Saul Bellow’s Hunger for the Universal

At Bellow’s memorial meeting, held in the Young Men’s Hebrew Association at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street, two years ago, the main speakers were Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy, and James Wood. Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed on non-Jews, many of them non-American. How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian McEwan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward, and thus to hunger for the universal.

From Christopher Hitchens’s review (2007) of two Library of America collections of Bellow’s fiction. In Arguably this easy is entitled Saul Bellow: The Great Assimilator (pages 62-63).

Though I’d agree with the central premise of McEwan’s position, I’d couple Bellow and Philip Roth as heirs to European classicism.

The Long Life by Helen Small

Youth and Old Age – Antonio Ciccone (1960)

Plato thought 50 an appropriate age to begin the study of philosophy. The Long Life is Helen Small’s pre-emptive (she admits to 42 at the time of writing her book) appraisal of old age in Western philosophy and literature.

Each of the chapters begins from a philosophical perspective – Platonic epistemology, Aristotelian and neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, narrative theories of lives, rational arguments about life-planning and distributive justice, Parfit’s ‘Reductionist View’ of persons, one (far from standard) account of metaphysics, and recent arguments through a consideration of literary texts (Death in Venice, King Lear, Le Père Goriot, The Old Curiosity Shop, Endgame, poems by Philip Larkin and Stevie Smith, more recent novels by Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, J. M. Coetzee, Margaret Drabble, Michael Ignatieff).

Taking Beauvoir’s La Vieillese (1970) as her starting point, Helen Small, a professor of English Literature,  attempts to “show what might be required if we are to become more seriously philosophical about old age”. Small’s close-reading of both philosophical and literary texts is frequently enlightening. Some chapters work better than others; her analysis, in particular, of Adorno’s late lectures on metaphysics, read against Dickens and Beckett, is vividly brilliant. The comparative reading of Parfit and Balzac yielded less. Her parallel reading of Coetzee and Roth is a remarkable work of literary criticism. It is an erudite and rewarding book.

Reading and Premeditation

There are book bloggers I admire for their unfaltering dedication to a premeditated sequence of reading. Though I enjoy planning my reading, impulse often overtakes my carefully nurtured plans. This post is a corrective for me, an attempt to continue to read with some premeditation.

In November I stated:

Next year I plan to complete my immersion into Saul Bellow’s novels, read my unread Virginia Woolf novels and more of her diaries and essays, and read more deeply of Kafka’s non fiction. Also on my list is to sample more deeply the works of Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, Marguerite Duras and Peter Handke. I’m musing with trying once again to sustain a reading of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m also thinking it is time to reread Proust and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, but we shall see. I hope also to discover a new writer or two from my Reading the Girls List.

In December I declared:

My plan next year is to read a lot more Woolf. I expect also to immerse myself into the literary output of Coetzee, Flaubert, Kafka and Bellow, each of whom, to different degrees, I am mildly obsessed with at present.

In January I asserted:

In my twenties and thirties I read (and in some cases understood) much more philosophy, and I intend to read more in this area this year, particularly keen to reread Kierkegaard. Of poetry, my ambition is to read Anne Carson more deeply and to tackle Wallace Stevens.

Further back, at the end of last summer I declared:

It is with Dangling Man I will start my Bellow immersion in the autumn. Inspired by Bibliographing’s Melville project, my intention is to read the fifteen novels, short stories, essay collection and Bellow’s memoir.

The year started as planned with some Kafka and Duras, but Simone de Beauvoir has commandeered my attention. Not just her writing but a posthumous influence that is leading me towards André Gide, Alain-Fournier, Henri Bergson and a rereading of Sartre. Along the way, I have adopted a desire to read all Nabokov’s novels and to tackle some Muriel Spark. There are also some choices of The Wolves that tempt me, starting with February’s Our Horses in Egyptby Rosalind Belben.

A Year of Reading: 2010

It’s been a memorable year in my reading life, more concentrated than most years. The high points have been extraordinary, the lows few and forgettable.

The unexpected revelation of my year are the novels, letters, essays and diaries of Virginia Woolf. After the thrilling discovery of A Writer’s Diary, The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway and the climax of my year’s reading To the Lighthouse, I intend to read much more of her writing. My thanks to Frances for the motivation to tackle Woolf.

I’ve been slowly acquiring decent editions of Woolf’s diaries and plan to start on these next year, dipping into the other novels, essays and letters as the mood suits. Reading (and rereading) more deeply into a writer’s output, over a few months, is proving more satisfying than my recently acquired habit of flitting from author to author.

My plan next year is to read a lot more Woolf. I expect also to immerse myself into the literary output of Coetzee, Flaubert, Kafka and Bellow, each of whom, to different degrees, I am mildly obsessed with at present.

My other fictional landmark of this year is undoubtedly Ulysses. My reading began as a provocation and ended as an unveiling. That a novel can capture the agony and beauty of life so coherently shook me, continues to agitate me. It is a book I dip into weekly.

Finnegans Wake has replaced Ulysses as a delayed, taxing challenge, but not one I wish to accept at the moment. My only Joycean plan for next year is to read Richard Ellmann’s Biography.

The third in the trio of books that set my head on fire this year is What Ever Happened to Modernism? Offering a personal perspective on literature and Modernism, Josipovici enabled me to understand why some forms and styles of novel electrify me and others leave me still hungry, or worse, nauseous.

Other books that left an indelible mark during the year were Coetzee’s trilogy of fictionalised memoirs, Leigh Fermor’s short but very beautiful A Time to Keep Silence, Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants, John Williams’  brilliant Stoner, Josipovici’s The Singer on the Shore and Andrei Codrescu’s The Poetry Lesson. Don Quixote, of course, is also sublime but that will not be news to any serious readers.

Revisiting Kafka this year, unbelievably reading The Trial for the first time, and now slowly digesting the Collected Stories and Diaries, occupy a different cavity than everything mentioned above. His writing is the ‘axe for the frozen sea’ inside me.

Uniquely this year, there is only one book that I completed (though several I threw aside after fifty pages) that I regret, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Out of a misplaced love of Mrs. Dalloway I finished the book but cannot reclaim the hours I devoted to this execrable book.

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.

A Crowd of Souls

Andreas Feininger’s 1949 photograph of commuters crowded aboard the Staten Island ferry, which runs between Manhattan and Staten Island.

Today’s reading of Saul Bellow’s The Victim offered up this evocative sentence:

The mass of passengers on the open deck was still, like a crowd of souls, each concentrating on its destination.

In this case the destination was Manhattan, but perfect is the evocation of Charon’s ferry transporting souls across the Styx and Acheron.

Fellahin and Fleeing Trains

Three chapters into Saul Bellow’s The Victim, and I keep flicking back to read his opening paragraph:

On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok. The whole continent seems to have moved from its place and slid nearer the equator, the bitter gray Atlantic to have become green and tropical, and the people, thronging the streets, barbaric fellahin among the stupendous monuments of their mystery, the lights of which, a dazing profusion, climb upwards endlessly into the heat of the sky.

I relish the barbaric fellahin, juxtaposed powerfully with the lit skyscrapers of New York. Bellow sets his scene economically, minimum words but maximum poetry. I love opening paragraphs, as much as I often dislike closing paragraphs.

There is one further line on this first page that is irresistible. It kept me sane during a dull, day long meeting. The protagonist, Asa Leventhal, almost misses his train stop, forcing his way out at the last moment.

The train fled, and Leventhal, breathing hard, stared after it, cursing, and then turned and descended to the street.

The fleeing train. ‘The train fled.’ In this, and other contexts, the verb choice is perfect.

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow

“Just as, according to Proust, all Dostoevsky’s novels could well be called Crime and Punishment and all Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, so all Bellow’s could be called Dangling Man.”

I don’t know how difficult it was for Saul Bellow to find a publisher for his first book, Dangling Man. Reading his memoir and biography comes later into my planned immersion into Bellow’s work. At any stage in a writer’s oeuvre, this book would stand out, as a debut it is breathtaking. It makes Josipovici’s quote, above, a compliment.

Written as a journal, there is no identifiable plot, merely a few set pieces and the words of a broadly sympathetic but not always likeable narrator. It is necessary to ask to what end the journal is kept? Who is the expected reader? There is always an anticipated audience, however private a journal. Although the journal format could be limiting, Bellow uses it creatively to open up space for this remarkable story to be unfold.

Aside from narrator Joseph, the other large character in Dangling Man is 1940’s Chicago. I’m not sure that I can wait for my scheduled 2012 assignment in Chicago. Bellow, as I mentioned before, deftly gives a sense of time and place. I was eagerly Googling pictures of Chicago during 1942-44 to establish my presence in the city during my reading of this book. The smells, sounds and weather of the city came to life, and I rode invisibly beside Joseph on the trams, the ‘El’ and ate in the diners. Here a brief establishing shot, and a few pictures I found:

At eleven I had a haircut. I went as far as Sixty-third Street for lunch and ate at a white counter amid smells of frying fish, looking out on the iron piers in the street and the huge paving bricks like the plates of the boiler-room floor in a huge liner. Above the restaurant, on the other corner, a hamburger jar with arms and legs balanced on a fiery wire, leaned toward a jar of mustard. I wiped up the sweet sediment in my cup with a piece of bread and went out to walk through large melting flakes. I wandered through a ten-cent store, examining the comic valentines, thought of buying envelopes, and bought instead a bag of chocolate creams. I ate them hungrily. Next, I was drawn to the shooting gallery. I paid for twenty shots and fired less than half, hitting none of the targets. Back in the street, I warmed myself at a salamander flaming in an oil drum near a newsstand with its wall of magazines erected under the shelter of the El.

Rue St-Dominique, Montreal

In Dangling Man, Saul Bellow’s narrator writes in his journal, recalling a childhood in Montreal. The description is so potent that I had an immediate urge to make a virtual visit.

I have never found another street that resembled St. Dominique. It was in a slum between a market and a hospital. I was generally intensely preoccupied with what went on in it and watched from the stairs and the windows. Little since then has worked upon me with such a force as, say, the sight of a driver trying to raise his fallen horse, of a funeral passing through the snow, or of a cripple who taunted his brother. And the pungency and staleness of its stores and cellars, the dogs, the boys, the French and immigrant women, the beggars with sores and deformities whose like I was not to meet again until I was old enough to read of Villon’s Paris, they very breezes in the narrow course of that street, have remained so clear to me that I sometimes think it is the only place where I was ever allowed to encounter reality.

Antlerheads, rue St. Dominique
[First image source]

Halfway Through Dangling Man

Written in 1944, Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man begins, “There was a time when people were in the habit of addressing themselves frequently and felt no shame at making a record of their inward transactions. But to keep a journal nowadays is considered a kind of self-indulgence, a weakness, and in poor taste. For this is an era of hardboiled-dom.”

The irony of writing this on a blog, while casting an eye over a rolling Twitter-feed. What is the opposite of hardboiled-dom, an appropriate name for our self-indulgent era?

At the time of writing his debut novel, Bellow could not have predicted winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. His Nobel lecture is magnificent:

Characters, Elizabeth Bowen once said, are not created by writers. They pre-exist and they have to be found. If we do not find them, if we fail to represent them, the fault is ours. It must be admitted, however, that finding them is not easy. The condition of human beings has perhaps never been more difficult to define.

Bellow on Ulysses

Saul Bellow on Ulysses:

The modern masterpiece of confusion is Joyce’s Ulysses. There the mind is unable to resist experience. Experience in all its diversity, its pleasure and horror, passes through Bloom’s head like an ocean through a sponge. The sponge can’t resist; it has to accept whatever the waters bring. It also notes every microorganism that passes through it. This is what I mean. How much of this must the spirit suffer, in what detail is it obliged to receive this ocean with its human plankton? Sometimes it looks as if the power of the mind has been nullified by the volume of experiences. But of course this is assuming the degree of passivity that Joyce assumes in Ulysses. Stronger, more purposeful minds can demand order, impose order, select, disregard, but there is still the threat of disintegration under the particulars. A Faustian artist is unwilling to surrender to the mass of particulars.

Mostly Bellow, Some Roth

Saul Bellow disappeared off the edge of my literary radar. Perhaps he caught the tailwind of my growing disenchantment with the novels of Philip Roth. Gabriel Josipovici’s brilliant essay on Saul Bellow, in his 1977 collection The Lessons of Modernism, has reinvigorated a neglected passion. This year sees the publication of a collection of Bellow’s letters and a third volume of The Library of America series. Both of which I look forward to reading.

The essay on Bellow recalls that unique tone of voice, that combines “the utmost formality with the utmost desperation.” He goes on to say:

Bellow has been described as a great realist; as a follower of Dreiser and the American urban naturalist tradition; as a great fantasist, especially in Henderson the Rain King; and as the last of the Yiddish storytellers. But these are ways of shrugging of the demands of that voice, of avoiding its implications by placing it safely in a literary or historical context. Bellow is too important a writer to have this done to him.

“Just as,” continues Josipovici, “according to Proust, all Dostoevsky’s novels could well be called Crime and Punishment and all Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, so all Bellow’s could be called Dangling Man.”

It is with Dangling Man I will start my Bellow immersion in the autumn. Inspired by Bibliographing’s Melville project, my intention is to read the fifteen novels, short stories, essay collection and Bellow’s memoir.

What I’ve termed my disenchantment with Philip Roth is, I hope, merely a phase. I can only endorse the suggestion of starting to read Roth with The Ghost Writer, an exceptional novel. The Library of America recently issued a sixth volume in the Roth series, and a new novel is due.

Salter: Precious and Exotic

James Salter’s Light Years juxtaposes several infinitely malleable themes. The oldest, in the tradition of Madame Bovary, dissects the flawed diamond that is the institution of marriage, and examines the inherent loss of freedom. The marriage is set within the politically and culturally empowering decades of the sixties and seventies. The individuals within the marriage are New York Jewish intellectuals, at once familiar and known to readers of Roth, Ozick and Bellow. This combination, in the hands of a talented observer and writer, is a precious and exotic combination.

My Reading Years

My insatiable appetite for reading was borne from scarcity. Growing up in the Far East, the local bookshop thrived off the sale of potboilers: Arthur Hailey, Wilbur Smith, Ed McBain. Thirty years ago, the latter two writers formed a significant part of my early reading consumption.

During my years of formal education, my taste evolved into science fiction, particularly Robert Heinlein and Kurt Vonnegut. William Gibson and Neal Stephenson followed. Discovering Dostoyvsky and Kafka in my late teens changed my literary landscape. Crime and Punishment and The Metamorphosis were jump leads that accelerated my reading. Throughout my twenties I read omnivorously, with an insistence to finish every book I started: Proust, Nietzsche, Sartre, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Chekhov, Balzac, Maupassant.

Entering my thirties, bruised after a disastrous first marriage, I motored at a more sedate pace. Enthusiasms during this period are a source of blushes today: Nick Hornby, Iain Banks and John Updike. Eventually I drifted away from reading fiction, partly as a consequence of a heavy Masters reading list. Instead I read economics, history, travel, biographies and architecture.

Today, having crossed decisively into my forties, my taste for reading fiction is revived. My inclination though is resolved to read better, to spend time only on what is, or might be, worthwhile. I drift easily from essays, diaries, biographies back to fiction. I reread little, putting this off for another time. My hunger for the unread is intense. As I read I create myself.