Bellow, Saul 1915–
A Canadian-born American novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor, and translator, Bellow is considered by many to be the most important novelist now writing in America. His fictive concerns are revealed in his protagonists, who consistently reject the absurdist philosophies of our time and strive instead to forge a humanistic personal ethic. Bellow mingles suffering with joy, pessimism with survival of the self, as his characters seek a balance between individuality and moral responsibility. He has received both Nobel and Pulitzer prizes for his work and is a three-time winner of the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[The Adventures of Augie March] is dominated by a recurrent allusiveness to masters of Greek, Jewish, European, and American history, literature, and philosophy. Sometimes their deeds or opinions are mentioned, sometimes they rule the imagery. We might call them Overlords, or Sponsors. ("If you want," Augie says at one point, "to pick your own ideal creature in the mirror coastal air and sharp leaves of ancient perfections and be at home where a great mankind was at home, I've never seen any reason why not.") The Overlords have a double use. They stand as figures of awe and emulation to Augie (one of whose favourite authors is plainly Plutarch)—corresponding in this to the heroes of his actual experience, such as Einhorn. And they create historical depth, the kind of legendary perspective that our naturalism has deeply desired; a portrait on the scale of Einhorn's would be impossible without them. Replacing the vague merciless forces invoked by Dreiser, they remind me of the marvelous vast heads of statues in some of Watteau's pictures, overlooking his lovers. They are bound to irritate some readers as pretentious or hand-to-mouth, or a mannerism, because they are a new element, a new convention, in our fiction; new conventions are likely to irritate at first.
Along with these differences goes a decisive change in theme from the naturalism we have known, which dealt as a rule with success, and was likely to be tragic. Augie does not aim at success, and his story is...
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The linguistic lowpoint of Saul Bellow's brief novel Seize the Day—and one of its comic delights—is Dr. Tamkin's poem, deliciously entitled "Mechanism vs Functionalism: Ism vs Hism." The very paper on which Tamkin has typed his poem (it has "ruled borders in red ink") warns us to expect a student production, and Bellow exceeds expectation by delivering a classic non-poem by someone who thinks that rhyme and sing-song iambs, archaically decorated with inversions and the ungrammatical second-person singular, are the vital constituents of poetry.
In the poem, Tamkin, self-described as a "psychological poet,"… advises his audience: "Why-forth then dost thou tarry … Seek ye then that which art not there." Small wonder that Bellow's bewildered protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, cannot get beyond his initial reaction: "What kind of mishmash, claptrap is this!" But Tommy, who remembers Literature I at Penn State as the "one course that now made sense,"… respects poets and poetry, and he answers politely when Tamkin asks his opinion of the poem: "I'm trying to figure out who this Thou is." To his shock, Tamkin replies, in another capsule of comic grammar: "Thou? Thou is you."… "The main idea," he explains, "is construct or destruct;" but there is no way of divining this interpretation from the poem itself. (pp. 1-2)
Bellow is not merely having fun at the expense of portentously obscure and vacuous poetry, of timid critics who dare not say aloud what their common sense whispers, and of teachers justly suspected by their pupils of plotting to trap them. He is pursuing in a comic interlude a topic which seriously and centrally concerns him throughout the novel, from the title onward: the breakdown of language as a common bond among men. (p. 2)
Wilhelm's reflections on the unfathomable Tamkin lead him to [an] extended speculation on language and society, one which encapsulates many of the ideas of the novel:
Every other man spoke a language entirely his own…. If you wanted to talk about a glass of water, you had to start back with God creating the heavens and earth … up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler. After reviewing this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a glass of water. "I'm fainting, please get me a little water." You were lucky even then to make yourself understood. And this happened over and over and over with everyone you met…. The fathers were no fathers and the sons no sons….
Increasingly alone, Wilhelm talks to himself; in the novel's last pages, "past words," he cries to himself, a full realization of his isolation finally affording him the release of tears.
Before that moment, however, Wilhelm has fought isolation with words, always futilely. He and his father, as he confesses to Tamkin, "had words," but not the words either wants…. When his father talks, Wilhelm rightly thinks he means something other than he says; beneath the exterior affability lies a censorious dismissal. When Wilhelm talks, his father either shuts him out by not listening or wrongly surmises that Wilhelm means something other and worse than he says; Wilhelm cannot "speak his mind or ease his heart to him."… Wilhelm in fact reveals his anguish more than he wishes, more than his father can stand or his own dignity bear. (pp. 3-4)
The problem of words is general, as the example of Tamkin suggests. The divorce lawyers representing Wilhelm and his wife "talk and send me bills," getting nowhere…. Wilhelm and Rubin, the newsstand keeper, know a great deal about each other's concerns, but inexplicably none of this "could be mentioned, and the great weight of the unspoken left them little to talk about."… (p. 4)
The title [Seize the Day] declares clearly Bellow's principal means of organizing his analysis of human isolation in midtwentieth-century New York: the hoary injunction carpe diem. The novel deals, expectedly and appropriately, with only a few hours of a single day in late spring, but Bellow uses his motif in a thoroughly ironic way. Concerned with dramatizing not merely the loneliness of individual New Yorkers but also their social milieu and cultural assumptions, he details the manifold discordances between Wilhelm's world and the literary world evoked by his title—the world, say of Robert Herrick's "Corinna's Going a-Maying." (pp. 4-5)
In the world of Seize the Day the human cycle has been disrupted. Not only is there Wilhelm in his infinitely protracted adolescence. There is his father, nearly eighty, wearing an "unseemly, monkey-striped shirt" bought in a college shop…. There are the old guests in the hotel lobby who, past seizing anything but money, have "nothing to do but wait out the day."… There are the old ladies with faces grotesquely marked in rouge and mascara who "stared at you with expressions that did not belong to their age."… In this world the way to seize the day is not to imitate the intense fragile beauty of the rose; instead of the rose, Tamkin advises, contemplate what is before you, "a man in a brown suit" and "corduroy shirt." To do so is to obey these commands: "Be in the present. Grasp the hour, the moment, the instant."… (pp. 5-6)
By transmuting "seize the day" into "here-and-now" Tamkin turns a crisp imperative into a mumble. Rappaport, the nearly-blind ex-chicken merchant, finds Wilhelm on the street; "he commanded him, 'Take me to the cigar store'"—and this command Tamkin interprets as "another instance of the 'here-and-now,'" a request for help…. To make such a man's "Take me to the cigar store" equivalent to carpe diem is unutterably to debase human language.
Bellow exploits his title most extensively to suggest radical contrasts in tone: Herrick's Renaissance celebration of youth, modulated finally by the remembrance of inevitable death, versus Bellow's morose neutrality enlivened by the gentle sad cynicism of the culminating funeral. Technically bright and sunny, the weather in the novel is in fact terrible: "the gassy air was almost motionless under the leaden spokes of sunlight."… Instead of...
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What make [Mr. Sammler's Planet] worth writing about, I feel, is its level of artistic organisation, a significant achievement for Bellow, already considered by many to be among America's finest writers. In two sections, one on meaning, the other on form, I shall highlight distinctive features of this compact work….
First of all, the reader's approach to the book. Are we to take Bellow's feelings about life and society as identical with Sammler's?
There is a tendency to regard fictional protagonists as if they are a direct embodiment of their creator's life and attitudes. Some writers, not properly understanding Mr. Sammler's Planet, have criticised...
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It is … [the] seemingly paradoxical currents in Bellow's work, the dignity of life and the comic accident that we exist at all, that are so exhilarating. Like the true comedian, the one who shows the truths of life, Bellow discards the easy laugh in favor of the deeper, cosmic laughter which responds to the human condition….
The ghetto feeling, the feeling of being set apart and yet making a kind of virtue of this separateness, is strong in Bellow's work. His characters are often outside the mainstream of society and go through internal conflicts about whether this is a condition that is imposed or chosen. In a sense, this ghetto image is a metaphor of alienation not only for the Jew but for...
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Saul Bellow is the living author I most admire. Since having read his description of a woman washing window-glass in "The Dangling Man" so many years ago I have found him the most interesting author I know writing in English, which is the only language I can read with ease these days. Saul's virtuosity, his keen sense of the perils of his vocation and the architecture of his accomplishments seem to me peerless. (p. 3)
John Cheever, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 4, 1977.
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[Bellow is] amused by a crucifix (as if it were a toy without a history); and about sex he's a baby. But beyond this, one reads him with the seriousness one brings to the redemption of the garbage pile of one's own life. He mixes recklessness with a primordial awe, and his philosophic whine concentrates mainly on the petty, where we live. His perception of the unity of the human mind doesn't wash out its diversity. He uses language like a gill. Our worst writers (even when they are, in language, our best) write as if their own being were a one-shot affair, instead of an instance of a continuing history; solipsists, who want to be "original," bore because they don't believe in evil. Bellow, even when he is on the run...
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Saul Bellow's "Looking for Mr. Green," which records social worker George Grebe's attempt to deliver a relief check in a Chicago ghetto, is typically and correctly read as a search for the real self. But why is the object of the search called Mr. Green? Wouldn't any other name serve this theme as well? The answer is no. Green is used because the story is about more than a search for the self; it is also about how the self in modern society is defined.
The story says, in effect, that the self is created by money. Rather than detract from the search-for-the-reality-of-the-self theme, however, this idea gives greater depth to the theme by defining the nature of that reality. To understand this...
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[Bellow] is actually not a novelist at heart but an essayist disguised as a writer of fiction. In Seize the Day, The Adventures of Augie March, and Henderson the Rain King, Bellow makes serious use of fictional techniques, but even there the essayist-lecturer is always ready to step in, stealing the stage from the fictional characters to make the fiction more "important."
Bellow's self-indulgence takes various forms. On occasion it appears as stylistic fiddling—as language designed mainly to show off Bellow's gifts as philosopher, poet, mimic, or Jewish humorist—not aimed, as it should be, at clarifying action and character or at controlling the reader's attention and response,...
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