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.