Often described as America’s best contemporary novelist, Saul Bellow (1915 – 2005) earned enormous critical praise and a wide readership as well. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. His popularity is somewhat surprising, however, as his novels do not contain the usual ingredients one expects to find in best-selling fiction—suspense, heroic figures, and graphic sex and violence. In fact, his novels are difficult works that wrestle with perplexing questions, sometimes drawing from esoteric sources such as the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner and the psychology of Wilhelm Reich.
One of America’s most erudite novelists, Bellow often alluded to the work of philosophers, psychologists, poets, anthropologists, and other writers in his fiction. He once stated that the modern movelist should not be afraid to introduce complex ideas into his work. He found nothing admirable about the anti-intellectualism of many modern writers and believed that most of them failed to confront the important moral and philosophical problems of the modern age. Opposed to the glib pessimism and the “complaint” of the dominant tradition of modern literature, Bellow struggled for affirmation at a time when such a possibility was seen by many writers as merely an object of ridicule.
In contrast to many American writers, who produced their best work when they were young and then wrote mediocre or poor fiction as they grew older, Bellow is known for the consistent high quality of his work. Moreover, his fiction reveals an immense versatility. In his work, one finds highly structured Flaubertian form as well as picaresque narrative, naturalistic realism as well as romance.
Bellow earned a reputation as a master of narrative voice and perspective, a great comic writer (perhaps the best in America since Mark Twain), and a fine craftsman whose remarkable control of the language allowed him to move easily from the highly formal to the colloquial. Most important, his novels illuminate the dark areas of the psyche and possess immense emotional power. Bellow once complained that many contemporary authors and critics are obsessed with symbolism and hidden meanings. A literary work becomes an abstraction for them, and they contrive to evade the emotional power inherent in literature. Bellow’s novels do not suffer from abstraction; they deal concretely with passion, death, love, and other fundamental concerns, evoking the whole range of human emotions for his readers.
Saul Bellow’s mature fiction can be considered as a conscious challenge to modernism, the dominant literary tradition of the age. For Bellow, modernism is a “victim literature” because it depicts an alienated individual who is conquered by his environment. According to him, this “wasteland” tradition originated in the middle of the nineteenth century with the birth of French realism and culminates in the work of Samuel Beckett and other nihilistic contemporary writers. This victim literature reveals a horror of life and considers humanist values useless in a bleak, irrational world. Modernism assumes that the notion of the individual self that underlies the great tradition of the novel is an outmoded concept, and that modern civilization is doomed.
Bellow’s first two novels owe a large debt to the wasteland modernism that he would explicitly reject during the late 1940’s. Dangling Man is an existentialist diary that owes much to Fyodor Dostoevski’s Notes from the Underground (1864). The demoralized protagonist Joseph is left “dangling” as he waits to be drafted during World War II. A moral casualty of war, he has no sense of purpose and feels weary of a life that seems boring, trivial, and cruel. Excessively self-conscious and critical of those around him, he spends most of his time alone, writing in his journal. He can no longer continue his past work, writing biographical essays on philosophers of the Enlightenment. Although he is alienated, he does realize that he should not make a doctrine out of this feeling. The conclusion of the novel reveals Joseph’s ultimate failure to transcend his “victimization”; he is drafted and greets his imminent regimentation enthusiastically.
Bellow’s next novel, The Victim, also depicts a passive protagonist who is unable to overcome his victimization. As Bellow admitted, the novel is partially modeled on Dostoevski’s The Eternal Husband (1870) and uses the technique of the doppelgänger as Dostoevski did in The Double (1846). Bellow’s novel presents the psychological struggle between Asa Leventhal, a Jew, and Kirby Allbee, his Gentile “double.” A derelict without a job, Allbee suggests that Leventhal is responsible for his grim fate. Leventhal ponders the problem of his guilt and responsibility and tries to rid himself of his persecuting double. Despite his efforts to assert himself, he is still “dangling” at the end of the book—still a victim of forces that, he believes, are beyond his control.
The Adventures of Augie March
After his second novel, Bellow became disenchanted with the depressive temperament and the excessive emphasis on form of modernist literature. His first two novels had been written according Although comedy to “repressive” Flaubertian formal standards; they were melancholy, rigidly structured, restrained in language, and detached and objective in tone. Rebelling against these constricting standards, Bellow threw off the yoke of modernism when he began to write his third novel. The theme, style, and tone of The Adventures of Augie March are very different from his earlier novels, for here one finds an open-ended picaresque narrative with flamboyant language and an exuberant hero who seeks to affirm life and the possibility of freedom. Although the environment has a profound influence upon Joseph and Asa Leventhal, Augie refuses to allow it to determine his fate. During the course of many adventures, a multitude of Machiavellians seek to impose their versions of reality upon the good-natured Augie, but he escapes from them, refusing to commit himself.
With his third novel, then, Bellow deliberately rejected the modernist outlook and aesthetic. The problem was to find an alternative to modernism without resorting to glib optimism. It seems that he found an alternative in two older literary traditions—in nineteenth century English Romantic humanism and in a comedy that he considers typically Jewish. Unlike the modernists, who denigrate the concept of the individual, Bellow believes in the potential of the self and its powerful imagination that can redeem ordinary existence and affirm the value of freedom, love, joy, and hope.
Although comedy in Bellow is a complex matter, its primary function seems to be to undercut the dejection that threatens his heroes. The comic allows Bellow’s protagonists to cope with the grim facts of existence; it enables them to avoid despair and gain a balanced view of their problematical situation. Comedy, the spirit of reason, allows them to laugh away their irrational anxieties. Often Bellow seemed to encourage his worst anxieties in order to bring them out into the open so that he could dispose of them by comic ridicule.
Seize the Day
If The Adventures of Augie March presents Bellow’s alternative to a “literature of victimization,” his subsequent novels can be regarded as probing, exploratory studies in spiritual survival in a hostile environment.
Seize the Day is a much more somber novel than The Adventures of Augie March. Bellow believed that his liberation from Flaubertian formalism had gone too far, and that he must use more restraint in his fourth novel. He realized that Augie was too effusive and too naïve. The protagonist of Seize the Day is similar to the protagonists of the first two novels, but while Tommy Wilhelm is a “victim,” Bellow’s attitude toward him is different from his attitude toward Joseph and Asa Leventhal. In his fourth novel, Bellow sought to show the spiritual rebirth of such a “victim.”
The short novel, divided into seven parts, presents the day of reckoning in the life of a forty-four-year-old ex-salesman of children’s furniture whose past consists of a series of blunders. Living in the Hotel Gloriana (which is also the residence of his wealthy father, Dr. Adler), Wilhelm feels that he is in a desperate situation. He is unemployed and unable to obtain money from his unsympathetic father. He gives his last seven hundred dollars to be invested for him by the mysterious psychologist Dr. Tamkin, a man who has become not only his surrogate father and financial adviser but also his instructor in spiritual and philosophical matters. Furthermore, Wilhelm’s wife, Margaret, from whom he is separated, is harassing him for money. Depressed and confused by the memories of his failures in the past and absorbed by his problems in the present,Wilhelm needs love and compassion. Dr. Adler, Dr. Tamkin, and Margaret all fail him.
Seize the Day is a harsh indictment of a money-obsessed society, where a father is unable to love a son who is unsuccessful. Tamkin’s speech on the two souls, no doubt the most important passage in the novel, helps clarify Bellow’s social criticism. The psychologist argues that there is a war between man’s “pretender soul,” his social self, and his “real soul.” When the pretender soul parasitically dominates its host, as is common in modern society, one becomes murderous. If one is true to the real soul, however, and casts off the false pretender soul, one can learn to love and “seize the day.”
Bellow shows that all of the characters in the novel are products of an exploitative, materialistic society—all are dominated by their pretender souls. Dr. Adler has fought his way up the economic ladder to success. Revered by the residents of the Hotel Gloriana, he is full of self-love. He desires to spend his remaining years in peace and refuses to acknowledge his paternal obligation to his desperate son. Wilhelm’s appeals for money are actually pleas for some sign of paternal concern. He provokes his father, trying to disturb the polite barrier of aloofness that the old man has constructed to prevent any kind of real communication between father and son. Although Wilhelm is a difficult son for a father to cherish, Dr. Adler is a cold-hearted man who has no real affection for his son, or for anyone else except for himself. When, at the end of the novel, Wilhelm begs him for some kind of sympathy, the hard-boiled Adler brutally rejects him, revealing his hatred for his “soft” son.
Dr. Adler’s failure as a father results inWilhelm’s turning to the strange psychologist Dr. Tamkin. Down on his luck, Tamkin is a confidence man hoping to make easy money. He is another one of Bellow’s eccentric fast talkers, full of fantastic stories and philosophical and psychological insights. Wilhelm is attracted to him not only because he is a father figure who promises to save him from his dire financial crisis but also because he is one man in a cynical society who speaks of spiritual matters. The direct result of Tamkin’s advice is the loss of Wilhelm’s money, but while the doctor is a phony whose flamboyant personality enables him to dupe the naïve exsalesman, he does indirectly allow Wilhelm to obtain a kind of salvation.
Wilhelm is the only character in the novel who is able to forsake his pretender soul. He is a product of society as the other characters are, but he is different from them in his instinctive distaste for the inveterate cynicism at the heart of society. Accepting society’s definition of success, he considers himself a failure. He suffers immensely and constantly ponders his life and his errors in the past. However, while he can at times degenerate into a buffoon indulging in self-pity and hostility, he is also attracted to the idealism that Tamkin occasionally expounds.
A significant moment occurs near the end of the novel when Wilhelm suddenly feels a sense of brotherhood with his fellow travelers in the New York subway. For once he has transcended his self-absorption, though he is immediately skeptical of this intuitive moment. At the very end of the novel, there is another heightened moment in which he does make the breakthrough foreshadowed in the subway scene. Having lost all of his money, he pursues into a funeral home a man who resembles Tamkin. Suddenly he finds himself confronting a corpse, and he begins to weep uncontrollably. His weeping is not merely out of self-pity, as some have suggested, but for humankind. Understanding that death and suffering are an inextricable part of the human condition, he feels humility and is able to overcome his excessive selfabsorption. He is finally able to cast off his pretender soul. The work concludes with a powerful affirmation and suggests an alternative to the spiritual death of a materialistic, predatory society.
Henderson the Rain King
Bellow’s next novel, Henderson the Rain King, is the first fully realized work of his maturity. It is Bellow’s first novel of which one can say that no other writer could have conceived it, much less written it. Although it has some characteristics of the picaresque, the fable, and the realistic novel, Henderson the Rain King assumes the most widely used form for longer works during the English romantic era—the quest-romance. The tone of the novel is somewhat different from that typically heard in the quest-romance, however; it is exuberant and comic, and the book is full of wit, parody, farce, and ironic juxtapositions.
The novel might be seen as Bellow’s version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). Like Conrad’s Marlow, Eugene Henderson recalls his journey into the heart of Africa and his bizarre adventures there, which culminate in his meeting with a Kurtz-like instructor who has a profound influence upon him. Although Kurtz reveals to Marlow man’s potential for degradation, Dahfu conveys to Henderson man’s promise of nobility. With its allusions to William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Blake, the novel affirms the possibility of the individual’s regeneration by the power of the human imagination; it is a trenchant rejection of Conrad’s pessimism.
The novel can be divided into three basic parts: Chapters 1-4 depict Henderson’s alienation; chapters 5-9 present his journey to the African tribe of the Arnewi; and chapters 10-22 portray his journey to the African tribe of the Wariri and his spiritual regeneration.
With his loyal guide Romilayu, he first visits the Arnewi tribe. These people are “children of light” whoThe first section presents Henderson’s discursive recollections of his life before he set out for Africa, in which he attempts to reveal the reasons for the journey. Although these chapters provide a plethora of information about him, he is never able to articulate the reasons for his “quest,” as he calls it. Bellow is suggesting in this section that there are no clear-cut reasons for the African journey. Henderson leaves his wife and family for the African wilderness because of his dissatisfaction with his meaningless existence. A millionaire with tremendous energy but no scope for it, Henderson has spent most of his life suffering or making others suffer. Middle-aged, anxious about his mortality, and unable to satisfy the strident inner voice of “I want, I want,” he leaves for Africa, hoping to burst “the spirit’s sleep,” as he phrases it, echoing Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam (1818). With his loyal guide Romilayu, he first visits the Arnewi tribe. These people are “children of light” who represent a healthy existence; they are gentle, peaceful, and innocent. Queen Willatale, who rules the tribe, informs Henderson that man wants to live—“grun-tu-molani.” It is an important message for Henderson, but he soon demonstrates that he is unable to follow Willatale’s wisdom. Desiring to help the tribe, whose water supply has been infested by frogs, he decides to kill the creatures. His bomb is too powerful and destroys the cistern as well as the frogs. Henderson has violated the code of the Arnewi, who abhor violence and have love for all living creatures.
After Henderson leaves the Arnewi, he visits the Wariri, “the children of darkness,” who are violent and hostile, reminiscent of the predatory society of Bellow’s earlier novels. He does meet one extraordinary individual, however, and establishes a friendship with him. King Dahfu is a noble man who completes Henderson’s education begun with the Arnewi. He perceptively observes that Henderson’s basic problem is his avoidance of death: He is an “avoider.” Dahfu helps him by persuading him to go down into a lion’s den to overcome his anxiety over mortality. Dahfu believes, too, that Henderson can absorb qualities of the lion and slough off his porcine characteristics.
Dahfu is another one of Bellow’s eccentric teachers who speaks both wisdom and nonsense. His greatest importance for Henderson is that he embodies the nobility of man, who can by the power of his imagination achieve spiritual regeneration. At the end of the novel, Henderson finally bursts the spirit’s sleep and leaves Africa for America. He has a sense of purpose and can love others. He plans to become a physician and will return home to his wife.
Herzog is by most accounts Bellow’s best and most difficult novel. It is a retrospective meditation by a middle-aged professor who seeks to understand the reasons for his disastrous past. A complex discursive work, pervaded by sardonic humor, it defies traditional labeling but owes a debt to the novel of ideas, the psychological novel, the epistolary novel, and the romantic meditative lyric. Herzog is a meditative work in which the protagonist compulsively remembers and evaluates his past, striving to avoid complete mental breakdown. There are reminiscences within reminiscences, and the story of Moses Herzog’s life is related in fragments. Bellow’s method enables the reader to see how Herzog’s imagination recollects and assembles the fragments of the past into a meaningful pattern.
Distraught over his recent divorce from his second wife, Madeleine, Herzog has become obsessed with writing letters to everyone connected with that event as well as to important thinkers, living and dead, who concern him. He associates his domestic crisis with the cultural crisis of Western civilization, and therefore he ponders the ethics of Friedrich Nietzsche as well as those of his psychiatrist, Dr. Edvig. His letter writing is both a symptom of his psychological disintegration and an attempt to meditate upon and make sense of suffering and death.
Interspersed within these recollectionsAt his home in the Berkshires, Herzog recalls and meditates upon the events of his recent past; the five-day period of time that he recalls reveals the severity of his psychological deterioration. His mistress Ramona believes that a cure for his nervous state can be found in her Lawrentian sexual passion, but he considers her “ideology” to be mere hedonism; impulsively, he decides to flee from her to Martha’s Vineyard, where he has friends. After arriving there, the unstable professor leaves almost immediately and returns to New York. The next evening he has dinner with Ramona and spends the night with her, waking in the middle of the night to write another letter. The following morning he visits a courtroom while waiting for a meeting with his lawyer to discuss a lawsuit against Madeleine. Hearing a brutal child-abuse and murder case causes the distraught professor to associate Madeleine and her lover with the brutal child-murderers; he flies to Chicago to murder them. As he spies upon them, he realizes his assumption is absurd and abandons his plan. The next morning he takes his young daughter Junie for an outing but has a car accident and is arrested by the police for carrying a gun. He confronts an angry Madeleine at the police station and manages to control his own temper. Later, he is released and returns to his run-down home in the Berkshires, and the novel ends where it began. Interspersed within these recollections of the immediate past are memories of the more distant past. By piecing these together, one learns the sad story of Herzog’s domestic life. Feeling a vague dissatisfaction, the successful professor divorced his first wife Daisy, a sensible midwestern woman, and began affairs with a good-natured Japanese woman, Sono, and the beautiful, bad-tempered Madeleine. After marrying Madeleine, Herzog purchased a house in the Berkshires, where he intended to complete his important book on the Romantics. Soon they returned to Chicago, however, where both saw a psychiatrist, and Madeleine suddenly announced that she wanted a divorce. The shocked Herzog traveled to Europe to recuperate, only to return to Chicago to learn that Madeleine had been having an affair with his best friend and confidant the whole time their marriage had been deteriorating.
Herzog’s grim past—his disastrous marriages and the other sad events of his life that he also recalls—becomes emblematic of the pernicious influence of cultural nihilism. Herzog is devoted to basic humanist values but wonders if he must, as the ubiquitous “reality-instructors” insist, become another mass man devoted to a brutal “realism” in the Hobbesian jungle of modern society. His antipathy for the wastelanders’ cynicism is strong, but he knows his past idealism has been too naïve. Repeatedly, the “reality instructors” strive to teach (“punish”) Herzog with lessons of the “real”—and the “real” is always brutal and cruel. Sandor Himmelstein, Herzog’s lawyer and friend, proudly announces that all people are “whores.” It is an accurate description not only of Himmelstein but also of his fellow reality instructors. Their cynical view is pervasive in modern society, in which people play roles, sell themselves, and seduce and exploit others for their own selfish ends.
The turning point of the novel is Herzog’s revelation in the courtroom episode. Intellectually, he has always known about evil and suffering, but emotionally he has remained innocent. His hearing of the case in which a mother mistreats and murders her son while her lover apathetically watches is too much for him to bear; here is a monstrous evil that cannot be subsumed by any intellectual scheme. In a devastating moment the professor is forced to realize that his idealism is foolish.
At the end of the novel, Herzog has achieved a new consciousness. He recognizes that he has been selfish and excessively absorbed in intellectual abstractions. A prisoner of his private intellectual life, he has cut himself off from ordinary humanity and everyday existence. He sees that his naïve idealism and the wastelanders’ cruel “realism” are both escapist and therefore unacceptable attitudes; they allow the individual to evade reality by wearing masks of naïve idealism or self-serving cynicism. The exhausted Herzog decides to abandon his compulsive letter-writing and to stop pondering his past. The threat of madness has passed, and he is on the road to recovery.
Mr. Sammler’s Planet
Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a meditative novel of sardonic humor and caustic wit. The “action” of the novel centers upon the protagonist’s recollection of a brief period of time in the recent past, though there are recollections of a more distant past, too. Once again, the mental state of the protagonist is Bellow’s main concern. Like Herzog, Artur Sammler has abandoned a scholarly project because he finds rational explanations dissatisfying; they are unable to justify suffering and death. The septuagenarian Sammler is yet another of Bellow’s survivors, a lonely humanist in a society populated by brutal “realists.”
This seventh novel, however, is not merely a repetition of Bellow’s previous works. Sammler is detached and basically unemotional, yet he reveals a mystical bent largely absent in Bellow’s other protaganists. He is drawn to the works of Meister Eckhart and other thirteenth century German mystics. Although he does not literally believe in their ideas, he finds reading their works soothing. His religious inclination is a recent phenomenon.
Sammler had been reared in a wealthy, secular Jewish family in Krakow. As an adult, he became a haughty, cosmopolitan intellectual, useless to everyone, as he readily admits. On a visit to Poland in 1939, when the Germans suddenly attacked, he, his wife, and others were captured and ordered to dig their own graves as the Nazis waited to murder them. Although his wife was killed in the mass execution, miraculously he escaped by crawling out of his own grave. After the war ended, Sammler and his daughter Shula were rescued from a displaced persons camp by a kind nephew, Dr. Elya Gruner, who became their patron.
The experience of the Holocaust destroyed what little religious inclination Sammler possessed, but in his old age he has become concerned with his spiritual state. However, it is difficult to pursue spiritual interests in a materialistic society hostile to them. The basic conflict in the novel is between Sammler’s need to ponder the basic questions of existence—a need accentuated by the dying of the noble Gruner— and the distractions of contemporary society. In the primary action of the novel, Sammler’s main intention is to visit the dying Gruner, who finds Sammler a source of great comfort. Several “accidents” distract Sammler from his goal, and on the day of his nephew’s death, he arrives too late.
The “accidents” that encumber Sammler reveal clearly the “degraded clowning” of contemporary society. Sammler is threatened by a black pickpocket who corners the old man and then exposes himself. In the middle of a lecture he is shouted down by a radical student who says that Sammler is sexually defective. His daughter Shula steals a manuscript from an Indian scholar, and Sammler must waste precious time to recover it. Even Gruner’s self-centered children, who have little compassion for their dying father, distract Sammler by their thoughtless actions.
Opposed to Gruner, who is part of the “old system” that esteems the family, the expression of emotion, and the traditional humanist values, is the contemporary generation, a kind of “circus” characterized by role-playing, hedonism, amorality, selfcenteredness, and atrophy of feeling. Despite its flaws, Bellow sympathizes with the “old system.” The novel concludes after Sammler, despite the objections of the hospital staff, goes into the postmortem room and says a prayer for Gruner’s soul.
As in Bellow’s previous novels, the tension and the humor of Humboldt’s Gift have their origin in the protagonist’s attempt to free himself from the distractions of contemporary society and pursue the needs of his soul. The protagonist Charlie Citrine strives to define for himself the function of the artist in contemporary America. He tries to come to terms with the failure and premature death of his one-time mentor, Von Humboldt Fleisher, who had the potential to be America’s greatest modern poet but achieved very little. Charlie wonders if the romantic poet can survive in a materialistic society; he wonders, too, if he can overcome his fear of the grave and exercise his imagination. A writer who has squandered his talent, Charlie has intimations of terror of the grave and intimations of immortality. He spends much time reading the anthroposophical works of Rudolf Steiner; although he is skeptical of some of Steiner’s more esoteric teachings, he is sympathetic to the spiritual world view of anthroposophy, even finding the notion of reincarnation quite persuasive.
The primary nemesis of Charlie’s spiritual life is Ronald Cantabile, a small-time criminal. Renata, Charlie’s voluptuous mistress, Denise, his ex-wife, and Pierre Thaxter, a confidence man, are also major distractions. When Charlie, on the advice of a friend, refuses to pay Cantabile the money he owes him from a poker game, the criminal harasses him. In fact, the proud, psychopathic Cantabile refuses to leave Charlie alone even after he agrees to pay him the money. He continually humiliates Charlie and even tries to involve him in a plot to murder the troublesome Denise.
Denise, Renata, and Thaxter also distract Charlie from pondering the fate of Humboldt and meditating upon fundamental metaphysical questions. Hoping Charlie will return to her, Denise refuses to settle her support suit and continues to demand more money. When Charlie is forced to put up a $200,000 bond, he is financially ruined, and the loss of his money results in the loss of the voluptuous Renata, who decides to marry a wealthy undertaker. A third disillusioning experience involves Thaxter, who has apparently conned Charlie. Charlie had invested a small fortune in a new journal, The Ark, which was supposed to restore the authority of art and culture in the United States. Thaxter, the editor of The Ark, never puts out the first issue and has, it appears, stolen the money. His confidence game symbolizes America’s lack of respect for art and culture, impractical subjects in a practical, technological society.
Charlie does, however, overcome these “distractions.” Humboldt’s posthumously delivered letter, accompanied by an original film sketch (his “gift”) and a scenario that the two had written at Princeton years before, provides the genesis for Charlie’s salvation. The original film idea and the scenario of their Princeton years enable Charlie to attain financial security, but more important, Humboldt’s letter provides the impetus for Charlie’s decision at the end of the novel to repudiate his past empty life and to pursue the life of the imagination. Humboldt’s ideas, bolstered by the poetry of Blake, Wordsworth, and John Keats, enable Charlie to avoid the fate of the self-destructive artist. He decides to live in Europe and meditate upon the fundamental questions—in short, to take up a different kind of life.
The complicatedWhen, at the end of the novel, Charlie gives Humboldt and the poet’s mother a proper burial, Bellow suggests that Charlie’s imagination is ready to exert itself and wake him from his self-centered boredom and death-in-life. The final scene of the novel promises Charlie’s spiritual regeneration.
The Dean’s December
Bellow’s 1982 novel, The Dean’s December, is “a tale of two cities,” Chicago and Bucharest, in which the protagonist, a dean at an unnamed college in Chicago, ponders private and public problems. Albert Corde experiences at first hand the rigid penitentiary society of the communist East as well as the anarchic society of the noncommunist West, which seems on the verge of disintegration. The novel is a protest against the dehumanization of the individual. The East has enslaved its population, while the West has “written off” its doomed “Underclass.” Like Humboldt’s Gift, this novel can be seen as a kind of retrospective crisis meditation in which the protagonist attempts to come to terms with an immensely complex and threatening “multiverse,” as Augie March calls it.
The complicated plot defies a succinct summary, but one can outline the basic situation. The dean and his wife, Minna, arrive in Rumania to visit her dying mother. Corde tries to help his despairing wife, who is unable to reconcile herself to the grimreality of her mother’s death. He also ponders the controversy that he has provoked in Chicago. The dean has published two articles in Harper’s in which he comments upon the political and social problems of the city. The articles outrage the powerful members of Chicago society, and the administration of his college disapproves of the controversy that the dean has provoked. Moreover, Corde creates another controversy when he pressures the police to solve the murder of a white graduate student, Rickie Lester. A sensational trial, a media “circus,” is the result of the dean’s search for justice.
Although more than any other novel by Bellow, The Dean’s December is concerned with contemporary public issues, especially the vile conditions of the inner city, it is also concerned with the spiritual state of the individual. In fact, Bellow suggests that there is a connection between the spiritual malady of the individual and the spiritual anarchy of society. The novel is a protest against not only people’s lack of political freedom but also the spiritual enslavement that is the result of their inability to see clearly and to experience reality. Corde implies that this inability to experience reality is largely a product of “seeing” the world with a kind of reductive journalism completely lacking in imagination. Disgusted with contemporary journalism that provides only substitutes for reality, Corde intends to incorporate “poetry” into writing. The novel suggests that in Corde’s kind of poetic vision there is hope for the spiritual rebirth of the individual and society.
More Die of Heartbreak
Three years after the publication of his collection Him with His Foot in His Mouth, and Other Stories, Bellow published More Die of Heartbreak. This comic novel does not have a highly structured plot but might be best described as an elaborate monologue from the overstimulated mind of the bachelor narrator, Kenneth Trachtenberg. Kenneth, an expert in Russian history and culture, is preoccupied with his uncle, Benn Crader, a renowned botanist. The only important “action” in the novel revolves around the attempt of Dr. Layamon, his daughter Matilda, and her fiancé Benn Crader to “extort” money from Benn’s relative, Harold Vilitzer, a political racketeer in bad health. Years before, Vilitzer had cheated the Crader family in a real estate deal. The greedy Dr. Layamon sees his daughter’s marriage to Benn as a marvelous opportunity to acquire a fortune if Benn will agree to pressure Vilitzer for the money the corrupt politician stole from the Crader family. Although he wants to please his beautiful fiancé and her father, Benn is not enthusiastic about the plan. As the narrator suggests, Benn is a man who should be in search of “higher meanings.” At the end of the novel, Benn flees from the Layamons to the North Pole to carry out his research. The implication is that now he will be able to pursue his neglected aesthetic and metaphysical goals.
After being rejected by two periodicals because it was “too long,” the short novel A Theft was published in 1989 as a paperback original. Like so many of Bellow’s works, the plot of this 109-page novel is subordinate to Bellow’s interest in character. Just as Seize the Day might be considered an intimate psychological exploration ofWilhelm, A Theft is a detailed exploration of the soul of the heroine. Clara Velde was brought up on old-time religion but has led a disorganized life, including disappointing love affairs, suicide attempts, and four marriages. Her fourth marriage is not successful, and she is actually in love with “an old flame,” Ithiel Regler, a Henry Kissinger-like high-powered adviser to statesmen. For Clara, transcendent love between her and Ithiel is symbolized by an emerald ring that he gave her years ago. When this ring is stolen, Clara finds herself in a troubling search for it and experiences a kind of spiritual quest as well. She feels a special sense of kinship with her self possessed au pair girl, Gina. In its epiphany-like quality, the conclusion of the novel is reminiscent of Seize the Day.
The Bellarosa Connection
Another paperback original, the short novel The Bellarosa Connection is narrated by the wealthy founder of the Mnemosyne Institute in Philadelphia. The institute instructs businesspersons and others in the use of memory. The narrator, a retired widower, focuses his immense powers of recollection on two relatives who haunt him—Harry and Sorella Fonstein. Harry narrowly escaped the Nazi death camps, thanks to the Broadway producer Billy Rose, who made use of his gangster connections in Italy to help Fonstein and others escape to freedom. Billy Rose’s generosity is particularly noteworthy, the narrator implies, because the Broadway producer has a sleazy reputation.
In the United States, Harry marries the intelligent, capable Sorella and becomes successful but is frustrated by Rose’s repulsing Harry’s repeated attempts to meet him and express his gratitude. The central scene of the novel is the dramatic encounter between Sorella and Billy Rose, in which the determined woman attempts to coerce the stubborn producer into meeting her husband by threatening to reveal sordid details of Rose’s private life. Despite Sorella’s “blackmail,” Rose refuses to meet Harry.
As in “The Old System,” Bellow in this short novel is pondering how the assimilation of Jews into American life can corrupt not only their values but also their souls. Sorella reflects: “The Jews could survive everything that Europe threw at them. I mean the lucky remnant. But now comes the next test—America.” Apparently the United States proves “too much” for at least some of them.
The novella The Actual is narrated by Harry Trellman, an introspective man in his sixties who grew up in a lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Chicago. His father was a simple carpenter; his mother’s family was wealthy. Harry was put in an orphanage despite the fact that both his parents were alive because his hypochondriacal mother did not have the time to care for him; she spent much time abroad and in the United States at various sanitariums looking for a cure for her disease of the joints. The bills for sojourns abroad and at home were paid by the mother’s family; her brothers were successful sausage manufacturers who could pay for the cures she took at Bad Nauheim or Hot Springs, Arkansas.
After the Korean War, the government sent Harry to study Chinese at a “special school.” He spent a number of years in the Far East, the final two in Burma, where he made business connections, and then returned to Chicago, where he had “unfinished emotional business.” Although the precise source of Harry’s income is not clear, apparently he is well off. Semiretired and without financial concerns, Harry is nevertheless far from being content. For more than four decades he has loved Amy Wustrin, whom he first knew in high school. When Harry returned to Chicago after his Far East sojourn, he and Amy met again. Despite for Harry a momentous sexual encounter in which he kissed Amy “under the breast and inside the thigh,” the relationship did not progress. After divorcing her first husband, she married Jay Wustrin, Harry’s best friend in high school. Both Jay and Amy did not pay much heed to their marriage vows, and the result was a bitter divorce that culminated in Jay’s playing tapes in divorce court of Amy’s adulterous lovemaking in which one could hear her orgasmic cries. None of this disheartening history dampened Harry’s ardent love for Amy.
Harry and Amy are brought together by the ninety-two-year-old billionaire Sigmund Adletsky, for whom Amy is working as an interior decorator and Harry as adviser in his “brain trust.” Harry accompanies Amy in her emotionally arduous task of exhuming Jay’s body from his cemetery plot next to the grave of Amy’s mother so that Amy can bury her father there. (A practical joker with nihilistic proclivities, Jay had purchased the plot from Amy’s father.) In the grave scene that concludes the novel, the withdrawn intellectual Harry takes decisive action by confessing his love for Amy and asking her to marry him. This scene is reminiscent of the conclusion to Humboldt’s Gift, when the protagonist in the cemetery achieves an epiphany and the work ends with the implication that the protagonist, keenly aware of mortality and the death-in-life of his past existence, will be spiritually reborn.
Like its title character, Ravelstein, is a puzzling work. At once a mass of fact and observations on history, philosophy, and the world-at-large, the book appears to be composed of a series of discontinuous scenes and repetitious pronouncements affirming the genius of Abe Ravelstein, professor, best-selling author, and would-be celebrity. Yet when the narrator, Chick, reveals that as Ravelstein’s friend and admirer he has been selected by the professor to write his memoirs, the scheme of the novel’s structure becomes clear, the apparent disjointedness a mark of the narrator’s admiration and puzzlement. Ravelstein is thus a tribute to a great man and a cautionary tale illustrating his weaknesses.
Though Ravelstein is a worldly success, a big man with big appetites, almost a kind of cult leader among young intellectuals, he is, as his name implies, a “complicated” fellow whose real sympathies lie “knotted” and “tangled” amid the blandishments of the physical world. Seduced by success and fame into pursuing an extravagant lifestyle, Ravelstein enjoys all the pleasures of the modern world while pontificating to Chick in a tone of hardened cynicism.
Chick is amused, even impressed by the breadth and seeming wisdom of Ravelstein’s knowledge, from the political origins of twentieth century Germany to the courtship rituals of native South American headhunters. Ravelstein’s opinions permeate Chick’s life, and Abe Ravelstein himself is the last of a long line of fast-talking hustlers and con men who fill Bellow’s books, characters such as Einhorn in The Adventures of Augie March and Tamkin in Seize the Day.
Though there is a bit of the charlatan in Abe Ravelstein, he is not spiritually bankrupt. While he gently mocks what he considers Chick’s conventional idealism and his capacity for hope, he insists that Chick write his biography, thus revealing his own yearning for immortality, for the human need to be remembered. Throughout this final novel, Abe Ravelstein, this “raveled” human being who is both “complicated”and at “loose ends,” admits to Chick that he is a confirmed nihilist. Ravelstein dies of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and Chick himself survives a nearfatal illness near the end of the book. Chick realizes that his friend’s hard-core reliance on pleasure and materialism actually disguised his basic human empathy. When he tells Chick, for instance, that the Jewish people are living witnesses to the absence of redemption, Ravelstein is confronting the great question that all of Bellow’s heroes face: How does a human being come to terms with the allurements of the physical world and still preserve a spiritual integrity?
Other major works
Short fiction: Mosby’s Memoirs, and Other Stories, 1968; Him with His Foot in His Mouth, and Other Stories, 1984; Something to Remember Me By: Three Tales, 1991; Collected Stories, 2001.
Plays: The Wrecker, pb. 1954; The Last Analysis, pr. 1964; Under the Weather, pr. 1966 (also known as The Bellow Plays; includes Out from Under, A Wen, and Orange Soufflé ). Nonfiction: To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, 1976; Conversations with Saul Bellow, 1994 (Gloria L. Cronin and Ben Siegel, editors); It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future, 1994.
Edited texts: Great Jewish Short Stories, 1963.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.