The Victim by Saul Bellow

Bellow’s first two novels are considered acts of apprenticeship. The writer “called Dangling Man his M.A. and The Victim his Ph.D.” Both offer high promise for my ongoing immersion into Saul Bellow’s novels.

Reading The Victim brought to mind John Schlesinger’s film Midnight Cowboy, with the roles reversed. Kirby Allbee, “A big man. Blond”, a closer resemblance to Voight’s Joe Buck, but with the seedy, parasitic inner character of Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo. The book’s hero Asa Levanthal, burly, coarse waves of black hair, referred to several times as swarthy, physically closer to Rizzo.

Bellow uses swarthy, meaning dark-skinned, as a representation of Jewishness. Philip Roth frequently uses the word in the same way. In The Victim anti-semitism is the undercurrent that flows through the interaction between Jew and Gentile, starting with Leventhal’s boss who says, “Takes unfair advantage, “Mr. Beard continued. “Like the rest of his brethren. I’ve never known one who wouldn’t. Always for themselves first.” Anti-semitism is also at the root of Albee’s victimisation of Leventhal, “You were sore at something I said about Jews.” Martin Greenberg argues that, “That The Victim is the first American novel to see Jewishness not in its singularity, not as constitutive of a special world of experience, but as a quality that informs all of modern life, as the quality of modernity itself.”The central theme is Asa Leventhal’s fear of failure. Drunken bum Allbee offers Leventhal a vision of how his life could have turned out in other circumstances.

In a general way, anyone could see that there was great unfairness in one man’s having all the comforts of life while another had nothing. But between man and man, how was this to be dealt with? Any derelict panhandler or bum might buttonhole you on the street and say, “The world wasn’t made for you any more than it was for me, was it?” The error in this was to forget that neither man had made the arrangements, and so it was perfectly right to say, “Why pick on me? I didn’t set this up any more than you did.”

My difficulty with The Victim, is the unconvincing ending. Allbee’s reappearance, after an absence of three years from Leventhal’s life, is well written, but a feeble way to resolve the tension between the two central characters.

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