Saul Bellow Bellow, Saul (Vol. 1)

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Bellow, Saul (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Bellow, Saul 1915–

Award-winning Jewish-American novelist, Bellow has written witty and intellectual novels which have won him world acclaim. His best-known works are Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March, and Henderson the Rain King. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Saul Bellow has become not merely a writer with whom it is possible to come to terms, but one with whom it is necessary to come to terms—perhaps of all our novelists the one we need most to understand, if we are to understand what the novel is doing at the present moment…. His appearance as the first Jewish-American novelist to stand at the center of American literature is flanked by a host of matching successes on other levels of culture and subculture…. The acceptance of Bellow as the leading novelist of his generation must be paired off with the appearance of Marjorie Morningstar on the front cover of Time. On all levels, the Jew is in the process of being mythicized into the representative American….

As The Victim is Bellow's most specifically Jewish book, Augie March (in this, as in all other respects, a reaction from the former) is his most generally American. Its milieu is Jewish American, its speech patterns somehow molded by Yiddish, but its theme is the native theme of Huckleberry Finn the rejection of power and commitment and success, the pursuit of a primal innocence. It is a strangely non-Jewish book in being concerned not with a man's rise but with his evasion of rising…. Unlike Twain, Bellow, though he has found the proper tone for his episodes, cannot recapture it for his close. Augie, which begins with such rightness, such conviction, does not know how to end; shriller and shriller, wilder and wilder, it finally whirls apart in a frenzy of fake euphoria and exclamatory prose….

Since Bellow's style is based on a certain conversational ideal at once intellectual and informal, dialogue is for him necessarily a distillation of his strongest effects. Sometimes one feels his characters' speeches as the main events of the books in which they occur; certainly they have the impact of words exchanged among Jews, that is to say, the impact of actions, not merely overheard but felt, like kisses or blows. Implicit in the direction of his style is a desire to encompass a world larger, richer, more disorderly and untrammeled than that of any other writer of his generation; it is this which impels him toward the picaresque, the sprawling, episodic manner of Augie March. But there is a counter impulse in him toward the tight, rigidly organized, underplayed style of The Victim: and at his best, I think, as in Seize the Day, an ability to balance the two tendencies against each other: hysteria and catalepsy, the centrifugal and the centripetal in a sort of perilous rest….

More, perhaps, than any other recent novelist, Bellow is aware that the collapse of the proletarian novel, which marks the starting place of his own art, has meant more than the disappearance of a convention in the history of fiction. With the disappearance of the proletarian novel as a form there has taken place the gradual dissolution of the last widely shared definition of man: man as the product of society. If man seems at the moment extraordinarily lonely, it is not only because he finds it hard to communicate with his fellows, but because he has lost touch with any overarching definition of himself. This Bellow realizes; as he realizes that it is precisely in such loneliness, once man learns not to endure but to become that loneliness, that man can rediscover his identity and his fellowship with others.

Leslie A. Fiedler, "Saul Bellow," in Prairie Schooner, Summer, 1957, pp. 103-10.

There is something in Bellow's accent that may remind us of the innocent and childlike spirit of a Stephen Crane, consumed as the earlier writer was also by the flames of his own oedipal and religious conflict…. Saul Bellow is genuinely concerned with, and even oppressed by, the moral values of his...

(The entire section is 6,504 words.)