Saul Bellow Bellow, Saul (Vol. 3)

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Bellow, Saul (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Bellow, Saul 1915–

Bellow, a Canadian-born Jewish-American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist, is one of America's most celebrated writers of fiction. Life and death, reason and emotion are among the principal themes of his vital, disciplined, and intellectual novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Bellow's controlling images and myths tend to be social ones; ideas, political and philosophical are not something intrusive in his work, but the atmosphere, the very condition of life. He feels most deeply where his thought is most deeply involved, and his characters come alive where they are touched by ideas. It is for this reason that the most moving passages in his books are discussions, the interchange of opinions and theories as vividly presented as a love scene or a fight. But his books are never "problem" novels in the sense of the socially conscious twenties. Even The Victim (which remains in many respects my favorite), though it takes off from the problem of anti-Semitism, does not aim at establishing the smug sense of our innocence and the other's guilt, but suggests in its muted fable the difficulty of being human, much less innocent, in a world of injustice.

Leslie A. Fiedler, "Adolescence and Maturity in the American Novel" (copyright © 1955 by Harrison-Blaine, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 120-30.

Bellow has been highly sensitive to the often hypnotic influence of the preceding age's great literature on the writers of our day. His own fiction, certainly from Augie March on, could be viewed as a sustained attempt to shake off that influence…. [As] Bellow sensibly observes, [the] very agony of being modern, once an immediate intuition of reality, has frozen into a fashionable posture and thus has become, even in a world where there is cause enough for agony, peculiarly irrelevant to life….

A superficial glance at Bellow's … novels might lead one to conclude that the author of The Victim and Dangling Man belonged very much in the contemporary tradition of alienated writing which he … castigates. But even his earliest novels are quite distinct both in moral tone and in intellectual purview from that fashionable literature of alienation whose attitudes range from truculent resentment to anarchic rebellion. And while Bellow has built all six of his novels around victimized protagonists, what he had been attempting to do is to turn the clichés and conventions of victim literature inside out. In Herzog, this act of literary self-transcendence is at last fully achieved….

In general, Bellow's handling of narrative method has been exploratory, tentative, but not obtrusively experimental. He has not been impelled to shatter traditional literary molds because, unlike the writers of the avant-garde, he has no orthodox belief about the nature of reality, such as a faith in the impossibility of meaning, which would serve as an imperative for an antitraditionalist program.

His first novel, Dangling Man (1944), is probably the least interesting from a formal point of view, though its thematic concerns are archetypal for Bellow's fiction: the Dangling Man will continue to swing through all the novels until he is finally set down on convincingly solid ground at the end of Herzog. The most obvious literary influence on the first novel is Dostoevski. The general plan of the book would seem to derive from Notes from Underground: Bellow's novel, like Dostoevski's, is presented as the journal-confession of a frustrated intellectual who focuses in himself the general condition of anomie suffered by individuals in modern society…. In the subsequent novels, Bellow generally avoids … neat symbolizing; it is clear that his imagination is most at home in the vivid creation of concrete situations, not in tracing timeless mythic patterns.

But Dangling Man , despite its penchant for schematizing and its relative...

(The entire section is 17,348 words.)