Saul Bellow -- an earnest admirer of Pnin and Lolita ...: Martin
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The Atlantic Monthly | December 2003
Books & Critics
The Supreme American Novelist
A tribute to Saul Bellow, fifty years after he published one of the great novels of all time
by Martin Amis
Saul Bellow: Novels 1944-1953
edited by James Wood
Library of America
The Adventures of Augie March: 50th Anniversary Edition
by Saul Below
hereas English poetry "fears no one," E. M. Forster wrote in 1927, English fiction "is less triumphant": there remained the little matter of the Russians and the French. Forster published his last novel, A Passage to India, in 1924, but he lived on until 1970≈long enough to witness a profound rearrangement in the balance of power. Russian fiction, as dementedly robust as ever in the early years of the century (Bulgakov, Zamyatin, Bely, Bunin), had been wiped off the face of the earth; French fiction seemed to have strayed into philosophical and essayistic peripheries; and English fiction (which still awaited the crucial infusion from the "colonials") felt, well, hopelessly English≈hopelessly inert and inbred. Meanwhile, and as if in obedience to the political reality, American fiction was assuming its manifest destiny.
The American novel, having become dominant, was in turn dominated by the Jewish-American novel, and everybody knows who dominated that: Saul Bellow. His was and is a pre-eminence that rests not on sales figures and honorary degrees, not on rosettes and sashes, but on incontestable legitimacy. To hold otherwise is to waste your breath. Bellow sees more than we see≈sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches. Compared with him, the rest of us are only fitfully sentient; and intellectually, too, his sentences simply weigh more than anybody else's. John Updike and Philip Roth, the two writers in perhaps the strongest position to rival Bellow, or to succeed him, have both acknowledged that his seniority is not merely a question of Anno Domini. Egomania is an ingredient of literary talent, and a burdensome one: the egomaniacal reverie is not, as many suppose, a stupor of self-satisfaction; it is more like a state of red alert. Yet writers are surprisingly realistic about hierarchy. John Berryman claimed that he was "comfortable" playing second fiddle to Robert Lowell; and when that old flagship Robert Frost sank to the bottom, in 1963, he said impulsively (and unsentimentally), "It's scary. Who's number one?" But that was just a rush of blood. Berryman knew his proper place.
Rather impertinently, perhaps, you could summarize the preoccupations of the Jewish-American novel in one word: "shiksas" (literally, "detested things"). It transpired that there was something uniquely riveting about the conflict between the Jewish sensibility and the temptations≈the inevitabilities≈of materialist America. As one Bellow narrator puts it, "At home, inside the house, an archaic rule; outside, the facts of life." The archaic rule is somber, blood-bound, guilt-torn, renunciatory, and transcendental; the facts of life are atomized, unreflecting, and unclean. Of course, the Jewish-American novel subsumes the experience of the immigrant, with an "old country" at one remove; and the emphasis is on the anxiety of entitlement (marked in Roth, too, and in Malamud). It is not an anxiety about succeeding, about making good; it is an anxiety about the right to pronounce, the right to judge≈about the right to write. And the consequence would seem to be that these novelists brought a new intensity to the act of authorial commitment, offering up the self entire, holding nothing back. Although Jewish-American fiction is often comic and deflationary, concerning itself with what Herzog (1964) called "high-minded mistakes," something world-historically dismal lies behind it≈a terminal standard of human brutality. The dimensions of this brutality were barely graspable in 1944, the year that saw the beginning of Bellow's serial epic. And America would subsequently be seen as "the land of historical redress," a place where (as Bellow wrote with cold simplicity) "the Jews could not be put to death."
Universalizingly, the Jewish-American novel poses a mind-body problem≈and then goes ahead and solves it on the page. "When some new thought gripped his heart he went to the kitchen, his headquarters, to write it down," Bellow writes on page one of Herzog. "When some new thought gripped his heart": the voice is undisassociated; it responds to the world with passionate sensuality, and at a pitch of cerebration no less prodigious and unflagging. Bellow has presided over an efflorescence that clearly owes much to historical circumstances, and we must now elegiacally conclude that the phase is coming to an end. No replacements stand in line. Did "assimilation" do it, or was the process something flabbier and more diffuse? "Your history, too, became one of your options," the narrator of The Bellarosa Connection (1989) notes dryly. "Whether or not having a history was a 'consideration' was entirely up to you." Recalling Philip Rahv's famous essay of 1939, we may say that the Palefaces have prevailed over the Redskins. Roth will maintain the tradition, for a while. Yet he is Uncas≈last of the Mohicans.
raise and dispraise play their part in the quality control of literary journalism, but when the value judgment is applied to the past its essential irrationality is sharply exposed. The practice of rearranging the canon on aesthetic or moralistic grounds (today such grounds would be political≈that is, egalitarian) was unanswerably ridiculed by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957). To imagine a literary "stock exchange" in which reputations "boom and crash," he argued, is to reduce literary criticism to the sphere of "leisure-class gossip." You can go on about it, you can labor the point, but you cannot demonstrate that Milton is a better poet than Macaulay≈or, indeed, that Milton is a better poet than McGonagall. It is evident, it is obvious, but it cannot be proved. Still, I propose to make an educated guess about literary futures, and I hereby trumpet the prediction that Saul Bellow will emerge as the supreme American novelist. There is, hereabouts, no shortage of narrative genius, and it tends, as Bellow tends, toward the visionary≈a quality needed for the interpretation of a New World. But when we look to the verbal surface, to the instrument, to the prose, Bellow is sui generis. What should he fear? The melodramatic formularies of Hawthorne? The multitudinous facetiousness of Melville? The murkily iterative menace of Faulkner? No. The only American who gives Bellow any serious trouble is Henry James.
All writers enter into an unconscious marriage with their readers, and in this respect James's fiction follows a peculiar arc: courtship, honeymoon, vigorous cohabitation, and then growing disaffection and estrangement; separate beds, and then separate rooms. As with any marriage, the relationship is measured by the quality of its daily intercourse≈by the quality of its language. And even at its most equable and beguiling (the androgynous delicacy, the wonderfully alien eye), James's prose suffers from an acute behavioral flaw. Students of usage have identified the habit as "elegant variation." The phrase is intended ironically, because the elegance aspired to is really pseudo-elegance, anti-elegance. For example: "She proceeded to the left, towards the Ponte Vecchio, and stopped in front of one of the hotels which overlook that delightful structure." I can think of another variation on the Ponte Vecchio: how about that vulgar little pronoun "it"? Similarly, "breakfast," later in its appointed sentence, becomes "this repast," and "tea-pot" becomes "this receptacle"; "Lord Warburton" becomes "that nobleman" (or "the master of Lockleigh"); "letters" become "epistles"; "his arms" become "these members"; and so on. Apart from causing the reader to groan out loud as often as three times in a single sentence, James's variations suggest broader deficiencies: gentility, fastidiousness, and a lack of warmth, a lack of candor and engagement. All the instances quoted above come from The Portrait of a Lady (1881), from the generous and hospitable early-middle period. When we enter the arctic labyrinth known as Late James, the retreat from the reader, the embrace of introversion, is as emphatic as that of Joyce, and far more fiendishly prolonged.
The phantom marriage with the reader is the basis of the novelist's creative equilibrium. Such a relationship needs to be unconscious, silent, tacit; and, naturally, it needs to be informed by love. Saul Bellow's love for the reader has always been at once safely subliminal and thrillingly ardent. And it combines with another kind of love, to produce what may be the Bellovian quiddity. Looking again at the late short story "By the St. Lawrence," I found I had marked a passage and written in the margin, "So is this it?" The passage runs,
She was not a lovable woman, but the boy loved her and she was aware of it. He loved them all. He even loved Albert. When he visited Lachine he shared Albert's bed, and in the morning he would sometimes stroke Albert's head, and not even when Albert fiercely threw off his hand did he stop loving him. The hair grew in close rows, row after row.
These observations, Rexler was to learn, were his whole life≈his being≈and love was what produced them. For each physical trait there was a corresponding feeling. Paired, pair by pair, they walked back and forth, in and out of his soul.
This is it, I think. Love is celebrated for, among other things, its transformative powers; and it is with love, in concert with his overpowering need to commemorate and preserve ("I am the nemesis of the would-be forgotten"), that Bellow transforms the world:
Napoleon Street, rotten, toylike, crazy and filthy, riddled, flogged with harsh weather≈the bootlegger's boys reciting ancient prayers. To this Moses' heart was attached with great power. Here was a wider range of human feelings 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.
"I am an American, Chicago born," Augie March says, at the outset. It could have gone "I am a Russian, Quebec born≈and moved to Chicago at the age of nine." And Bellow is a Russian, a Tolstoy, in his purity and amplitude. Which brings us to another ghost from Saint Petersburg: Vladimir Nabokov. An earnest admirer of Pnin and Lolita, Bellow has nonetheless always felt that Nabokov was artistically weakened by patricianism (the Jamesian flaw); and it is patricianism, certainly, that distances us from the magnum opus, Ada, in which the bond with the reader simply disappears. Nabokov was not an immigrant ("Don't carry on like a goddamn immigrant," Herzog's older brother says as they bury their father): Nabokov remained an ИmigrИ. He couldn't become an American; he was≈however delightfully≈slumming it over there. Bellow as a child, to his immense advantage, knew what slums really were: they presented the widest range of human feelings, but also directed the gaze upward, to the transcendent.
Some years ago I had a curious conversation with a notably prolific novelist who had just finished rereading The Adventures of Augie March. We talked about the book; then he thought he was changing the subject when he said, "I went into my study today≈and there was nothing. Not a phrase, not a word. I thought, 'It's all gone.'" I said, "Don't worry, it's not you. It's Augie March." Because the same thing had happened to me. That's what Bellow can do to you, with his burning, streaming prose: he can make you feel that all the phrases, all the words, are exclusively his. At the same time, we share Augie's utopian elation when, reduced almost to nonentity in Mexico (c. 1940), he glimpses none other than Leon Trotsky.
I believe what it was about him that stirred me up was the instant impression he gave≈no matter about the old heap he rode in or the peculiarity of his retinue≈of navigation by the great stars, of the highest considerations, of being fit to speak the most important human words and universal terms. When you are as reduced to a different kind of navigation from this high starry kind as I was and are only sculling on the shallow bay, crawling from one clam-rake to the next, it's stirring to have a glimpse of deep-water greatness. And, even more than an established, an exiled greatness, because the exile was a sign to me of persistence at the highest things.
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