Bellow Saul

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.

Saul Bellow: Seize the Day

For the second leg of my attempt to read Saul Bellow’s novels – or, as I’ve read several already, should I say to enjoy Saul Bellow’s novels – in fact, as I’m not that ambitious, make that to get Saul Bellow’s novels – I thought I would go for one that’s even thinner than Dangling Man. Well it is Christmas. Seize the Day (1956) was Bellow’s fourth novel, coming immediately after his breakthrough book The Adventures of Augie March. It’s regarded as representative of his output, but in a bite-sized (118 pages) portion. So let’s get stuck in.

Seize the Day

In fact I have read it before, a few years ago, but in the time-honoured tradition, I no longer had a single thought in my head about it, other than “not as bad as Herzog.” Herzog is often regarded as Bellow’s masterpiece, so that shows how much weight you should place on the following.

The difficulty with Seize the Day, as with so many books whose reputations precede them, is the conflict between expectation and experience. I would surely have enjoyed it more without any anticipation that this would be a life-changing read. As it is, I was stuck there halfway between following the novel in my own way, and waiting for the greatness to hit me. It didn’t in any obvious way, so I went out and looked for it. Looking for greatness in Bellow by forensically examining the pages is a little like cutting open a human body to search for the soul. It is everywhere and nowhere.

There are some fine nuggets which indicate the failure status of our hero, Tommy Wilhelm, right from the start: in the third sentence, we learn that “he had once been an actor – no, not quite, an extra.” And “early in the nineteen-thirties, because of his striking looks, he had very briefly been considered star material, and he had gone to Hollywood.” Just how briefly, we soon see:

Hollywood was his own idea, too. He used to pretend that it had all been the doing of a certain talent scout named Maurice Venice. But the scout had never made him a definite offer of a studio connection. He had approached him, but the results of the screen test had not been good. After the test Wilhelm took the initiative and pressed Maurice Venice until he got him to say, “Well, I suppose you might make it out there.” On the strength of this Wilhelm had left college and had gone to California.

One thing the talent scout does volunteer is that he marks Wilhelm down as “the type that loses the girl.” Some people this might discourage. But Wilhelm is his own creation in other ways too: his real name, Wilky Adler, was abandoned, leading to the first fissure in a strained relationship with his father. Nonetheless even his father, Dr Adler, feels the need to cover up for Wilhelm’s inadequacies, describing him to a friend as a “sales executive” with an income “up in the five figures somewhere.”

Despite his troubles, Wilhelm almost laughed. Why, that bounding old hypocrite. He knew the sales executive was no more. For many weeks there had been no executive, no sales, no income. But how we love looking fine in the eyes of the world! … It’s Dad, thought Wilhelm, who is the salesman. He’s selling me. He should have gone on the road.

“Despite his troubles” indeed, because Wilhelm has not had them to seek. He is separated and his wife refuses to give him a divorce, while “giving him the works” by leeching as much of his irregular income as she can. He is living in a hotel and cannot pay his bill. His path through life, begun when he abandoned college to avoid “the narrow life of the average,” has become a dead end, or worse, a maze of possibilities, none of them very tempting. He wants freedom from his mistakes, his past and his self:

His spirit, the peculiar burden of his existence lay upon him like an accretion, a load, a lump. In any moment of quiet, when sheer fatigue prevented him from struggling, he was apt to feel this mysterious weight, this growth or collection of nameless things which it was the business of his life to carry about.

At the same time Wilhelm doubts whether he can ever be free: “Don’t talk to me about being free. A rich man may be free on an income of a million net. A poor man may be free because nobody cares what he does. But a fellow in my position has to sweat it out until he drops dead.” And his way of trying to get to be a rich man – while heading quite surely in the other direction – is to invest in … lard futures (a touch of comic genius from Bellow), at the behest of a philosophising adviser called Dr Tamkin (“I deal in facts. Facts always are sensational. I’ll say that a second time. Facts always! are sensational”). Tamkin – is he really a doctor? – is a man of “vain mustache” and “deceiver’s brown eyes.” As with Wilhelm himself and Dr Adler, Bellow’s portrayal of Tamkin is perfect and memorable, simply because he emphasises enough to make his character stick in the mind without overwriting.

Wilhelm, at a low ebb (“trouble rusts out the system”), places his trust in Dr Tamkin and his easy ways with an aphorism.

The past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real – the here-and-now. Seize the day.

But Wilhelm learns that lard futures are also full of anxiety, and on the single day when the story is set, a day when “willing or not, he would take a good close look at the truth,” he finds that the future can go down as well as up, and that on the subject of losers, Nick Berry may have been a little simplistic.

So once again I find myself unable to engage on any meaningful level with the text of a Saul Bellow novel. The act of splurging my first impressions here, however, has at least raised the book in my estimation, and made me understand that there is much, much further for me to go with this man. If Wilhelm is right in saying that “maybe the making of mistakes expressed the very purpose of his life and the essence of his being here,” then the decision to have a further crack at Saul Bellow no longer seems to me quite the mistake it did just a short time ago.

Saul Bellow: Dangling Man

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.