Saul Bellow is the biggie. Every writer I admire sings out in tongues of praise for him, but I have always struggled with getting much in the way of either instruction or delight from his books. And God knows I have tried. So the reissue of all his novels over the next few months seems like a good time to make a fresh start. Plus now he’s dead somehow I don’t feel so intimidated. I’m a huge fan of Penguin Modern Classics, but they’ve used Bellow to relaunch the series, and I’m not sure about the covers: there’s something seventies about that typeface, the white stripes and spine, and the faded photography. Not a brilliant first impression.
Dangling Man is Bellow’s debut from 1944, bringing us into his twin worlds of thought and fascination, and of colourful characters. The book takes the form of a journal kept by Joseph, surname undeclared, as he waits for his call-up by the Army after enlisting, when “there is nothing to do but wait, or dangle, and grow more and more dispirited.” To keep his spirits up he records his thoughts, contrary to the spirit of the day (“Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them”).
Pretty quickly Joseph learns that to have all this free time, this freedom, leads him not only into dolour but into mischief, and he manages to start fights during the course of the novel with his wife (“Iva, it’s this situation we’re in. It’s changed us both”), his neighbours, his friends and his precocious niece Etta, who pushes him too far in a superbly ambiguous set piece. He toys with infidelity:
At the root of it all was my unwillingness to miss anything. A compact with one woman puts beyond reach what others might give us to enjoy; the soft blondes and the dark, aphrodisiacal women of our imaginations are set aside. Shall we leave life not knowing them? Must we?
It is this “avidity” which is Joseph’s other problem, his desire to experience and record everything –
We had an enormous sunset, a smashing of gaudy colours, apocalyptic reds and purples such as must have appeared on the punished bodies of great saints, blues heavy and rich. I woke Iva, and we watched it, hand in hand.
– while at the same time to know that “the real world is the world of art and thought. There is only one worthwhile sort of work, that of the imagination.” He laments the times when he could go to a bar and have discussions on “socialism, psychopathology, or the fate of European man.” But that doesn’t stop him from sharing his philosophical thoughts with us, and this is where my main problem with Bellow lies.
He is a brilliant conjurer of worlds, and in particular kind of contemporary scene, where the urban meets the human:
My shoes, their once neat points scuffed and turned up, squashed, as I walked, through half a dozen leaks. I moved toward the corner, inhaling the odors of wet clothes and of wet coal, wet paper, wet earth, drifting with the puffs of fog. Low, far out, a horn uttered a dull cry, subsided; again. The street lamp bent over the curb like a woman who cannot turn homeward until she has found the ring or the coin she dropped in the ice and gutter silt. … The awning heaved; twists of water ran through its rents. Once more the horn bawled over the water, warning the lake tugs from the headlands. It was not hard to imagine that there was no city here at all, and not even a lake but, instead, a swamp and that despairing bawl crossing it; wasting trees instead of dwellings, and runners of vine instead of telephone wires.
And his characters are often distinctive and alive. But the digressions into thought and reflection too often seem like a step back from the body of the book, and when they invariably require three or four readings for me to make sense of them, they interrupt the flow. (“Now, each of us is responsible for his own salvation, which is in his greatness. And that, that greatness, is the rock our hearts are abraded on.” Come again?)
While Dangling Man is considered by those in the know to be minor Bellow, a mere working of his muscles before he got to the good stuff, I found it to be everything I had liked and hated about his later books in embryo. I will need to keep trying then for what Martin Amis, his great admirer, calls “a transfusion from above,” and settle in the meantime for a transfusion from Bellow. The work goes on.