Bellow, Saul (Vol. 6)
Bellow, Saul 1915–
Bellow, a Canadian-born Jewish-American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist, is one of America's most distinguished writers. 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." Bellow won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Humboldt's Gift. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
In one of the three playlets by Saul Bellow which rest uneasily beneath the collective title Under the Weather, a woman delivers a complicated speech and then asks her listener, "Do you follow me?" to which the reply is "I wish I could say no." One follows Bellow well enough through this evening of farce and sociology, but it would be much more comfortable if one didn't. To know what he is trying to do is to see how painfully short he falls, to see the greater part of his literacy going to waste and his special kind of shrewdness about contemporary manners and mores displaying itself in a thoroughly misconceived framework.
Bellow on Broadway is an anomaly, as his earlier play, The Last Analysis, demonstrated. He is far too intelligent and original to write standardized comedies like the widely acclaimed works of Neil Simon and Murray Schisgal. But his intelligence and originality—as a dramatist, at any rate—lack the strength and precision to push through an alternative to such melancholy comic "masterpieces." He is a triple victim: of the novelist's craving for instant success on the stage, of the commercial theatre's befuddlement in the face of any departure from its notions of what is comic and of his own architectural weaknesses as a playwright. Whatever is memorable in Under the Weather has to survive all three sieges. (p. 242)
[Bellow's] wit emerges only in isolated flashes. Bellow wants to stand modern man on his head and shake him until his perversities fall out, but much of the time he gets only hollow thumps and small change. (p. 243)
Richard Gilman, "Bellow on Broadway" (1966), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 242-44.
With the fading of the Romantic dream of love, there fades now also the Romantic hero. Our representative novel is likely to be the Herzog of Saul Bellow, who is as central a writer as we have. Moses Herzog is a professional Romanticist, and very much a Romantic, but in the last ditch: narcissistic, masochistic, anachronistic, depressive, self-defeated, yet altogether charming, altogether a man of feeling, a sublime egotist. He is Man on the Dump, but speaks for all of us; an absurd case, but undeniably our version of the hero….
In defense of Romanticism, Herzog [defends] … the idea of Man against contemporary historicisms that urge a narrow repressiveness in place of the dream of a more perfect human being. Yet the sensibility of our moment is already post-Herzog, and Bellow speaks for a generation on the other side of the gap, for a late Romantic humanism that does not permeate what is emerging….
What Bellow says of Herzog's students will be true of all of us: "It became apparent … that they would never learn much about the Roots of Romanticism but that they would see and hear odd things." (p. 346)
Harold Bloom, "A New Romanticism? Another Decadence?" (1968), in The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (© 1971 by The University of Chicago), University of Chicago Press, 1971, pp. 339-46.
Saul Bellow's fiction contains three interrelated contradictions. First—Bellow takes a stand against the cultural nihilism of the twentieth century: against Dada, against the Wasteland, against the denigration of human life in modern society. Yet Bellow is himself essentially a depressive; and his imagination is as horrified by the emptiness of modern life as is Ionesco's.
Second—Bellow rejects the tradition of alienation in modern literature, and his fiction emphasizes the value of brotherhood and community; yet his main characters are all masochists and alienatees.
Third—Bellow is particularly hostile to the devaluation of the "separate self" in modern literature, and he values individuality nearly as highly as did Emerson. Yet in novel after novel he is forced to discard individuality, not simply because the individual is insignificant in the face of terrible forces, but also because individuality is undesirable, a burden which keeps the human being from love. The state of grace which his heroes approach is an anonymous state which is the polar opposite of the individuality Bellow loves and wishes to defend; but it is a state which enables Bellow to keep faith in the human being and in the possibility of his union with others. (pp. 3-4)
Bellow's fiction in general … is moral fiction; it is not concerned with style for its own sake nor even with psychological revelation for its own sake; it considers such moral-metaphysical problems as the demarcation of human responsibility (The Victim) and the relationship of the individual to the world of power (Herzog). Always it seeks to know why. Always it is concerned with the question of goodness—the failure or success of the sympathetic heart. It believes in man and in the potentiality of holiness and joy within the common life, the possibility of meaningful existence. To this extent it is Jewish fiction. (p. 38)
The influence on Bellow's fiction of the American cultural tradition is strong, although sometimes hard to distinguish since that tradition is so much a product of eighteenth century enlightenment humanism and nineteenth century romanticism, and since it is parallel in many ways to the Jewish cultural tradition.
The spirit of America as seen in Bellow is largely the spirit of the individual whom he wishes to defend—the individual's significance, his freedom…. As Fiedler says in Waiting for the End, "[it] is the dream of exile as freedom which has made America; but it is the experience of exile as terror that has forged the self-consciousness of Americans." Beneath the dream of a promised land is the nightmare of confrontation with death, the absurd, and the subterranean forces in the psyche.
Fiedler is right. Yet it is also true that Bellow's defense of human dignity is peculiarly American. In its negation American literature still affirms human dignity. (p. 39)
Our literature is full of rebellious innocents combating a hostile, brutal, or indifferent world. From Natty Bumppo to Billy Budd to Daisy Miller to Nick Adams to Holden Caulfield our heroes are purer than the world around them.
And so, while horror and alienation are integral to American fiction from Irving and Cooper to the present, yet it is a fiction which believes in the significance of the individual. But integral also to American fiction are a return to society and an affirmation of human possibilities. (p. 40)
Perhaps the most intense "accommodationist" in American literature is also the most intense champion of the individual: Whitman is able to sing both of the dynamic nonconforming individual and of the union of such individualists into a community of love. This is truly America as Eden.
Bellow is clearly a part of this tradition, out of which come the magnificent individualists of his novels: out of the transcendentalist glorification of the individual, out of the Hucks and Ahabs of our fiction come Augie (Huck) and Henderson (Ahab). (p. 41)
Bellow is like the American romantics, particularly in their mixture of realistic detail and fable or parable using symbolical or allegorical machinery. It is a mixture which derives partly from the attempt to "reconcile high principles with low fact"—a problem Bellow finds in American writing generally, particularly in Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. It is very much Bellow's own problem as well. (pp. 42-3)
Bellow's heroes are not only alienated; they alienate themselves. Filled with guilt, they loathe themselves and, in most of the novels, need to heap suffering and indignity on their own heads. Joseph, Asa, Tommy, Henderson, Herzog—all are moral (social) masochists. Their literary ancestors are in the fiction of the underground, especially in Dostoyevsky. Bellow borrowed, for instance, the entire plot of Eternal Husband for The Victim, and in all his novels he uses Dostoyevskian imagery, imagery of almost psychotic strain—vivid, seemingly irrelevant impressions that touch at the antennae of the unconscious. (p. 61)
Bellow is close to the underground tradition he attacks. (p. 61)
[There] is more similarity than appears between Bellow's overtly masochistic heroes and Augie. Augie is not a typical Bellow hero; Bellow produces enough noise and gaiety with the role of the picaro to mask alienation, self-hatred, and masochism. But in spite of him, hints of them appear. (p. 76)
One of the important ways in which Bellow's heroes show alienation is in their attempt to go beyond human life: to live detached from mortality and weakness. In his analysis of the [man] who makes himself into an image, Bellow is extremely close to the analysis of Sartre in Nausea or Genet in The Balcony, writers from whom Bellow separates himself in his defense of human dignity.
To be "human" is, throughout Bellow's fiction, terrifying. And so his heroes turn themselves into ideal images in order to protect themselves. At the same time they turn the world into one in which they can live safely. This double creation of a self and of a world is a constant theme in Bellow. (p. 77)
Bellow's heroes are moral masochists, cut off by despair and self-hatred from those they love, cut off from humanity by their need to go beyond human life—to be more than human. They create ideal versions of themselves, and then, unable to live in these images, they only hate themselves more, and create a version of reality in which they can live. A self and a world: but the "real" human being and the "real" world don't go away.
More important than the construction of ideal selves and worlds is the need for such constructions. Here again Bellow's analysis is close to that of Sartre and Heidegger. Sartre's man, for example, runs from the terror of a world of pure existence, a world not in relation to human constructs but beyond categories; he runs into a safe ego, an en-soi, and refashions the world into his likeness. Bellow's characters do the same. They cannot face the terror of pure being; they cannot face the terror of their own being or of the death they feel they deserve. (p. 97)
Thus (1) Bellow wants to be able to affirm the possibilities for the individual to live a meaningful life in our civilization, and so (2) he attacks the literary tradition of despair and alienation and the negation of Self. But (3) he himself despairs, both because of what he sees in the culture and because of his own temperament. (4) We find his characters weighed down by guilt, masochism, and the burden of themselves imposed upon reality. They fear the Darkness and set up a world in which they can live, a self to sustain them. But this strategy is crippling; it is a terrible burden. And so (5) Bellow sees elimination of selfhood as the way to redemption of the individual…. (6) The state of grace which Bellow arrives at as a solution is an anonymous state in opposition to the individuality he loves and would like to defend; but it is a state which allows him to keep faith in the value of the human being and link him spiritually with others.
I add one point: Bellow never fully completes this "rhythm." He is too strongly individualistic to believe or make believable to his readers the possibility of a new life free of Self. Rather, the hero's transformation is only partial or he deceives himself into believing it complete, as did Bummidge in The Last Analysis: "I have attained rebirth" and "I am ready for the sublime"…. Bellow is too much a Jew, too much an American, and too much a Westerner ever to rest in the "sublime": it is only a still point in a turning world. (pp. 135-36)
John Jacob Clayton, in his Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man (copyright © 1968 by Indiana University Press), Indiana University Press, 1968.
It is Saul Bellow's leapfrog over absurdity that makes The Last Analysis, his only full-length play, such an important theatre work…. The Last Analysis may prove to be one of the most significant American plays written in a long time. (p. 282)
[Like Chekhov], Bellow is a comic artist. Comic, however, not in the sense that he pokes fun at humanity's shortcomings, but in that he sees the comic as the most appropriate weapon in man's struggle for survival in an absurd world. The characters in The Last Analysis, and especially its hero, Philip Bummidge, like so many of Chekhov's memorable creations, are comedians by necessity, smitten with a tragic sense of life and lyrically in love with the ideal in a world poorly equipped to satisfy such aspirations. And finally, like his Russian predecessor, although more directly, Bellow reveals his belief that the only successful strategy for dealing with the absurd is to allow the actor in oneself to emerge; to play all of life's roles; to act furiously within the paradoxes of life in order to cope with our consciousness of its absurd terms.
On the surface, The Last Analysis appears to be a spoof of psychoanalytic methods and American popular taste; but its real subject, as Bellow indicates in his brief preface, "is the mind's comical struggle for survival." (pp. 282-83)
Saul Bellow's greatest achievement in this play is finally his protagonist. Philip Bummidge is a modern-day Hamlet, leavened with a liberal dose of the Quixotic. He is the prototype of the absurd man. The perfect society (The Bummidge Institute of Nonsense) can never exist for the absurd man, but when the final curtain comes down on Bummy as he exclaims "I am ready for the sublime," we believe that this little man, who, like each of us, can never quite trust the eccentricities he's born to, is a fitting Virgil to lead us toward the other side of despair. (pp. 283-84)
Robert W. Corrigan, "Engagement/Disengagement in the Contemporary Theatre" (abridged versions originally published in anthologies edited by Robert W. Corrigan, 1962, 1968), in his The Theatre in Search of a Fix (copyright © 1973 by Robert W. Corrigan; used with permission of Delacorte Press), Delacorte Press, 1973, pp. 269-300.
Early in his career Saul Bellow criticized contemporary novelists for being too preoccupied with form, and his Herzog is one of the most amorphous stories to be written in the second half of the twentieth century. What, then, is his conception of a writer's role in society? It is difficult to say exactly…. In Mr. Sammler's Planet he hints at the purpose of the novel in these words:
Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen,… man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other,… the structure, the reasons why. For the most part, in one ear and out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly….
Mr. Sammler's Planet is … full of moral judgments …, and although the wealth of literature that passes through the protagonist's experience does not change his life directly, automatically, mechanically, yet it certainly has an effect. Moreover, Arthur Sammler is a man who fights against the forces of Social-Psychology which control the characters in them. Mr. Bellow probably does not believe in the human tragedy, but he does say that man is perplexed by his own freedom. The poor bird does not know which way to fly. If a writer offers his readers insight, they are free to reject it. And I think Saul Bellow would say that this is fortunate because no individual can or should pretend to make another person's decisions for him. (pp. 209-10)
Charles I. Terbille, in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1974), Summer, 1974.
Perhaps the most complete and compact short story that Saul Bellow has ever written, a story significant in many ways, is the early "Looking for Mr. Green" (1951). Without striving to be a novel and without violating the unwritten canons of short fiction as his other short stories do, it crystalizes some of the major themes of Bellow's fiction. It also marks the exact moment of transition in Bellow's development as an artist, for it issues from a creative mood poised precariously between the belief that man is somehow a victim of the human condition, and the powerful awareness that man can somehow transcend this condition. "Looking for Mr. Green" is a Bildungsroman that makes use of the basic pattern that underlies Bellow's fiction, that of the quest. It is a minor classic of our time, a story that has the resonance that Joyce's "The Dead" has, releasing ripples upon ripples of concentric meanings that vanish into the mystery of an evocative silence. (p. 387)
The search for Mr. Green, one slowly begins to see, is a quest man has always been pursuing from the very beginning. (p. 388)
The ghetto and its inhabitants become metaphors for man and the dark, incomprehensible world he moves in. (p. 389)
The Old Testament flavor of "Looking for Mr. Green" is unmistakable, and one can sense the pressure of Ecclesiastes on Bellow's creative consciousness in the composition of the story. The word sun is repeated throughout; "under the sun" is a recurring phrase in Ecclesiastes for the world and the human condition. Grebe's brushing at the sunbeam that covers his head during the interview with Raynor can now be seen as more than a touch of realistic detail. Winston Field talks about money as the sun of human kind, while Raynor stresses the importance of a comfortable salary and the futility of knowing about the human condition: both, like Ecclesiastes, offer practical suggestions not counsels of despair. Grebe himself is a younger, a modern Koheleth (Hebrew for the Greek Ecclesiastes, "the preacher") who hunts for Mr. Green and for the meaning of human existence. His long day in the black ghetto telescopes the cumulative experiences of a lifetime so that Grebe is led to the same conclusions that Ecclesiastes reached after having lived a full life under the sun. No intellectual solutions are offered; no final answers are provided; human existence continues to remain a mystery. As his day draws to a close, Grebe becomes aware of some forms of sustenance that help man in his sojourn on this earth. (pp. 392-93)
Eusepio L. Rodrigues, "Koheleth in Chicago: The Quest for the Real in 'Looking for Mr. Green'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1974 by Newberry College), Fall, 1974, pp. 387-93.
To see just how strongly the Jew in the post-holocaust decades has been identified in American fiction with righteousness and restraint, with the just and measured response rather than with those libidinous and aggressive activities that border on the socially acceptable and may even constitute criminal transgression, it might be well to begin with the novels of Saul Bellow, by now the grand old man of American-Jewish writers, and to my mind the country's most accomplished working novelist. And reading Bellow, what does one find? That almost invariably his heroes are Jewish in vivid and emphatic ways when they are actors in dramas of conscience where matters of principle or virtue are at issue, but are by comparison only faintly marked by their Jewishness, if they are Jews at all, when appetite and quasi or outright libidinous adventure is at the heart of a novel.
Bellow's first Jewish (as distinguished from non-Jewish) Jew was Asa Leventhal in his second book, The Victim. Bellow himself now judges this excellent novel a "proper" book, by which I take him to mean, among other things, that it did not bear his particular stamp so much as convention's. To be Jewish in this novel is to be accessible, morbidly so, to claims made upon the conscience, and to take upon oneself, out of a kind of gruff human sympathy and a responsiveness bordering dangerously at times on paranoia, responsibility for another man's pain and misfortune. Being a Jew, to Asa Leventhal, is a burden at most, an irritation at least—and writing about such a Jew would appear after the fact to have been something of both to Bellow too, as though the enclosure of a victimized Jewish conscience happened also to constrain his inventiveness, and to exclude from imaginative consideration much that was pleasurable and exciting, involving appetite and the exuberant, rather than the ethical, life.
There is Bellow's own word "proper" to argue for this, and there is the next book, The Adventures of Augie March, where surely the least important ingredient in the lively and seductive hero's make-up is his sense of himself as a Jew. One could in fact take the Jew out of the adventurous Augie March without doing much harm to the whole of the book, whereas the same could not be said for taking Chicago out of the boy. (Whereas the same couldn't be said for taking the Jew out of the Levantine-looking Leventhal.)
One can only speculate on how much writing The Victim may have served to settle the author's own conscience about touchy matters of survival and success (the bedeviling issue for Leventhal, right along with the issue of Jewish self-defense) and to open the way for the unambiguous and loquacious delight in his own winning attractiveness that is Augie's charm. But what couldn't be clearer is that while Bellow seems largely to locate in Leventhal's Jewishness the roots of his morbidity, gloom, uncertainty, touchiness, and moral responsiveness, he connects Augie's health, cheeriness, vigor, stamina, and appetite, as well as his enormous appeal to just about everyone in Cook County, if not in all creation, to his rootedness in a Chicago that is American to the core, a place where being Jewish makes of a boy nothing more special in the Virtue Department than any other immigrant mother's child….
The movement away from the obsessively Jewish Jew Leventhal to the relatively non-Jewish Jew Augie, away from claustrophobic bondage to the Chosen People toward heady, delight-filled choosing, culminates in Bellow's next big novel, Henderson the Rain King, whose hoggish and greedy hero, hearty in an altogether different sense from Leventhal, is so much a creature possessed by strange ravenous hungers of the senses and the spirit that Bellow cannot see his way to making him even the most attenuated of Jews….
What … is Henderson after? "I want!" Exclamation point. "I want!" And that is it. It is the voice of the id piping up—raw, untrammeled, uncompromising, insatiable, and unsocialized desire.
"I want." In a Bellow novel only a goy can talk like that and get away with it. As indeed Henderson does…. Is there anyone happier in all of Bellow's books? No punishment or victimization for this unchosen person. To the contrary, what makes Henderson the Rain King a full-scale comedy is that what the clown wants he gets….
Bellow's next two heroes, very Jewish Jews indeed, get far less than they deserve. Desire or appetite have nothing to do with it. What is denied here are ethical hopes and expectations. Others should act otherwise, they don't, and the Jewish hero suffers. With Moses Herzog and Artur Sammler, Bellow moves from Henderson all the way back to the world of the victim—and, ineluctably it would seem, back to the Jew, the man of acutely developed sensibilities and a great sense of personal dignity and inbred virtue, whose sanity in the one book, and whose human sympathies in the other, are continuously tried by the libidinous greed of the willful, the crazed, and the criminal….
Now there are other ways, obviously, to go about reading Saul Bellow: the intention here is not to diminish his achievement by reducing his novels to this pile of bare bones, but rather to trace the characteristic connection made in his work … between the Jew and conscience and the Gentile and appetite—and thereby to point up how conditioned readers had become (one might better say, how persuaded, given the imaginative authority of the writers in question) to associate the sympathetic Jewish hero with ethical Jewhood …, with victimization as opposed to vengeful aggression, with dignified survival rather than euphoric or gloating triumph, with sanity and renunciation as opposed to excessive desire … except the excessive desire to be good and to do good.
To the degree that Saul Bellow has been a source of pride or comfort (or at the least has been little or no trouble, which can amount to the same thing) to what David Singer calls [in his essay, "The Jewish Gangster,"] "the American Jewish establishment," I suggest that it has had more to do with these bare bones I've laid out here than with the brimming novels themselves, which are too deliberately ambiguous, too self-challenging, too densely rendered and reflective to be the vehicles of ethnic propaganda or comfort. The fact is that Bellow's ironic humanism, coupled as it is with his wide-ranging sympathy for odd and dubious characters,… has actually made him a figure of more importance to other Jewish writers than he is to the Jewish cultural audience—unlike, say, Eli Weisel or Isaac Bashevis Singer, who, as they relate to the lost Jewish past, have a somewhat awesome spiritual meaning to the community-at-large that is not necessarily of pressing literary interest to their fellow writers. But Bellow, by closing the gap as it were between Damon Runyon and Thomas Mann—or to use loosely Philip Rahv's categories, between redskin and paleface—has, I think, inspired all sorts of explorations into immediate worlds of experience that American-born Jewish writers who have come after him might otherwise have overlooked or dumbly stared at for years without the ingenious example of this Columbus of the near-at-hand…. [Roth adds in a footnote that Bellow was also the author of "The Old System," a controversial short story presenting "the hard and ugly facts of life" of "rich Jews and their money."] (p. 24)
Philip Roth, "Imagining Jews," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), October 3, 1974, pp. 22-8.
Many of the dualities of [Updike's 1963 novel] The Centaur—heaven/earth, intellection/natural appetites, futurism/nostalgia, parental responsibility/adult freedom—are present in Mr. Sammler's Planet and are resolved in much the same way. Death, the lateness of time, and the wideness of space tempt Sammler to escape from quotidian responsibilities, but Sammler changes and thus becomes, because of his advanced age, a special hero of the ordinary. Bellow does not, as Updike, hold out the promise of immortality, but … Sammler's new knowledge and new beginning, and the prayer which concludes the novel suggest that death need not force men to abandon the "ordinary forms of common life" for terrified action or selfish disengagement.
Sammler's continuing analysis of his culture is not invalidated by his change from abstraction to responsibility; in fact, his reflections are used to prefigure his shift, for Sammler does not follow out his own prescriptions until he learns that anyone can know the truth about death. Such commentary, a synthesis of sociological, psychological, and philosophical theories, makes Mr. Sammler's Planet a good, if negative, introduction to the world presented by Black Humor. Sammler, presumably, believes that modern historical processes have awarded men increased freedom from economic, political, social, and religious restrictions, but that the freedom has resulted in the new suffering of individual selfhood. Subject to a flooding of information and alternative forms of life by the media, the individual in our time loses the ability to give design to cultural phenomena. He retreats into subjectivity, makes impossible demands on complex realities, refuses "(death being sure and final) to go away from this earth unsatisfied"…. Sammler renounces his own wish for death and his compulsive attraction to the actions of "dark Romanticism," but the heroes in Black Humor novels cannot accommodate themselves with Sammler's religious humanism. They live in the world he describes, a world of terror, debased Romantic gestures, aesthetic standards of behavior, and apocalypse, but they create it because other mediations between them and their deaths—religious faith, social faith, love, "the ordinary forms of common life"—have wasted away or have disintegrated under the pressure of finality. (pp. 9-11)
Thomas LeClair, in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © James Dean Young 1975), Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1975.
Each of Bellow's novels reads like an autobiography. Each autobiography is of a different life. The names of his heroes are often the names of his novels—'The Adventures of Augie March', 'Henderson the Rain King', 'Herzog'.
Bellow's characters seem to join you to their landscape. Their dream becomes yours. Bellow's novels are not stories whose lines have been chalked out, and the chapters simply coloured in: they are a process of discovering, revelations which are incomplete for the author as well, until the last page is reached. In each book, it is as though some wonderful actor is creating himself through roles that are wholly imaginary. If there is a single common factor in the central characters of Bellow's stories, I believe it is that they are all hunted men. They are harried, they are pursued by their own limitless unease. When I put this to Bellow, he stared at me as if I were speaking Chinese. It was clear to me, as we passed one hot afternoon last summer in his apartment, that Bellow—a writer who is, perhaps, a classic in his own time—found it all but intolerable to speak of the springs of his own work. (p. 218)
Robert Robinson, "Saul Bellow at 60-Talking to Robert Robinson," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of Robert Robinson), February 13, 1975, pp. 218-19.
Bellow's enterprise has always been to locate meaning in the tawdry, to put the life of the cities in touch with the humanistic, philosophical traditions of which the cities are the deformed children. In Herzog he succeeds because his central character is so much, so familiarly, the prey of the absurdities against which he wrestles…. Herzog, a student of history, is frozen to the bone by his yearning for a myth of redemption, penance, and permanence…. Herzog desperately tries to maintain an innocence in the face of his career's and civilization's wreckage, and that innocence finally succeeds because it manages to establish itself in a field of irony, of self-doubt and moral decision based upon self-doubt, which is the distinctive language of American fiction after Bellow. (pp. 297-98)
Herzog and Bellow, good Talmudists that they are, understand the value of scripture, even the scripture of the absurd, as the first of human technologies and last, most apocalyptic of human hopes. (p. 298)
Frank McConnell, in TriQuarterly 33 (© 1975 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1975.
In Mr. Sammler's Planet, the historical degeneration of modernist mythology is not merely the setting but the inner principle of dramatic action and characterization. This degeneration is presented as an aspect of the more general collapse of Western liberal individualism. Sammler's past makes him peculiarly a nexus of the historical forces, both hopeful and destructive, whose collision has created the present-day world. Sammler is, on the one hand, a former democratic-socialist and heir of the progressive Enlightenment, a believer in rationality and planned social change; on the other hand, he is both a victim of the holocaust and one who, in an act of revenge, has participated in its murderous brutality. His past and character thus place him at the intersection point of Western liberal individualism and the forces which destroyed it—or, rather, perverted it. For ironically, as it now appears to Sammler, Western liberal individualism has survived the holocaust, but in forms which parody its original inspiration. This individualism, which began as part of a noble dream of liberating the mass of humanity from the nightmare of historical circumstance by uniting science with morality, has detached itself from the ideas of good and evil in which it had originally been anchored and split into a variety of perverse forms—a cruel and amoral technological material power complemented by a self-indulgent, hedonistic culture that pursues a religion of "symbolic wholeness." The characters who surround Sammler are possessed by a neurotic "fever of originality," at once arrogant and desperate, which expresses itself in exhibitionistic play-acting, and the quest to be "interesting."… Life, it seems, has begun to imitate bad experimental art…. (p. 328)
Bellow locates the central morality of Mr. Sammler's Planet in the wealthy doctor-businessman and paterfamilias, Elya Gruner, a tough operator with underworld connections. Whatever one may feel about Gruner's Mafia associates, they are at least genuine criminals, not Byronic poseurs dabbling in evil in order to make themselves interesting. This does not mean that Bellow endorses either organized crime or big business, but rather the values of honor and loyalty which some businessmen, at least as much as intellectuals, manage to keep alive, and for which the language of contracts and bookkeeping, a continuous stylistic motif in the novel, is an appropriate image. Gruner, Sammler reflects at the novel's close, has remained faithful to "the terms of his contract," those absolute human loyalties which are the enabling basis of civilization. These contractual terms are violated by free-floating seekers of "limitless demand," who recognize no scarcity of satisfactions, claim exemption from moral debts, and present to the world "a full bill of demand and complaint…. Non-negotiable." (p. 329)
Gerald Graff, in TriQuarterly 33 (© 1975 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1975.
At a time when many writers are turning to impressionistic journalism and innovative fantasy,… Saul Bellow still confronts America's baffling ocean of desires and sorrows with old-fashioned characters and a Tolstoyan appetite for presenting big ideas as if they were messages from a philosophical sponsor. In short, Bellow is self-consciously a Serious Writer, especially during those frequent moments when he is being genuinely humorous.
As in Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King and Herzog, there is also a vigorous mix of farce and moral fervor in Humboldt's Gift. Charles Citrine, the book's late middle-aged hero, is—like Bellow—a dedicated resident and booster of Chicago. The son of Jewish immigrants, he has made a name for himself as a Pulitzer-prizewinning biographer, essayist and playwright. Life has commissioned him to write an intimate article on Bobby Kennedy. The French government has honored him with an Order of the Chevalier, which entitles him to wear a green ribbon in his lapel. As it turns out, the decoration is about as prestigious as the alligator on a tennis shirt.
Such disenchantments extend to nearly all of Charlie's earthly endeavors. His paddleball game is slowing down; he owes his publishers $70,000 on advances for books he has yet to write; his wife Denise is suing him for divorce and stripping him of everything but his costly cotton under-shorts; his old friend Thaxter, an eccentric literary con man with expensive tastes, has squandered thousands of Citrine's dollars given to start an intellectual quarterly. In addition, Citrine's silver-gray Mercedes has been vandalized by a petty hood, a Mafia buffo character named Ronald Cantabile, to whom Citrine unwittingly gave a bad check in payment for a minor gambling debt….
These troubles, and the boisterous episodes they cause, provide the background for what Citrine calls his "mental occasions." They include elaborate discourses on American materialism and the demise of the poetic imagination, the aridity of modern art …, notions about modern boredom as a profound spiritual problem, and ruminations on death and immortality, with special emphasis on Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy, the study of the divine spirit through scientific inquiry.
Caught between some of Chicago's most colorful denizens and some of philosophy's most challenging questions, Citrine often seems as if he were becoming a hybrid of two other famous home-town boys: Robert Hutchins and Nelson Algren. His real confusion, however, grows out of a bad conscience about the death of an old [and neglected] friend.
Von Humboldt Fleisher was … what Charlie would call a great "positive sinner," as distinguished from "negative sinners" like himself, who smugly think their way into self-satisfied inaction.
The novel bustles with positive sinners. There is Citrine's girl friend Renata, a voluptuous, sexually robust and aggressively practical woman who strongly resembles Ramona of Herzog. Such women seem to be Bellow's idea of a consolation prize for agonizing intellectuals….
Bellow's own great gifts as a storyteller and his talent for vital characterization save what could have been a morose and tedious novel. Shorn of the author's unique knack for combining intellectual abstractions with gritty American idiom, Citrine's "mental occasions" read like a crash course in attaining peace of mind. Fortunately, this is not out of place in a nation addicted to self-help and how-to books. In fact, Humboldt's Gift might have been subtitled The Power of Positive Sinning, or even The Joy of Mourning.
R. Z. Sheppard, "Scribbler on the Roof," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), August 25, 1975, p. 62.
Humboldt's Gift recalls the Saul Bellow who wrote Herzog (though plainly a lot has happened to him since then). He's once again a writer who is fervently amused, if not obsessed, by worldly issues—status, success, money, and sex, and self-regard—as they are experienced on the lovely, hypocritical island known as the "American intellectual community." Like Herzog, Humboldt's Gift is a portrait of a literary man coming apart at the seams and spilling out his stuffings: ideas, ideas, ideas, none of which are wholly foolish, but most of which are gloriously inconsequential and irrelevant to the course of his troubled life.
The story is told in the voice of its hero, Charles Citrine, Pulitzer prizewinner, biographer, historian, playwright, scriptwriter, essayist. Think of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur Miller, Arthur Penn, and you have a mélange of personalities that suggests Citrine's social and cultural rank. Of course one thinks unavoidably, also, of Saul Bellow. Suggestions of autobiography (Citrine, to begin with, is Chicago's leading intellectual figure) enhance the comedy and lend a certain tension to the novel. Bellow will no doubt be accused of preening. But to the extent that it is autobiographical at all, the book's dominant mode is a heady, almost reckless self-parody….
Citrine is that … figure we Americans are bred to dislike: The Brain, who's really dumber than the rest of us….
It is a large part of Citrine's charm that he couldn't agree more with this diagnosis of his character. And it is Bellow's primary accomplishment in this book to have created a narrative voice that works beguilingly on several levels. (p. 83)
Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1975.
"Humboldt's Gift" is an exuberant comedy of success and failure, in which Bellow deals directly for the first time with the writer's life in America, including, implicitly, his own. It is his funniest book and his most openly affectionate, even in its satiric side glances. It speaks most movingly of aging and the felt loss of the sorely missed dead. It even proposes—and this will make some readers restive—a supernatural dimension beyond the crowded comic stage on which its characters collide. (p. 32)
Books are of course the chief events of a book-writer's life, but with a master like Bellow the books are like battles in the life of a great general, filled with captured truths, dazzling strategies, difficulties overcome and even a few dearly fought losses. His first two novels, "Dangling Man" (1944) and "The Victim" (1947), caught the tensions of wartime and postwar America…. With "The Adventures of Augie March" (1953),… he made a stylistic breakthrough into the pungent colloquial idiom of his later fiction….
What many regard as Bellow's masterpiece appeared three years later. "Seize the Day" is a stunning, excruciating short novel about the downfall of Tommy Wilhelm, a loser who dreams of a quick killing on the market. Like the great short novels of Herman Melville, "Seize the Day" is at once lyrical and gritty. Bellow's evocation of New York's upper Broadway, with its cavernous shabby-genteel hotels and benches filled with old pensioners, established him as the most powerful poet of urban America. He knew this subject backward, but his next novel, "Henderson the Rain King" (1959) was about Africa, which he had never visited. In a feat of vivid imagination he produced a romance about an eccentric millionaire on a spiritual safari. It remains a special favorite of his. Of all his characters, Bellow has said, Henderson, the quixotic seeker of higher truth, is most like himself.
His next novel, "Herzog" (1964), was a best seller, NBA winner and the kind of book that goes beyond literature…. Moses Herzog is a big, juicy character—comic, tragic, ridiculous, profound. As cuckold, Jew, composer of unmailed letters to everyone from Willie Sutton to Spinoza, Herzog is both a great outsider and a great Everyman who touched a nerve in readers all over the world. (p. 33)
With "Mr. Sammler's Planet" (1970) many felt Bellow had in fact mishandled his great power. Always a conservative in the best, classical sense of that word, Bellow in this novel shrinks his usual humane magnanimity to a narrow, almost paranoid view of the social turmoil of the '60s….
With the confidence born of a mastery that few American writers have achieved, Bellow sees very few goofs in "Humboldt's Gift." "The nice thing about this book," he explains, "which I was really struggling with in 'Herzog,' is that I've really come into a cold air of objectivity about all the people in the book, including Charlie. It really came easily for me to see him as America saw him, and thereby America itself became clearer." It seems clear that Bellow is talking about himself as well as Charlie. (p. 34)
Walter Clemons and Jack Kroll, "America's Master Novelist," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), September 1, 1975, pp. 32-40.
"Humboldt's Gift" by Saul Bellow is a very funny novel—a kind of "Felix Krull" in reverse, with society as the confidence man; a fierce, energetic comedy about postwar Jewish intellectuals trying to come to terms with American popular culture….
Bellow has never been much good with women in his fiction. He has been even worse with children. But one thing that can be said for "Humboldt's Gift" is that the women in it … are the only characters who always tell the truth; they try to hammer it home in Citrine's head, like a spike in the numbskull-plate….
It's interesting that of all these women, only Naomi is demonstrably Jewish …, and throughout the book he is forever reminding himself that 30 years ago he should have married Naomi, the good Jewish girl. A dangerous infirmity of mind indeed—to confuse women, like Chicago, with the American dream; to perceive them as avatars of the culture with which one longs to merge; to employ them as agencies of assimilation….
Still, his scheme works. The suit our romantic intellectuals press upon popular culture is an oft-told tale. Among the casualties of the wooing have been Mailer, Leslie Fiedler, Partisan Review when it decides to be grave about the Beatles, and Commentary when it peers into movies as though they were Jungian caves. The clerk would combine money with seriousness, approval with instruction, entertainment with revelation, vaudeville with prophecy, Johnny Carson with Jeremiah. Somehow, some way, the outsider has got to be elected, if not captain of the American team, then at least head cheerleader. This passion has never been so hilariously rendered, not even in Wallace Markfield's "To an Early Grave." Everybody who is anybody, including a few grumpy friends of mine, has a walk-on part and a pratfall in "Humboldt's Gift." (p. 47)
John Leonard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted with permission), September 7, 1975.
Human activity, often frenzied and feverish in Bellow's fiction, is [in "Humboldt's Gift"] more than ever felt as a distraction to thought, an obstacle to some truth: "One thought, How sad, about all this human nonsense which keeps us from the large truth." Though the book begins as if it will be a wonderfully animated meditation upon the sociological question of the intellectual's place in America, the questions that really fascinate Charlie Citrine [the narrator and hero] are more transcendental and mystical—questions of death, of immortality, of "light-in-the-being": "I mean a kind of light-in-the-being, a thing difficult to be precise about, especially in an account like this, where so many cantankerous erroneous silly and delusive objects actions and phenomena are in the foreground." Small wonder, then, that the events of the novel pull away from the issues, and effusion replaces conversation (with everybody … sounding like Charlie), and the many brilliant episodes become too many—a static of human busyness that prevents Charlie from tuning in and that leads the reader to tune out. Rinaldo Cantabile, for instance, is at first a compelling apparition, a figure of frantic menace and insecurity, a "nervous invention" that simultaneously illustrates Charlie Citrine's "weakness for the sensational" and demonstrates Saul Bellow's marvellous susceptibility to the eccentric particulars of American life in motion….
Piecemeal faults might be found with "Humboldt's Gift." When, a little more than halfway through, the novel leaves Chicago, it abandons a regional portrait of considerable accumulating richness…. Bellow's style, breezy and tough and not always grammatical, feels fallen away from a former angelic height. (pp. 122, 125)
But Bellow's great gifts deserve great indulgence, and the only real trouble with "Humboldt's Gift" is that the problems that engage the author do not engage the gears of his story. Death, power, America—Charlie Citrine has much to say about these cherished topics, but his remarks are incongruously juxtaposed and interwoven with the "shenanigans," the "capers," the "daily monkeyshines" that compose his mystic's impression of natural human events…. Perception, for the supremely perceptive Citrine, has become a tic, a trick to exploit…. The veil of maya isn't what it used to be for Bellow, though he is not yet mystic enough—unlike I. B. Singer—to look at daily monkeyshines for glimmers of supernatural light. Nor, unlike the former celebrant of Chicago, Theodore Dreiser, can he accept the natural world as the only world, portentous by its own final weight. So he gives us a world as craziness, as "goofy … a solid mass of improbabilities," a world kept spinning by whimsical impulses and savage egos, an earth that is "literally a mirror of thoughts" to the central, immune viewer, who devotes his attention more and more to the world beyond death, to the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, to the consoling curious possibilities that "our bones are crystallized out of the cosmos itself" and the universe is "the living garment of God" and "we occupy a point within a great hierarchy that goes far far beyond ourselves." These supernatural preoccupations of Bellow's are not in themselves unworthy—it takes a courageous humanism to perceive that life is infinitely cramped by the loss of an expectation of an afterlife—but they do make the veil of his fictional phenomena thin. We know, reading, that there will be many surprises but not revelations, that no turn of event will dreadfully deepen the theme, that the essentially cerebral and comic spirit of the creator will contrive to preserve his hero from essential harm. (pp. 126-27)
Of course there are passages that no one but Bellow could have perpetrated—scenes that are, in the flow of their wit and felt detail, simply delicious…. Bellow fragmentarily makes good the book's implicit promise to illumine the "overwhelming phenomenon" of America, in its "abominable American innocence." The very thinness of the veil, for Bellow, enables him to exaggerate and poeticize. Mind permeates Bellow's renderings; permeability is the essence of his fluid, nervous, colorful mimetic art. The most passing moment gets its infusion of magic. (pp. 127-28)
This seventh (not counting "Seize the Day") novel shares many qualities with Bellow's first, "Dangling Man," written more than thirty years ago. The same Chicago, the same ruminativeness, the same moral passion oddly mixed with passivity and spurts of farce and quarrel…. From the outset, his fiction gravitated toward heroes suspended in, as "Dangling Man's" Joseph puts it, "sheer dishevelment of mind."… But after making one's way through the worldly mass of "Humboldt's Gift," so rich in information and speculation, one wonders if, for Bellow's kind of dangling, rather than doing, man, the shorter length and implicative texture of the youthful book weren't better…. "Dangling Man," though in snippets, merged earth and air, whereas "Humboldt's Gift," washed up our drear cultural shore like some large, magnificently glistening but beached creature from another element, dramatizes, in its agitated sluggishness, the body/mind split that is its deepest theme. (pp. 129-30)
John Updike, "Draping Radiance with a Worn Veil," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), September 15, 1975, pp. 122-30.
It is necessary to read Humboldt's Gift with great care—with caution even. (p. 21)
Bellow's [is a] remarkable capacity to create an "air of reality" and then to move convincingly beyond it. Adopting a deliberately archaic style, he carries us through delicate filterings of sensation to poetic recognition crinkled slightly by irony, yet sustained by unabashed philosophical reflexion—and then down again. The rhetorical effects, like "bib and bosom" linking up with "beautiful bim," go by effortlessly.
Bellow found his style and his voice with Augie March, his third novel. Since then he has alternated regularly between first and third person narrative. Yet that alternation does not seem to modify the controlling sensibility in his novels any more than does the varied series of central characters he creates. A Jewish intellectual from Chicago speaks in a voice indistinguishable from that of an eccentric ivy-league millionaire crashing around the African landscape. These modern picaros talk to us from inside deeply disjointed worlds, with a ready supply of funny stories and off-beat culture, stumbling occasionally into a moment of illumination….
[Humboldt's Gift] is studded with trinkets and oddities. But unlike what is going on in much contemporary French and American fiction, Bellow's irregularities grow not out of doubts about the value of continuous narrative but out of a calm confidence that he has a story to tell. That story can carry with it many excrescences. Robbe-Grillet and Burroughs, though very different from each other in other respects, go to great lengths to fit one sentence to the next according to aural and visual patterns that evade linear narrative. In contrast, Bellow's faith in the shapely existence of a tellable story unites and lends significance to the miscellaneous elements of Citrine's world.
Out of all these aspects of Bellow's fiction grows its most characteristic quality: the sense of plenitude. The world is full to overflowing, and it all connects even though the ultimate enigma will never be dissipated. It is not just that Bellow tells us in scrupulous detail how everyone's breath smells and what they wear and the way they move—and sometimes overdoes it…. His filling in of the parts outruns mere naturalism and represents a desire to direct the basic act of attention to everything that confronts us—that means to everything there is. This sensuous and spiritual plenitude furnishes both the subject of Citrine's epiphany in the jet and the narrative technique by which it is conveyed. Bellow has had to earn the right to use totem-taboo phrases like "universal sapphire" and "everything-nothing capacity."…
Humboldt's Gift is not a roman à clef, yet it toys repeatedly with that possibility. The process goes on both at the outer edges of the story, where "real people" (Stevenson and Kennedy, literary types like Philip Rahv and Lionel Abel) prowl in the shadows, and at the center where Citrine is endowed, more or less, with Bellow's age, profession, background, success, place of residence, and much more. Since before Rousseau and Sterne the novel has embraced autobiography without shame. No form of self-revelation through fiction need upset us. What troubles me here, however, is the tone of the book, audible yet less insistent in Bellow's recent novels. It is a tone of self-irony, which seems to increase in direct proportion to the autobiographical content, and in compensation for it. The more closely Bellow projects himself into Citrine, the more mocking his voice seems to become. The risks involved here will emerge better if we look not directly at Citrine, whose nearly nonfictional voice we never stop hearing, but at another person, this one historical, who figures in the story through his writings.
More than either Humboldt or Cantabile, Rudolf Steiner is Citrine's guide to the promised land. Steiner (1861–1925) was a German literary scholar and philosopher who invented anthroposophy (his brand of theosophy) and wrote books like Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, Between Death and Rebirth, and The Occult Significance of Blood. He also founded theaters, schools, and study centers, some of which still exist. Citrine has been reading Steiner, reflecting at length on his doctrines of metempsychosis and spiritual communication during sleep, and consulting a Chicago anthroposophist, Dr. Scheldt. Much of his theory and imagery of upper wakefulness comes out of Steiner. One of the few things about which Citrine feels certain at the end of the novel is that he will go to live for a spell at the Goetheanum, or Rudolf Steiner Institute, near Basel. I find over twenty passages in which Steiner and his ideas are discussed seriously. [Augie March also contains allusions to Steiner, Shattuck notes.] (p. 22)
What are we to make of the anthroposophist Steiner haunting Bellow's astringent pages?
In seeking an answer I came upon Bellow's 1963 essay, "Some Notes on Recent American Fiction." In the crucial passage he berates middle-class writers who are brought up on a mixed diet of affluence and radical ideas.
They are taught that they can have it both ways. In fact they are taught to expect to enjoy everything that life can offer. They can live dangerously while managing somehow to remain safe…. They are not taught to care genuinely for any man or any cause. [Italics added.]
Bellow could be our Jeremiah; the denunciation has not lost its sting. Humboldt's Gift might be read as a fictional treatment of that lamentation, especially of the last sentence. The passage also brings out an important overlap in the book's construction. Citrine nourishes a fierce devotion to Humboldt…. Gradually Humboldt takes on the appearance less of a man than a cause—posthumous justice for a mistreated talent.
At the same time, the nearest approach to a cause that Citrine sees himself as espousing is Steiner's spiritualist doctrines…. But every detail in the book tells us that Citrine cares "genuinely" about Humboldt (or Humboldt's memory) and speculates with only half-committed conviction about Steiner's anthroposophy. The fact that Humboldt is not fully convincing as a character contributes to these confusions about man and cause.
I believe that Bellow uses Steiner as a kind of clue to tell us that part at least of what he is writing here is the "Intellectual Comedy of the Modern Mind," the subject Citrine has reserved for his uglier and more intelligent daughter to write about one day. But the reader is left floundering in his attempts to fit together the presumed integrity of Citrine's feelings toward Humboldt and the ironies that undercut his reflections on Steiner's doctrines. This split contributes to the uneasiness of Citrine's narrative voice and the jocularity with which the text sometimes addresses the reader as "you" or "Dear Friends." And the uncertain tone stems also from the original dilemma of fictionality—are we listening to Citrine or to Bellow? Irony, however subtle, will not resolve these conflicts, only confirm their presence.
There is another split or disparity in the book. Bellow displays it convincingly at the seat of Citrine's character. Despite his loyalties to his family and his past, Citrine is driven by a deep need to escape his Midwestern middle-class origins…. His aspiration to a larger life takes on two contrasting forms: high intellect and the underworld. He covets both. (pp. 23-4)
An ancient theme lodges in these divided circumstances. For it has been argued many times that the stature and dignity of humanity reside in the capacity of certain individuals to range wide, to accept no limit on their freedom of experience and of moral movement. Bellow treats the theme with increasing ambivalence in the novel. First of all he shows Citrine being deprived one by one of the presences in his life that could mediate between the extremes. (p. 24)
At the end he is a solitary in earnest, and an institutionless man. No element remains to reconcile his soaring and his slumming selves.
The theme of irreconcilables in man contains potential grandeur. It runs intensely through St. Augustine and Faust, through Baudelaire and Dostoevsky and Melville. But instead of power and passion Bellow again chooses irony for his treatment. Citrine does not really register the presence of evil; he keeps seeing it as a mockery. Cantabile half-hypnotizes him into playing the part of a hired gun in a borrowed hat, "a dummy impersonating a murderer." But nothing seems to be at stake. The whole mood that surrounds Citrine is desultory and sardonic, even when he is thrust up against evil, or attains spiritual release. And why not? Isn't the dandy the hero of modernity? He walks invulnerable inside his all-encompassing aesthetic of detached intensity in living.
Bellow himself provides an answer when he has Mr. Sammler reprove Hannah Arendt for accepting the expression, "the banality of evil." In the earlier novel [Mr. Sammler's Planet] he writes, "The idea of making the century's great crime look dull is not banal." The idea of making Cantabile look comic, harmlessly attractive, is not banal either. Citrine may be a dummy, but the gun Cantabile carries … is deadly, a Magnum. Bellow wants no part of Dostoevsky's heavy dramatics, but what he does write sounds occasionally like spoof resorted to as a means of evading the large questions he cannot help raising.
And then there's the ending, the crocuses Citrine sees in the cemetery. At the end of The Adventures of Augie March it was a French peasant woman walking off across the fields; in Henderson the Rain King it was the Persian boy carried in Henderson's arms; in Herzog, the freshly picked flowers. In the final burial scene of Humboldt's Gift I find no hint at parody, nothing to cloud the implication that a kind of redemption is beginning. Somehow, we are to understand, Citrine will place himself back within life.
Can it be so? I read unconvinced. The previous pages have set the stage for comic catastrophe. The celebrity-writer who has hobnobbed with Kennedys is now so deeply wounded that he must settle for a rest cure at the Swiss Steiner Center. As his life comes apart, Citrine talks to himself constantly about significant changes for the better taking place within him. But I detect no shift in mental metabolism, no climacteric, only a stronger concern with survival of the self. The well-rounded sensibility responding to the plenitude of life, the voice itself, does not change. For it is Bellow's, masked by the irony that provokes our caution.
Humboldt's Gift shows no flagging of Bellow's intelligence and stylistic powers. He writes like a bird planing, sure of his height, sure of his wings, sure of the language there beneath him, sustaining his flight and as transparent as air. Alert to all his ancestors and rivals from Diderot to Joyce to Pynchon, Bellow has chosen to write an autobiographical novel in the realist tradition. By sheer command of words, he succeeds in animating the busy, smug, self-deprecating I of the narrator. But, as my earlier remarks should suggest, the fictional impulse is out of adjustment. The spark is unsteady. Charlie Citrine is too close to Bellow to fill out a fully extruded novel. He is not close enough to impose the dark challenge of confession. Bellow, of course, plays across that gap—whence his arch and often apologetic tone. He knows there are no rules. But in the characters of Augie March, Henderson, Herzog, and Sammler, all in some degree projections of himself, he employed devices to create an adequate distance from himself. In Humboldt's Gift Bellow gets in his own way.
He must have foreseen the risks and decided to take them. He sounds like an ironic ventriloquist, a nearly impossible feat. I was absorbed by the book because Bellow cannot write a dull page. But his awaited masterpiece of exuberant intelligent fiction is still to come. One can hear it muttering through the sardonic treasures of Humboldt's Gift. (pp. 24-5)
Roger Shattuck, "A Higher Selfishness," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), September 18, 1975, pp. 21-5.
The most ambitious novelistic subject is the creation of an artistic mind credibly distinct from the artist who creates it. To make up a life is one thing; to imagine a lifework is quite another. Of all modern novels, only Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus wholly succeeds in such a venture, by inventing a criticism, an abstract program, for work that does not actually exist.
A similar program, one integrating being and knowledge, body and soul, collective history and isolated spirit, is what most concerns Charles Citrine, the prizewinning playwright and historian [who is both narrator and protagonist of Humboldt's Gift]. Citrine (the name suggests an aide to perfect digestion, as well as a semiprecious stone) is the most recent of Saul Bellow's first-person narrators. The context is familiar enough—Chicago life, high and low, a troupe of thinly disguised characters starring the vengeful divorced wife and gold-digging mistress, all entrances and exits held together by Citrine's didactic interior monologues, high-grade information and low-key simile….
But, for all his familiarity, Citrine is a character apart from Bellow's other narrators. Citrine would agree with Herzog how quickly "the visions of genius become the canned goods of intellectuals," yet Herzog would find Citrine on many occasions clichéd, pretentious, a facsimile of the very intellect he claims to despise most, the professor manqué. And while Citrine would insist with Artur Sammler that the terms of life and art are knowable, Sammler would find him morally passive and intellectually sloppy. As Citrine says, "I knew everything I was supposed to know and nothing I needed to know."…
If Charles Citrine never emerges from what he calls the "sleep of American liberalism," he never attributes his failure to any fashionable conspiracy theory, even though the improbable plot suggests it at every turn. In the end he has lost most of his money and most of his lovers; if he still has friends, most of them have treated him shabbily. But he has achieved, partly through moral gesture and partly through reflection, a rare sense of the continuity between the dead and the living.
It is the death of Citrine's friend and mentor, a failed prodigy poet, Von Humboldt Fleisher, which sets off Citrine's review of his own life and his meditation on death. Nothing that Citrine tells us about Humboldt's work or life suggests that he was particularly endearing or talented. But we do not have to be persuaded that Humboldt was an authentic genius, nor that Citrine is a superior interpreter. Humboldt represents the intellectual detritus, those lost souls and unfinished poems, that literary impulse which connects generations more than the works of genius that label them. Humboldt is, in both senses of the word, a pretext for Citrine. (p. 82)
At the end of Mr. Sammler's Planet, Sammler cries out, "He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet—through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding—he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows."
Humboldt's Gift is about people who constantly break their contracts in the full knowledge that they are doing so, and the implication is that America has, in Whitman's sense, broken the pact with itself. Citrine is perhaps no less guilty than the rest in this respect. But because he acknowledges his guilt, he affirms the possibility that, while it is very late in the day, all is not lost….
Citrine, like Bellow, is an unreconstructed realist in method, a firm believer—at least in his own work—in the correspondence between the inner and outer worlds. Yet Citrine's researches into mysticism lead him to increasingly wonder whether his "head culture" can achieve the understanding he desires before he dies. In the course of his reading, he comes across a passage:
This external world we no longer see, for we are it. The outer world is now the inner. Clairvoyant, you are in the space you formerly beheld. From this new circumference you look back to the center, and at the center is your own self. That self, your self, is now the external world.
This reversed "clairvoyant" state describes the terminal self-consciousness which is the starting point for most of the important antirealist fiction of this decade, fiction which is explicitly conscious of itself as artifact. But if Bellow has grown more self-conscious, he certainly displays no irony about his own methods. There are few living writers outside of Russia so fiercely and aggressively dedicated to the conventions of the realistic novel—the intense, almost redundant, characterizations, the languorously detailed descriptions of everything from a bar check to a mental state, reminiscent of late James in texture if not syntax. (p. 83)
[His] ambivalence about knowledge … has always been what is most irritating and poignant about Bellow's work. Indeed, there is a strong implication that Humboldt knew too much to be a poet, the very American suspicion that education, while certifying a certain degree of success, prevents us from being true seers. And more, that, to the extent Citrine has modeled himself on Humboldt, he has limited his powers.
This suspicion, however, only reaffirms Bellow's sense of the novelist's uneasy but unique position, "stuck with only words and memory," somewhere between the poet and the behavioral scientist, between total self-consciousness and willful detachment, the most undefinable and human of aesthetic stances. This is Bellow's underlying theme, and it is a grand one. As he wrote, many years ago, "We have so completely debunked the old idea of the Self that we can hardly continue in the same way…. Undeniably the human being is not what he thought a century ago. The question nevertheless remains. He is something. What is he?"
The fact that Bellow can confront at this stage in his career the question of whether strict realism can serve an age so balefully self-conscious is another measure of his relevance. For, as he fails to resurrect Humboldt, fails to make his genius palpable, his death exemplary, he nevertheless establishes a fascinating if retrogressive vision. Bellow imagining Citrine imagining Humboldt imagining poems which never emerge from the ethers of "words and memory," where we once imagined there was a storyteller who imagined us. (pp. 83, 85)
Charles Newman, in Harper's (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the October, 1975 issue by special permission), October, 1975.
Throughout [Henderson the Rain King], Henderson functions as both WASP and Jewish hero; an Ishmael out of both Moby Dick and the Torah. He inhabits two worlds and has two identities. Critics such as John J. Clayton, Leslie Fiedler, and J. C. Levenson have remarked the intermingling of American and Jewish strains in Bellow's work, but none considers Henderson the Rain King in this context. Yet it is fruitful to do so. Once we realize that Henderson is neither wholly WASP nor wholly Jewish though partly both, we have detached him from his particular naturalistic environment and made of him a symbolic or allegorical figure. This revision answers Norman Podhoretz's damaging complaint in Doings and Undoings that Henderson is "obviously not believable as a Hudson Valley aristocrat," though he is completely convincing as a personification of spiritual malaise.
In creating Henderson, Bellow has reversed the symbolizing process characteristic of most Jewish fiction, including his own. Instead of discovering the universal within a Jewish character, Bellow discovers the Jewish within an American Everyman. Podhoretz argues that the Jew as literary symbol is "humanity seen under the twin aspects of suffering and moral aspiration…. Henderson is Jewish in just that sense. He is a sufferer (though his suffering is not physical but moral)…. This is far from the world of Malamud: it is suffering as comedy, or (to adapt a Bellow word) lark. Yet the theme is not the less serious for that. As Bellow has explained in his Paris Review interview [from Writers at Work, edited by Gordon L. Harper], "Obliged to choose between complaint and comedy, I choose comedy, as more energetic, wiser, and manlier." (pp. 441-42)
In creating the arch-WASP Henderson—the character he has called most like himself—Bellow demonstrates that Anglo-Saxon and Jewish traditions are in fact congruous. (p. 443)
Steven Gould Axelrod, "The Jewishness of Bellow's Henderson," in his American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright © 1975 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), November, 1975, pp. 439-43.
Modern Jewish writing, from Sholem Aleichem to Saul Bellow, takes [the] stance of a voice emancipated from the Word as being the touchstone of sanity…. The literary voice is the skeptical, autonomous instrument that tastes, enjoys and records the judgments of its taste buds on human experience.
There is strength in this voice, the voice of secular consciousness—learned, humane, aware of every injustice and every outrage. The trouble with the instrument is that it is loose, half outside the body, prone to narcissism and self-mockery, having a most unstable relationship with unconscious process, having no instinct for force and no necessary relation to the forces that shape society. The voice belongs to secular consciousness, but consciousness itself is suspect in our culture.
Herein lies some of the strength and weakness of Saul Bellow, whose style is a continuous learned truculence. His extraordinary voice box, rooted in Yiddish, maintains an equilibrium of consciousness in a world in which the Word is no longer possible. His fiction is at its strongest in its somber, difficult, multifaceted heroes, all of whom have an absolutely believable consciousness whose speech cannot express any kind of resolution. Their unfolding meditations suggest a frightening power; they can confront anyone, send letters anywhere, make demands of the entire universe. Yet all these confrontations dissolve into ineffectuality as their sprightly meditations go on.
This central character in Bellow has, for all his power, a certain narcissistic pathos; the other characters stand flatly, two-dimensionally alongside him. Bellow's endings are tricky, inconclusive, enigmatic, the exhaustion of an emotion without an arrival anywhere; it is the unstilled voice, rendering the hero's mind, that gives a ghostly finality to his books. But that voice remains in suspense in Dangling Man; it expresses the pathetic awareness of an intellectual narcissist in Herzog; it becomes self-mockery in Humboldt's Gift. (p. 698)
Judah Stampfer, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), December 27, 1975.
For those who, like me, found Mr. Sammler's Planet too neat and doctrinaire, this sprawling, untidy mess of a novel [Humboldt's Gift] comes as a great relief. This is not the Bellow of The Victim or Seize the Day or Sammler, but of Augie March and Herzog, the writer who believes of himself: "I had been stamped and posted and they were waiting for me to be delivered at an important address." It isn't about Delmore Schwartz, either, because Bellow simply cannot sustain an interest in someone other than himself over the stretch of a long novel. That is the glory of Humboldt's Gift as well as its fatal weakness.
Bellow is Charles Citrine now, immersed in Chicago, in his late fifties, in many places sounding like Augie…. Or like Herzog…. The Chicago reality instructors are here, as they were in Augie and Herzog, and Renata Koffritz is just Thea and Madeline warmed over.
But even in the least interesting parts of the book the writing is often as good or better than it has ever been…. Let me just say that the nine pages that begin "The cab pulled up at the Bath twenty minutes early" on p. 74, and end with Cantabile staggering Citrine by asking who owns the ancient Russian bath are reason enough to show why Bellow is our greatest writer. (pp. 623-24)
In Herzog Bellow reached out to renew himself as a good Jew—"Evidently I continue to believe in God"—but the action of the book led him no closer to the concomitants of that belief, love and prayer. In the interim, his emotional account still overdrawn, Bellow seems to have realized that such loving and prayerfulness simply are not in him, which forced him to look elsewhere than in Judaism for his renewed existence. Kooky places too: Rudolph Steiner, anthroposophy, pamphlets by clairvoyants, a guru who reads aloud to the dead. Others have always nagged at Bellow for the derivativeness of his intellectual equipment, overlooking the obvious fact that no one states an idea better than he, and misreading his terrible need to make his ideas something other than distractions from the self. He fawns over the reality instructors because they know what they want, and make their desires, their selves, and their world coherent. Augie and Herzog and Citrine have never been able to do that; they admire America, chase women, love fancy clothes, and want desperately to transcend all that. Augie settles for loving, Herzog for faith, but those no longer suit: the desiring self must now be transcended, and Citrine reads a pamphlet which tells him: "This external world we no longer see, for we are it. The outer world is now the inner. Clairvoyant, you are in the space you formerly beheld," and so you can look back and see yourself.
But Bellow does not know what that means except as words …, and so the last hundred pages of Humboldt's Gift are a mess. Citrine has nothing to say or do and Bellow cannot be interested any longer, as he was in Herzog, in trying to make that silence and stillness interesting or enough…. But if this novel doesn't work at the end, and if too much of what comes before is replay, it fails at a level no other American writer tries to reach, commits itself to failure by seeking all that Balzac or Dickens ever sought. Self-loving Bellow may be to excess, but self-protective he is not. I love him for the many brilliant things in this book, almost as much for taking such a high road to ruin. (pp. 624-25)
Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76.
Turn to [Humboldt's Gift, which this reviewer considers the best novel of 1975],… and you realize what a grand old form the novel still is, and what extravagant talents Saul Bellow still has. This novel was praised here before, not adequately, but then again I don't know of anyone who has yet taken its measure. That's partly Saul Bellow's fault: the book suffers from perplexing contrivances of plot, but it's sustained by sheer high-spirited intelligence. It is a novel of ideas that has the grace to distrust ideas. Notions that would be passed off as profundities by many writers emerge here with a lovely self-parodic twist…. (p. 96)
Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), January, 1976.