Saul Bellow 1915–
Canadian-born American novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, editor, and translator.
Bellow is, perhaps, the most important writer to have emerged in post-World War II America. Thoughtful yet humorous, his work pursues the timely question of what it is to be fully human in an increasingly impersonal and mechanistic world. Bellow firmly rejects the modern concept of the absurdity of human existence. Instead, his protagonists—sensitive, observant, intensely individualistic intellectuals—although sometimes despairing and alienated, are never totally so. Their struggle is for a kind of spiritual balance to enable them to exert the will and imagination necessary to control their lives.
Bellow favors a prose style in which he can "talk his characters into existence," reflecting his casual dependence on plot and his emphasis on dialogue, monologue, and "inner voice". As his protagonists speak to each other and to themselves, the reader is drawn into their struggles with self and society.
Taking his place beside other "Bellow Heroes" (Augie March, Henderson, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler) is Albert Corde, the middle-aged academic of Bellow's recent novel, The Dean's December. Critical reaction to this newer work varies, with some critics being reluctant to applaud yet another of Bellow's autobiographical creations. Nonetheless, Bellow maintains a stature shared by few writers of fiction. A recipient of three National Book Awards, he also won both the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3.)
Saul Bellow has the most effusive intelligence of living American novelists. Even when he is only clever he has a kind of spirited intellectual vanity that enables him to take on all the facts and theories about the pathetic and comically exposed condition of civilized man and distribute them like high-class corn so that the chickens come running to them. That is the art of the novelist who can't resist an idea: to evoke, attract that 'pleasing, anxious being', the squawking, dusty, feverish human chicken. Aldous Huxley could always throw the corn but nothing alive came fluttering to it.
But immensely clever novelists have to beware of self-dispersal when they run to great length. I enjoy Saul Bellow in his spreading carnivals and wonder at his energy, but I still think he is finer in his shorter works. The Victim was the best novel to come out of America—or England—for a decade. The Dangling Man is good, but subdued; Seize the Day is a small grey masterpiece. If one cuts out the end, Henderson the Rain King is at once profound and richly diverting in its fantasy. These novels had form; their economy drove their point home. By brevity Bellow enhanced our experience. And, to a European reader—though this may be irrelevant—he seems the only American of this generation to convey the feel and detail of urban America, preserving especially what is going on at the times when nothing is going on: the distinctive native ennui, which is the basic nutriment of any national life.
It is when he turns to longer books, chasing the mirage of 'the great American novel', that Bellow weakens as he becomes a traveller, spreading the news and depending on the presence of a character who is something like a human hold-all, less a recognizable individual than a fantastic piece of bursting luggage. His labels, where he has been, whom he has met in his collision with America are more suggestive than his banal personal story. (pp. 146-47)
Structurally and in content, the story of Herzog is unsustaining. But what Herzog sees, the accidental detail of his experience, is very impressive. Here he grows. He really has got a mind and it is hurt. It is a tribute to Mr Bellow's reserves of talent that the novel survives and over-grows its own weaknesses. The muddle Moses is in, his sense of victimization, are valuable. His paranoia is...
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A genre has long since defined itself, Nobel-certified: the Saul Bellow Novel. This is the Novel as First-Draft Dissertation: a rumination on the sorry state of the world, insufficiently formal for the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, however well it may translate into Swedish, but not unworthy of that Committee's encouraging noises. About the sorry state of the world there is nothing to be done save accept it, as every Bellow protagonist must learn for himself the way Job did. And since the Bellow Novel is obdurately protagonist-centered, what the reader gets to do is share his learning process.
In The Dean's December, the Dean—not a Jewish Dean from the Bellow Repertory Company, not at bottom an echt dean at all but a mere dean of students, moreover a moon-faced French-Irish ex-newspaperman named Albert Corde who has drifted into academe, and don't confuse him with his fox-faced creator—the Dean, if I could just finish this sentence, is stranded in communist Rumania waiting for his mother-in-law, Valeria, to die.
His wife, Minna, née Raresh, is an astrophysicist of the Palomar caliber; he cannot understand a thing she does, save that she brings together "a needle from one end of the universe with a thread from the opposite end." Here, Minna being preoccupied with her mother, he gets little solace from her. And it's cold and he speaks no Rumanian: plenty of time to ruminate. Herzog, left in solitude, wrote letters. Corde can simply run on, third-person imperfect. (p. 62)
[At one point in his life, Bellow might] have judged The Dean's December dreary: a book (for one thing) so remote from reliance on idiom that there's nothing save the regime to impede a Rumanian version.
For along the way Bellow has acquired an alter ego named Herzog, who first surfaced in the 1964 novel of that name and promptly addled his creator's head…. (p. 64)...
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As long as Bellow gave us fictional richness, one would have had to be stern indeed to resist his charm merely because he gave away, every now and then, that he too found himself charming, like a hypnotist who puts himself along with his subjects into a trance. But what happens when the fictional juices run out, when a novelist becomes so convinced of his own wisdom, his grasp of the Big Subjects—Western Civilization, The Modern Condition, The Future of Humanity—that fiction seems too fragile a bark to carry all his intellectual cargo? Well, if he's Tolstoy, he decides that fiction is evil, a trick, and gives away all his money. If he's Solzhenitsyn, he turns himself into a witness to history and an ideologue. If he's Bellow, he veers off into nonfiction (To Jerusalem and Back), autobiography (Humboldt's Gift) and sociopolitical tirades disguised as novels (Mr Sammler's Planet).
And so, here we are, at last, with The Dean's December, a novel as flat as the paper on which it is printed, for all Bellow's literary energies have been swallowed up in pontification. This is a book so bitter, so self-infatuated, so boring, as to make one wonder if his earlier books could really have had the intellectual weight ascribed to them at the time. (p. 66)
[In The Dean's December] Albert Corde, a middle-aged journalist and dean of a Chicago college, has gone to Bucharest with his beloved Rumanian astronomer wife, Minna, because her mother is dying. Corde has recently published a series of articles about Chicago, detailing the corruption of the political and judicial systems and the true scope of inner-city—that is, black—degradation and criminality. These articles have offended everybody, as has Corde's insistence on bringing to prosecution a black ex-con and a black prostitute who have murdered a white student.
Corde has a lot of time to think in Bucharest, and among his concerns are: the corrupting influence of journalists, himself excepted; the cowardice of American intellectuals, himself excepted; the moral squeamishness of white liberals, himself not excepted (since he is no liberal); and the failure of humanists to face issues raised by scientists—himself excepted, since he is considering writing a piece about a geologist who attributes the craziness of modern folk in general, and poor blacks in particular, to lead poisoning. What has happened to "the American idea," Corde wonders. Here in Bucharest, the government is tyrannical, but the people are warm and help each other. In America, the government is less evil, but the well-off are corrupt and selfish, the poor close to bestial. Go figure.
In due time, the old lady dies, the two blacks are convicted, and Corde loses his job. His literary rival, a famous journalist, publishes a piece about Corde in which he attributes to Corde a remark equating tenured professors to welfare mothers—freeloaders both—and the provost of the college...
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Like the earlier Mr. Sammler's, Corde's mission is to be at the moral center of [The Dean's December], the worried and thoughtful person. And at that he is splendid. (p. 6)
[While in Rumania to attend the deathbed of his wife's mother] Corde is following the progress, back home, of a court case involving the murder of a student. Two blacks are accused of pushing him out of a window to his death. They claim he fell, and that he had anyway been asking for trouble. Corde has encouraged their prosecution, but without his interest the case would probably have gone the way of other such cases—postponement after postponement until the witnesses died or moved away, and eventual freedom for the...
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The Dean's December might not be vintage Bellow but then he probably grew bored with vintage Bellow. It is new ground, seeking to retrieve, most boldly, the territory of social description and prescription so largely abandoned by novelists during this century. Bellow has always been conscious of the European literary heritage—whether it was bringing in the rhythms of Yiddish or digesting the intellectual currency of Paris; here it is Dostoevsky he seems to turn to; and if he falls short, then, who does not? In the attempt there are riches: the failures are so easy to spot that a reviewer must beware, Bellow is an exceptionally clever man. He would not "fail" so simply or seem to fail for no good purpose…....
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If Updike is the narrator-as-preacher, nudging his readers to speculate about what it all means, and Nabokov is the narrator-as-aesthete, insisting that his readers pay close attention to his exquisitely detailed observations, Bellow is the narrator-as-taxi driver, telling his readers to cut the nonsense and stop taking this or that fashionable idea seriously. Even though some of his novels are in the third person and others are in the first, it does not seem to make much of a difference; we hear Bellow talking in all of them, hear the voice of a writer who is in turn amused, exasperated, and angered by the way we live now.
As a worldly-wise taxi driver—one, moreover, who has read all the Great...
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[In The Dean's December] we have the bare bones of Bellow: the novel as essay, stripped of the whimsey and decoration of character and fanciful prose. Bellow at his worst. This book has the disquieting effect of encountering an old friend—a good friend—who has undergone some startling decline.
But the symptoms and patterns have been there from the mechanical beginnings in Dangling Man and The Victim. They have persisted, notably in the metaphysical obsession with the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner that virtually took over the latter part of what was supposed to be a portrait of poet Delmore Schwartz in Humboldt's Gift.
The truth of the matter is that...
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Since Herzog Saul Bellow has been developing his own quite unique kind of novel. Like Virginia Woolf (though he wouldn't thank me for the comparison) he has gradually discovered a form of fiction in which plot counts for extremely little, but which is open enough to include almost everything. Of course Bellow's minimal plots are very different from Virginia Woolf's: instead of house-parties and village fêtes there are divorces, court cases, deaths. The setting is urban—usually Chicago, which is seen as the archetypal modern city—and the cast includes hoodlums, media men, academics and politicians. The "almost everything" also differs from Virginia Woolf's, for it includes all the horrors of slums and big...
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The themes of Saul Bellow are hardly original: they include the old established counterclaims of the individual versus society and the individual in self-conflict. What Bellow offers is a clarity of vision concerning these issues that is, above all, honest. In all of his writing, Bellow faces squarely the timely issue of personal effacement and consequent degradation that every social trend seems to manifest. He never draws away from the frightening implications of an impersonal, mechanical society.
The distinctive achievement of Bellow, however, lies in his depiction of the individual in such a society, for it is the plight of the man, not society, that is emphasized throughout his work. In Bellow's...
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