Saul Bellow: Him With His Foot in His Mouth

My main gripe with Saul Bellow, even while recognising his greatness, is that there’s so damn much of him. It’s facile but unavoidable. With a hungry blog to feed and a couple of other minor draws on my time (oh yes: family and work), I’ve never been able to clear the couple of months that frankly I would need to really ingest the 496 pages of Humboldt’s Gift. All hail, then, Penguin Mini Modern Classics, the latest series of single-shot fiction miniatures from Penguin. (Decrepit readers will remember the Penguin 60s and Pocket Penguins from 1995 and 2005, and indeed the Great Loves. This new set celebrates half a century of Penguin Modern Classics.)

‘Him With His Foot in His Mouth’ is the title story from Bellow’s 1984 collection. It appears here in a standalone volume – the story is the whole book – which is by far the most satisfying way of doing it. (Many of the fifty titles in the Mini Modern Classics collect two or more stories together, which seems to me somehow to be cheating.) Needless to say, there is enough in its slim extent to fill the reader up as a whole novel by another author might.

Bellow’s style is there from the title: the carefully casual repetition, the self-regard, the demotic idiom. The story takes the form of a letter to “Miss Rose” from Shawmut, a sort-of retired professor, where he apologises for an off-the-cuff jibe he made to her some thirty-five years ago. Partly this is because he has been reminded of his crime by an old friend, partly because he fears that “there is a life to come – wait and see – and that in the life to come we will feel the pains that we inflicted on others.” I said ‘sort-of retired’ because although Shawmut is of a certain age, he is in no position to rest up:

The death of my brother leaves me in a deep legal-financial hole. I won’t molest you with the facts of the case, garbled in the newspapers. Enough to say that his felonies and my own faults or vices have wiped me out. On bad legal advice I took refuge in Canada, and the courts will be rough because I tried to escape. I may not be sent to prison, but I will have to work for the rest of my life, will die in harness, and damn queer harness, hauling my load to a peculiar peak.

Shawmut comes not just to make amends to Miss Rose for his “stupid wisecrack” (adding, “Allow me to presume that you are old-fashioned enough not to be furious at having led a useful life”), but to wallow in his own downfall – to say, look, I got my just deserts! Really, the letter is his document to himself, a self-critique, which is emphasised early on when we discover that what we are reading is not the final form, but a draft (“I will say it all and then revise, send Miss Rose only the suitable parts“). This being Bellow, ‘I will say it all’ seems like a challenge to himself that he can’t resist.

Shawmut has been warned to make amends by his old friend Eddie Walish, who was with him on the dangerous day. Bellow reminds us how he can do a novelist’s turn – how he could, if he wanted, be just a really good novelist – with just-so imagery (“absorbent-cotton bread”) and descriptions of characters so tight that they snap:

Our Ed, who suffered from curvature of the spine, would not carry a stick, much less wear a built-up shoe. He behaved with sporting nonchalance and defied the orthopedists when they warned that his spinal column would collapse like a stack of dominoes. His style was to be free and limber. You had to take him as he came, no concessions offered. I admired him for that.

(Eddie Walish sounds a little like Augie March introducing himself.) Shawmut laments Walish’s attack on him, the demand that provoked this letter of apology. “All the while that he was making the gestures of a close and precious friend, he was fattening my soul in a coop till it was ready for killing.” So beleaguered does Shawmut appear in his account – swindled by lawyers and family members, betrayed by his oldest pal – that it soon becomes clear that he wants to make Miss Rose feel sorry for him, to become the victim and leach her pity even as he purports to apologise. The simplest reason to apologise – feeling guilt – doesn’t come high on his list.

He is topsy-turvy, but what isn’t? “The world’s grandeur is fading.” He feels himself to be “not in the right state, the state of vision I was meant or destined to be in. … Until this ends there can only be errors.” He connects this to his financial troubles, the swindlings he has been on the wrong end of, and his disorientation in America, the money capital of the world. Shawmut, reversing his creator’s steps, leaves Chicago and goes to Canada. “It’s no easy thing to share a border with the USA. Canada’s chief entertainment – it has no choice – is to watch (from a gorgeous setting) what happens in our country.” A short journey, but on the way Bellow seems to cover – and uncover – a multitude, the whole man, and more besides; to take us around the world in eighty pages.


  1. Great review and a beautiful edition from Penguin, as always, but already having the collected stories prevents me from grabbing this anew, though I will re-read it asap.

  2. What a brilliant idea! Instead of publishing 10 stories together in one book, package them as five books. Profits will soar. But somehow it works, because many times I’ve been daunted by 400+ page books of collected stories.

  3. John, have you read Bellow’s letters? As far as writer epistles go, they’re right at the top end of the scale in terms of sheer brilliant composition and revealing cantankerousness.

  4. Lee and Tony, like you I am conscious of the ‘value for money’ aspect of these tiddlers, but they appeal to me very directly through my innate completist impulse. I cannot bear to start a book without the intention of finishing it, and who could have such rash expectations when cracking the spine of Bellow’s Collected Stories? So these ones, particularly the titles which include just one story, are catnip to me. I’m so time-poor these days (I know, I know, who isn’t?) that they’re perfect. I bought Eudora Welty’s Moon Lake and Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle at the weekend, as well as Kafka’s In the Penal Colony/The Judgement (I have those stories in three other editions, but this way I can justify giving them full attention alone).

    Oh and Lee, no, I haven’t read Bellow’s letters. One for the putative time when I’ve got through all the fiction, perhaps…

  5. I wish I had more of a similar completist facility. One book in particular, I have decided, is best read in random riffle-alights. As for the collected stories, I am just over halfway through, years later, by dint of delving for a story here and there, with no compulsion to get to the end. And each story has been superb. It’s a messy way to do things but I’m doomed to keep repeating it with some books. I think I mentioned to you some time ago that I read all but the last 100 pages of The Bonfire Of The Vanities a while back then left it alone for 3 years. The idea of getting to the end was too much of a wrench.

  6. John Self has captured my problem with volumes of Collected Stories — I buy them and then they just sit there, guilting me, for years because I read “books” not “parts of books” (I know…that’s my problem, but bear with me). And since I am not price sensitive, the prospect of these slim volumes has some appeal, although I note from Lizzy’s site that Penguin is marketing all 50 in a box as well, which has appeal but then makes the long Collected Stories volume look like a comic book in comparison.

    To return to content, I was not aware of this story/novella in Bellow’s oeuvre and find the possibility interesting. I love Augie March and this seems to have some echoes — I am even more interested at Bellow reversing his own immigrant path (okay, moving from Canada to the U.S. at age two is hardly a choice, but you get what I mean). That raises the challenge — to buy Collected Stories (definitely the economic choice, but it brings the guilt factor) or this slim volume, which of course might lead me to the Collected Stories.


  7. Worth bearing in mind that even at full price they cost less than many magazines – and at £2 (which they can easily be acquired for), the same as most Sunday newspapers. I think they’re a great way to try new writers – for that reason I got the Petrushevskaya selection, which also includes two newly translated stories. The Fallada volume is entirely new work, and other volumes contain work that is out of print or only available in expensive Collected Stories. I’m also looking forward to reading Isaac Bashevis Singer and Ryunosuke Akutagawa for the first time, and I may now be temtped by the Bellow!

  8. A very good review. I think you capture Bellow’s appeal really well. He could be “just a really good novelist” but he manages to combine a conventional realism with literary demands and tendencies so successfully, he must inevitably be much more. But I don’t think I will get this new edition — I already own the story in two or more forms. I would generally recommend getting the collection with James Wood’s introduction.

    My own humble effort to review the 1984 collection that you mention is here:

  9. Many thanks Guy – in fact I do have the collected edition with James Wood’s introduction, but had failed to break into it at all due to aforementioned completist impulse (and the small type, and the many many pages…).

    I enjoyed your review, so thanks for the link. You’re clearly steeped in Bellow’s style and idiom. I hope to get there myself in the coming – let’s not kid ourselves – decades.

  10. I’d like to make a pitch for a couple of Bellow’s longer novels, The Adventures of Augie March and Humboldt’s Gift in particular. I know the weight of the volumes make them seem daunting but they remain among my favorites. While he and Philip Roth are both writing about the same America, there is an interesting contrast in their views — and both have much value.

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