bellow to know how loathe I’d be to convey what I encountered. The text, however, is our territory; it belongs to us as readers as much to Bellow as a writer. Vivian Gornick is free to have her read of Bellow and I am free to respond. To wit, we are not only free, but obliged to rise to such discourse. Perhaps this is the most vital lesson Bellow has unknowingly bestowed upon us.
In the same AGNI interview, Bellow remembered Depression-era Chicago, the days when “libraries were full of people trying to keep warm, and they were reading all kinds of books … you’d see groups of people actually arguing about ideas.” If a novel can capture this spirit, the hushed debates in the library carrels or just as well the throw-down in the town piazza, it has done its work, regardless of the contents of the conversation. Askold reminded us last term that “a great style … bring[s] us back to our bodies by identifying sensations or intimations we’ve had … without knowing how to name them, so that against the violent backdrop of the world … we can at least begin to understand a part of why we have lived as we have.” I believe with all of me that Bellow achieves this, and that he is equally committed to that violent backdrop and those who stand before it as he is to our role in painting the backdrop with our apathies, our distortions, our dysfunctions. Prose is, by my light, nothing if not an explicit effort to name all the human qualities as we come to them, the range of sensations, the hints and allegations of commonality, both becoming and brutal. Humanity thrives best when we dispense with the Manichean duality of good and evil and just admit it: each of us harbors a world of love and hate within. After all, aren’t shock and awe similar spiritual disturbances?
When we have done the moral work of tending to our own offenses, we more fully feel the revelations. Shortly after I finished a second reading of Humboldt’s Gift, which ends with Charlie Citrine discovering a small yellow crocus growing at the side of a mass grave, I happened to visit the blog of a friend of mine here at Bennington, one with whom I’ll soon part ways. I scrolled through the pictures, until I came to this.
And I ask you, is there nothing that makes all the work of the original Bellovian cast worth it, that might restore childlike wonder to a jaded adult than having known our own violence and destruction, attended to our own hatred and intolerance, to the spectacular sadness of our lives, than returning to these small and fleeting moments of grace and synchronicity, of having weathered—and yes, maybe forgiven—our differences and our offenses and having felt an astonished commonality in what still grows? If this is not artistry worth inheriting, I simply cannot say what is.