Reading Saul Bellow
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
I have a confession to make: I have yet to read The Adventures of Augie March. Published in 1953, Saul Bellow’s first “big” book was described by Martin Amis, Bellow’s most eloquent and fervent reader-critic, as “the great American novel”. No real excuse not to have read it then.
But I have read all of Bellow’s other novels. Reading Bellow has been like a long, broken but hugely rewarding journey. I first became acquainted with his work twenty-five years ago, partly prompted by Anthony Burgess’s influential book Ninety-Nine Novels: The best in English since 1939. (Burgess’s hope was that someone would choose one of his works as the 100th – A Clockwork Orange perhaps?) Burgess opted for Bellow’s The Victim as one of his two best novels for the year 1947, the other one being Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (not read). He called Bellow’s second novel a “quiet masterpiece”. At the time, that seemed an accurate assessment. I’m sure it still applies.
For some unfathomable reason – what dictates our reading patterns?, I wonder – I didn’t read another Bellow for a further three years or so: Something To Remember Me By, which included the novellas The Bellarosa Connection and A Theft, as well as the wonderful title story of rites of passage in 1930s Chicago. But several more years passed before I had a serious attack of the Bellows: the novella Seize the Day, More Die of Heartbreak (great title, great book), Dangling Man (his first), Herzog, The Actual, and Henderson the Rain King. I wasn’t at all persuaded by this last book, but ploughed my way diligently through it. I’m still baffled by the high status it’s accorded.
Amis’s first published collection of essays The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (1986) took its title from Humboldt’s Gift (1975): “Now the moronic inferno had caught up with me”, says the narrator Charlie Citrine as he surveys the ruins of his swanky Mercedes which has been smashed up with baseball bats outside his Chicago apartment.
Meanwhile, in his memoir Experience, Amis writes, of Bellow’s last novel Ravelstein (2000), “I have to keep reminding myself that the author was born, not in 1950 but in 1915” (he died in 2005). There is indeed a remarkable energy to the book, published in Bellow’s eighty-fifth year. The phenomenon of writers remaining near the top of their game well into their eighties is still pretty rare (and perhaps restricted to the twentieth and now the twenty-first century). If one excludes poets, only a few names come to mind: the leading figure of the nouveau roman Nathalie Sarraute was still near her best in her nineties. Her fellow nouveau romancier Claude Simon published one of his finest (and briefest) works Le Tramway at the age of eighty-eight – a sunny, captivating and fictionalized account of the novelist’s childhood in a seaside town in the south-west of France.
On the debit side, Philip Roth, who recently turned eighty, has declared that he will not be writing any more fiction. The late Gore Vidal disappointed many of his readers with a slackly written and woefully under-edited follow-up, Point to Point Navigation, to his fascinating, waspish memoir Palimpsest (1995). It might have been better if the second book had not seen the light of day, particularly as it turned out to be Vidal’s last work.
But Ravelstein doesn’t flag; as a homage to and undisguised portrait of Bellow’s late friend the academic Allan Bloom, whose best-selling book The Closing of the American Mind was such a divisive work when it appeared in 1987, it brings out the flamboyance and slight preposterousness of this larger-than-life figure. Bellow clearly held Bloom in the highest regard, and at one point has his narrator compare him favourably with Diderot: “’The Palais Royal’ – Ravelstein gestured loosely toward it – ‘was where Diderot walked late every afternoon and where he had his famous conversations with Rameau’s nephew. But Ravelstein was by no means like the nephew – that music teacher and sponger. He was above Diderot, too. A much larger and graver person . . .”. Really?!
“The main thing about Chicago is that it’s not New York”, wrote Bellow, of the two cities at the heart of his work (Montreal might be a third). A blog is no place for lit crit (and I’m no expert on American fiction) but it seems to me that if you want to learn about life in twentieth-century urban America, and the Jewish experience in particular, as well as much else too, Bellow’s work should be the first port of call. And it might be said that his peculiarly European sensibility both expands and deepens its qualities.
And of course there’s the humour: one of my favourite characters is the shameless Pierre Thaxter in Humboldt’s Gift, a literary con man, serial adulterer and father of nine, who travels across the Atlantic on a liner in first class – his mother picks up the tab – in spite of the fact that he’s flat broke (significantly, Thaxter is Californian). Citrine tells him:
“If I had no cash, I’d ask my mother to put me in steerage. How much do you tip when you get off the France in Le Havre?” I asked him.
“‘I give the chief steward five bucks.”
“You’re lucky to leave the boat alive.”
“Perfectly adequate,” said Thaxter. “They bully the American rich and despise them for their cowardice and ignorance.”
I have a Library of America edition of Novels 1970–1982, a period that represents the high point of Bellow’s career, the possessively titled trio Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Humboldt’s Gift and The Dean’s December. One thing that struck me about this otherwise very handsome volume is the extraordinary number of typos it contains, particularly as the reader is assured that the “texts are presented without change, except for the correction of typographical errors”. Here’s just a sample selection: “Punisment”, “Sannnler” for Sammler, numerous “he”s for “be”s and “be”s for “he”s, “staff” for stuff and so on, as well as the comical “New World Symophony” – none of them, granted, an impediment to comprehension, but still . . . . I imagine these errors will now remain uncorrected.
(Writing as someone whose shared responsibilities at the TLS include making sure the paper goes to bed with its hands as clean as possible, i.e. proofreading the pages – the weekly equivalent of proofing a 50,000 word novel – I always react to typos spotted too late as if I’ve taken a blow to the solar plexus. I’m determined never to let through weirdly common misspellings such as “elegaic” and “pharoah”.)
In her newly published Literary Miniatures (translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan; Seagull Books, $20/£13), a collection of interviews with (non-French) authors, Florence Noiville, editor of foreign fiction for the weekly supplement Le Monde des Livres, describes meeting Bellow near his Vermont fastness in 1995. He greets her with the question “Suis-je celui que vous attendiez?” – “Am I the one you were expecting?” It is strange to hear French spoken in this remote inn in Vermont"; but it’s a reminder of Bellow’s early Montreal upbringing, his Paris sojourn in the late 40s, and enduring Francophilia. Later in the piece he reveals that “J. D. Salinger lives on the other side of these hills, in New Hampshire. He’s a bear. Doesn’t see anyone. Never goes out. Worse than I am”.
Now, on to Augie March.