Bellow, Saul (Vol. 13)
Bellow, Saul 1915–
Bellow, a Canadian-born Jewish-American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, editor, and translator, is regarded by many to be the most important spokesman of the post-war generation. The realization of selfhood in a time when the concept of individualism is degenerating has been the task of nearly all of his protagonists, of whom several—Herzog, Henderson, Augie March, Mr. Sammler—have come to stand for tooth-and-nail optimism in the face of chaos and despair. Augie's famous cry "I want! I want!" expresses the primal knowledge of Bellow men, those who will survive, who will not surrender. Chester E. Eisinger provides an excellent summary: Bellow "knows that man is less than what the Golden Age promised us, but he refuses to believe that man is nothing. He is something, Bellow says, and saying it he performs an act of faith." A recipient of three National Book Awards, he won both the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Peter M. Axthelm
Moses Herzog, the hero of Bellow's most brilliantly realized confessional novel,… arrives at a unique kind of perception—one which is in relation to nothing and, at the same time, to everything. An examination of this seemingly paradoxical state and of how it is achieved provides an understanding of what may be the ultimate possibility for the modern confessional hero.
Herzog's perception relates to nothing, in that it is a simple, quiet decision to stop his confession, a signal that his internal storm has at last been calmed; it simultaneously relates to everything, in that it indicates a profound understanding of his past and present existence. It contains nothing in the form of a momentary vision or an affirmation of one special value, but its development includes glimpses of almost everything in man's intellectual repertory. Finally, it relates to nothing because, conceived in isolation, it affirms the joy of isolation; yet this isolation simultaneously connects Moses Herzog with everything—in his rare state, both his mind and the world are at peace. (pp. 129-30)
Before he arrives at this unprecedented level of peace and self-understanding in his hero, Bellow considers many traditional themes of the confessional genre. Two of these themes are developed to an extent which requires some discussion before we can turn to a specific treatment of Bellow's work. First, the intellectual hero who has been developing...
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David R. Jones
Despite its initial success, [The Adventures of Augie March] has not worn well…. [Difficult] questions continue to disrupt considerations of the novel. Bellow's strategy … is a reckless one, to fling an individual out across the surface of a very large work. Any such book depends for its success on the resiliency of that individual, on his ability to become, like a new coat, comfortable with time. There is also a problem of focus, for Bellow parades American types and deformities past the reader in considerable number, and we often have to peer over their heads to get a glimpse of Augie. As if to complicate matters, we must continually adjust our register to accommodate the two Augie Marchs, narrator and actor, an adjustment which is not always easy. And after we have resolved these problems, how are we to take this expatriate American, disenchanted Chicagoan, non-Jewish Jew, and unadventurous adventurer? Is he, unlike Bellow's earlier heroes, a proof that modern society can bring to maturity a man who affirms—by his words and his presence—the brutish, glorious, squalid, monumental, and petty life of men? Or is he an example of our society's ability to make all motion circular, to reduce men to demented jabbering in the face of its alternating demands and rejections? Finally, and more important for the reader approaching the book for the first time, does the style of Augie's reminiscences bear enduring? The pitch of the writing here is...
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In the stage directions [for The Last Analysis], Bellow indicates that the action of his play occurs in a "two-story loft in a warehouse…." The setting seems perfectly ordinary. Is there, however, an additional meaning? Can we see the symbolism of the physical facts? The play, as we shall learn, deals with the various stories told (or retold) by the hero. These stories are "double" in effect because he needs in his present condition to create (or recreate) a new self—to shed his skin. He tells certain stories for his own mental well-being. "Loft." Luftmensch (remember Augie March). Left. I free-associate, but I think Bellow does the same. Surely, his play is about the "upper depths"—the phrase is his—and it ends, we should note, with a raising of the "arms in a great gesture." How can his hero rise and fly? What should he leave behind? These questions are at the heart of The Last Analysis….
At curtain we discover Bummidge, the hero, "lying in the barber chair, completely covered by a sheet." Is he dead or alive? Will he be spruced up or embalmed? (Remember the endings of Seize the Day and Mr. Sammler's Planet.) We do not know right away. In this crazy environment, we cannot be certain of anything!
It is significant that the first words are spoken by an intruder, Winkleman, Bummidge's cousin. They are: "Imogen, where's my cousin?" Again, we sense...
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The problematic theme to which Bellow has been irresistibly drawn from Dangling Man to Mr. Sammler's Planet is that of trying to reconcile virtue with the fact of self-consciousness: can modern man attain "dignity," can he live a "good" life when he must assume the traditional function of God, when he himself must judge his own frailties, cowardices, and ignoble motives?…
For Bellow, a story-line seems more than anything else a weblike scenario that he weaves more and more tightly around his captured protagonist; it is primarily a method of presenting the stifling power of the human predicament in order to measure his hero's ability to endure the harrowing weight of his own life. In effect, the typical Bellow plot is rarely more than a device to bring his protagonist and his reader into a heightened emotional awareness of the thin sliver of freedom that life permits to consciousness. In fact, one can readily imagine Bellow under different circumstances being perfectly comfortable as an eighteenth-century essayist—formidably intelligent, comprehensively "liberal" in a crisply satirical way, and slightly contemptuous of such errant frivolities as fiction. In Mailer's work, the story-line appears to be almost arbitrary and incidental to the sporadic pronouncements of "truth" that the continuity of events (usually encounters of violence and/or sex) provides for…. (p. 163)
[Although] Mailer can...
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The failures of Western civilization and the pleasures of it spin out the thematic thread that runs through the novels under discussion here. As a theme, it is as worthy as any being worked in contemporary fiction, and proof of this is in the unity and persuasiveness of Bellow's oeuvre as compared to any of his contemporaries who might be considered at the same level of seriousness. (p. 36)
Bellow's first three novels—Dangling Man (1944), The Victim (1947), and The Adventures of Augie March (1953)—are interesting, varied, but essentially diverse in theme. Augie March, that large, trumpeting announcement of Self, is in many ways a prototype of Bellow's subsequent use of character, and of those juxtapositions that make a novelist comfortable and fecund within the enclosure of his fictional world. In any event, the major theme, as perceived and discussed in this essay, does not yet make an unequivocal appearance. Augie March ends with the proclamation:
Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America.
But it is Bellow's...
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