Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 109
Bellow, Saul 1915–
A Canadian-born American novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor, and translator, Bellow is considered by many to be the most important novelist now writing in America. His fictive concerns are revealed in his protagonists, who consistently reject the absurdist philosophies of our time and strive instead to forge a humanistic personal ethic. Bellow mingles suffering with joy, pessimism with survival of the self, as his characters seek a balance between individuality and moral responsibility. He has received both Nobel and Pulitzer prizes for his work and is a three-time winner of the National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616
[The Adventures of Augie March] is dominated by a recurrent allusiveness to masters of Greek, Jewish, European, and American history, literature, and philosophy. Sometimes their deeds or opinions are mentioned, sometimes they rule the imagery. We might call them Overlords, or Sponsors. ("If you want," Augie says at one point, "to pick your own ideal creature in the mirror coastal air and sharp leaves of ancient perfections and be at home where a great mankind was at home, I've never seen any reason why not.") The Overlords have a double use. They stand as figures of awe and emulation to Augie (one of whose favourite authors is plainly Plutarch)—corresponding in this to the heroes of his actual experience, such as Einhorn. And they create historical depth, the kind of legendary perspective that our naturalism has deeply desired; a portrait on the scale of Einhorn's would be impossible without them. Replacing the vague merciless forces invoked by Dreiser, they remind me of the marvelous vast heads of statues in some of Watteau's pictures, overlooking his lovers. They are bound to irritate some readers as pretentious or hand-to-mouth, or a mannerism, because they are a new element, a new convention, in our fiction; new conventions are likely to irritate at first.
Along with these differences goes a decisive change in theme from the naturalism we have known, which dealt as a rule with success, and was likely to be tragic. Augie does not aim at success, and his story is a comedy, having for theme the preservation of individuality against the pressures in American life (modern life) toward uniformity, the adoption of socially acceptable roles: pressures exactly toward success, or at any rate security. The pressures are dramatized by Bellow as "recruiting," everybody's attempts to get Augie to serve their ends. Augie is all risk, he always consents; but then he always withdraws, because, experimental and aggressive, he is trying to refuse to lead a disappointed life. The insistence upon having one's own fate we might relate to the divorce now between parents and children, in (as W. H. Auden has put it) "a society where the father plays as minor a role as he plays in America." Augie has no visible father (he is illegitimate) and can hardly follow in his father's footsteps.
The novel, then, because of the recruiting, has the form of a theme-and-variations, and because of the search for a fate good enough, it has also the direction of a "pilgrimage"—Bellow's word late in the book. The first is more important than the second, but I don't quite understand Clifton Fadiman's regarding it as "undirected." Another critical mistake seems to me to be Warren's when he wishes that Augie "had been given the capacity … for more joy and sorrow." Surely he suffers and rejoices enough for several books. Possibly Warren read The Adventures of Augie March too much in the light of Bellow's earlier, constricted novels, which strike me as interesting now chiefly in relation to this one. Both the stunning wit and the emotional range are new here to Bellow. Wit has not been a characteristic of our twentieth-century naturalists, either. At the same time, notwithstanding these differences, Augie March does clearly belong on the Dreiser side, inclusive and tidal, as against Hemingway's and, in its insistence that what is widespread shall also be intense, may help to foster a fresh dimension for naturalism. (pp. 222-24)
John Berryman, "A Note on Augie" (1953), in his The Freedom of the Poet (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1940, 1944, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1956, 1959, 1961, 1964, 1966 by John Berryman; copyright © renewed 1972 by John Berryman; copyright © 1951, 1953, 1960, 1965, 1966, 1975, 1976 by Kate Berryman; copyright © renewed 1973, 1975, 1976 by Kate Berryman), Farrar, Straus, 1976, pp. 222-24.
Carol M. Sicherman
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2560
The linguistic lowpoint of Saul Bellow's brief novel Seize the Day—and one of its comic delights—is Dr. Tamkin's poem, deliciously entitled "Mechanism vs Functionalism: Ism vs Hism." The very paper on which Tamkin has typed his poem (it has "ruled borders in red ink") warns us to expect a student production, and Bellow exceeds expectation by delivering a classic non-poem by someone who thinks that rhyme and sing-song iambs, archaically decorated with inversions and the ungrammatical second-person singular, are the vital constituents of poetry.
In the poem, Tamkin, self-described as a "psychological poet,"… advises his audience: "Why-forth then dost thou tarry … Seek ye then that which art not there." Small wonder that Bellow's bewildered protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, cannot get beyond his initial reaction: "What kind of mishmash, claptrap is this!" But Tommy, who remembers Literature I at Penn State as the "one course that now made sense,"… respects poets and poetry, and he answers politely when Tamkin asks his opinion of the poem: "I'm trying to figure out who this Thou is." To his shock, Tamkin replies, in another capsule of comic grammar: "Thou? Thou is you."… "The main idea," he explains, "is construct or destruct;" but there is no way of divining this interpretation from the poem itself. (pp. 1-2)
Bellow is not merely having fun at the expense of portentously obscure and vacuous poetry, of timid critics who dare not say aloud what their common sense whispers, and of teachers justly suspected by their pupils of plotting to trap them. He is pursuing in a comic interlude a topic which seriously and centrally concerns him throughout the novel, from the title onward: the breakdown of language as a common bond among men. (p. 2)
Wilhelm's reflections on the unfathomable Tamkin lead him to [an] extended speculation on language and society, one which encapsulates many of the ideas of the novel:
Every other man spoke a language entirely his own…. If you wanted to talk about a glass of water, you had to start back with God creating the heavens and earth … up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler. After reviewing this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a glass of water. "I'm fainting, please get me a little water." You were lucky even then to make yourself understood. And this happened over and over and over with everyone you met…. The fathers were no fathers and the sons no sons….
Increasingly alone, Wilhelm talks to himself; in the novel's last pages, "past words," he cries to himself, a full realization of his isolation finally affording him the release of tears.
Before that moment, however, Wilhelm has fought isolation with words, always futilely. He and his father, as he confesses to Tamkin, "had words," but not the words either wants…. When his father talks, Wilhelm rightly thinks he means something other than he says; beneath the exterior affability lies a censorious dismissal. When Wilhelm talks, his father either shuts him out by not listening or wrongly surmises that Wilhelm means something other and worse than he says; Wilhelm cannot "speak his mind or ease his heart to him."… Wilhelm in fact reveals his anguish more than he wishes, more than his father can stand or his own dignity bear. (pp. 3-4)
The problem of words is general, as the example of Tamkin suggests. The divorce lawyers representing Wilhelm and his wife "talk and send me bills," getting nowhere…. Wilhelm and Rubin, the newsstand keeper, know a great deal about each other's concerns, but inexplicably none of this "could be mentioned, and the great weight of the unspoken left them little to talk about."… (p. 4)
The title [Seize the Day] declares clearly Bellow's principal means of organizing his analysis of human isolation in midtwentieth-century New York: the hoary injunction carpe diem. The novel deals, expectedly and appropriately, with only a few hours of a single day in late spring, but Bellow uses his motif in a thoroughly ironic way. Concerned with dramatizing not merely the loneliness of individual New Yorkers but also their social milieu and cultural assumptions, he details the manifold discordances between Wilhelm's world and the literary world evoked by his title—the world, say of Robert Herrick's "Corinna's Going a-Maying." (pp. 4-5)
In the world of Seize the Day the human cycle has been disrupted. Not only is there Wilhelm in his infinitely protracted adolescence. There is his father, nearly eighty, wearing an "unseemly, monkey-striped shirt" bought in a college shop…. There are the old guests in the hotel lobby who, past seizing anything but money, have "nothing to do but wait out the day."… There are the old ladies with faces grotesquely marked in rouge and mascara who "stared at you with expressions that did not belong to their age."… In this world the way to seize the day is not to imitate the intense fragile beauty of the rose; instead of the rose, Tamkin advises, contemplate what is before you, "a man in a brown suit" and "corduroy shirt." To do so is to obey these commands: "Be in the present. Grasp the hour, the moment, the instant."… (pp. 5-6)
By transmuting "seize the day" into "here-and-now" Tamkin turns a crisp imperative into a mumble. Rappaport, the nearly-blind ex-chicken merchant, finds Wilhelm on the street; "he commanded him, 'Take me to the cigar store'"—and this command Tamkin interprets as "another instance of the 'here-and-now,'" a request for help…. To make such a man's "Take me to the cigar store" equivalent to carpe diem is unutterably to debase human language.
Bellow exploits his title most extensively to suggest radical contrasts in tone: Herrick's Renaissance celebration of youth, modulated finally by the remembrance of inevitable death, versus Bellow's morose neutrality enlivened by the gentle sad cynicism of the culminating funeral. Technically bright and sunny, the weather in the novel is in fact terrible: "the gassy air was almost motionless under the leaden spokes of sunlight."… Instead of Herrick's verdant countryside … the landscape is urban: "the mouth of midtown stood open and the skyscrapers gave back the yellow fire of the sun."… (pp. 6-7)
[Bellow] counters Herrick's delight in the seasonal harmony of man and nature … by observing again and again the irrelevance of the seasons, indeed of all nature, to money-ridden New Yorkers who play spring-time financial games with "futures"—with November wheat, July soybeans, and December rye…. Nature means nothing to New Yorkers; wheat, soybeans, eggs, the lard and rye which Wilhelm watches rise and fall, all are abstractions. But their meaninglessness means something to Bellow, who knows that the significance of carpe diem depends on dominant and inevitable natural cycles which relate intimately to human life. Behind the artificial birds caroling the rise and fall of December rye in the spring, Bellow hears Renaissance resonances—the song in As You Like It celebrating lovers who lie in spring "between the acres of the rye" (real rye), the voice of Titania deploring alteration in the tradition model of the seasons…. (pp. 7-8)
Natural sex suitable to spring becomes in Bellow's novel the furtive affair of a middle-aged man and a mistress who makes him talk with her disapproving priest. Wilhelm and Olive are not, like Herrick's speaker and his Corinna, "in our prime;" they are out of kilter with the cycle of human life. (p. 10)
Debasement of language is, I have suggested, a principal theme of the novel. Bellow's subtle and pervasive use of the carpe diem motif is typical of his procedure, as he sets barren, incommunicative New York speech against the evocative richness of literary language of the past—language, indeed the only language, which speaks to Wilhelm in the present. Shakespeare and Milton, Shelley and Keats, come to him by "involuntary memory" … and Bellow reinforces Wilhelm's allusions with others of his own—to the Bible, Emerson, Yeats, Spenser. These literary references harmonize with the major reference, carpe diem, and like it are used with irony. (pp. 10-11)
Repeatedly Bellow juxtaposes what Wilhelm calls "corny" (cheaply emotional, self-dramatizing, hackneyed) language with the paradoxically fresh language of the Renaissance so as to sharpen at once the corniness and the freshness. What Bellow admires and Wilhelm confusedly desires is the impersonal, controlled, and deeply moving expression of Milton and Shakespeare. After a painful interview with his father, Wilhelm thinks: "And finally sink beneath that watery floor—would that be tough luck, or would it be good riddance?"… The American colloquialisms jar ironically with Milton's simple grandeur, revealing the impossibility of realizing Milton's meaning in Wilhelm's world. Wilhelm's alternative interpretations of drowning—"tough luck, or … good riddance"—are both, according to Milton, incorrect. Milton's point in the turn of his poem is that "Lycidas your sorrow is not dead, / Sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor;" understanding that Lycidas is "mounted high" in heaven, "the Shepherds weep no more."… But Wilhelm cannot imitate the shepherds in relinquishing sorrow, in part because he lacks Milton's religious structure. (p. 12)
The line from "Lycidas" connects with a profusion of images related to water, images suggesting (as in Milton) both death and resurrection. From the first page to the last, Wilhelm has a sinking feeling; Bellow brings the cliché alive. The novel begins with Wilhelm in an elevator which, instead of elevating, "sank and sank;" he emerges into an oceanic lobby where (in a parody of Homer's "wine-dark sea") "the great dark red uneven carpet … billowed towards Wilhelm's feet." (pp. 12-13)
Again in the last paragraph of the novel he has a sinking feeling, as in the first paragraph, but this time differently: "… the heavy sea-like music [of the funeral he happens into] poured into him…. He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow," although one cannot be sure that he has understood that "Lycidas your sorrow is not dead."
In putting the weight of his conclusion on a submerged metaphor, in playing with Wilhelm's sinking feeling, Bellow is asking his water imagery to float a large meaning, and to some extent we have to take Wilhelm's final movement "toward the consummation of his heart's ultimate need" on Bellow's say-so. That need, the novel implies, is for self-forgiveness, for sympathy, for love; yet it is a little hard to accept the seeming epiphany at the funeral of an anonymous man as any more genuine than that "blaze of love" in the subway tunnel, which afterwards seems no more than an "involuntary" gush of feelings. Wilhelm's tears at the end (more salt water) are also involuntary—"He could not stop"—and Bellow's earlier irony leads one to apply the epiphany in the tunnel to the one in the funeral home, seeing Wilhelm's sour dismissal of his first "onrush" of feeling as predictive of a parallel dismissal once his tears have dried. Perhaps Bellow means to leave Wilhelm in a transforming ecstasy, but if so he undercuts his purpose by his previous delicate and forceful ironies and even, at the end, by directing Wilhelm "toward" but not "at" the "consummation." It may well be, whether or not Bellow willed it, that the final ironic touch is the omission of Wilhelm's inevitable come-down from the ecstasy of tears; the blank space after "consummation" may even suggest the "sorrowing dulnesse" which Donne (in "Farewell to Love") and his colleagues believed to follow upon the act of love. (pp. 13-14)
True to Emerson, Wilhelm in the end goes "past words" to the action of weeping, and thereby maybe approaches the truth he seeks. His wish to escape his ordinary condition may be compared, Bellow hints, with Yeats' impetus in "Sailing to Byzantium" to escape from old age in Ireland. Yeats takes actions ("And therefore I have sailed the seas") in order to achieve the condition, past words, of a golden bird singing upon a golden bough "Of what is past, or passing, or to come"—a song about time which encompasses and surpasses carpe diem. Watching the commodities figures move birdlike on the broker's screen, Wilhelm is, in Yeats' words which Bellow appropriates, "sick with desire."… But in Seize the Day the desire is not for wise teaching from Yeatsian sages but for a tip on December rye from Rappaport…. (p. 17)
[The] main reason Tamkin appeals to Wilhelm is that "I am a sucker for people who talk about the deeper things of life, even the way he does."… (p. 21)
Wilhelm's inarticulate accusations of himself and his world provide a clue to both his virtues and his vices. "Whenever at the end of the day he was unusually fatigued," he would exclaim "in his heart:" "Chicken! Unclean! Congestion!… Rat race! Phoney! Murder! Play the Game! Buggers!"… Each separate exclamation is a cliché; and yet by separating each from the other, by not developing or making connections among them, Wilhelm half-redeems the clichés. Bellow completes the redemption, using Wilhelm's terms to describe the rapaciously money-hungry Rappaport and Tamkin, thus implying that Tommy's perceptions apply less to himself than to others….
That Wilhelm should fall for such an evidently suspicious redeemer demonstrates the depth of his desperation, of his passionate need to "know why he exists." In his yearning for Truth—about Life, about himself Wilhelm is typical of Bellow's heroes, all of whom, in the hackneyed phrase of Joseph in Dangling Man, seek to "know what I myself am," to answer the question "How is it possible today for a good man to live?" In other respects he is different, as this short and modest novel is different from and superior to Bellow's longer and more pretentious works—novels seemingly designed to prove Bellow's distance from the majority of contemporary novelists, whom he condemns as "strangely reluctant to use their brains or to give any sign that they have brains to use." (p. 23)
"The greatest achievement possible in a novel of ideas," Bellow has said, is to allow "the views most opposite to the author's own … to exist in full strength." Seize the Day, alone among his novels, succeeds in fulfilling this prescription…. By treating his great talker as a fraud and by making his hero inarticulate and ill-educated, Bellow insures against the danger of his characters' walking away with him, as Mr. Sammler, Herzog, and the rest tend to do.
No one in Seize the Day speaks for Bellow—that is, no one except Shakespeare and Milton, Emerson and Yeats, and the poets of carpe diem. For what Bellow does is invoke, and transmute into his own prose, the formal control of Shakespeare's sonnets and Milton's blank verse, along with the interlocking intellectual and emotional structures of Renaissance thought. Instead of boasting about his literary knowledge, he uses it to give the novel a discreetly concealed and solidly placed foundation. Through his spare juxtapositions of Spenser's gorgeous court of Gloriana with Broadway's faded Hotel Gloriana, he says or implies more substantial truths, and elicits more justified and complex sympathy for his "corny" hero careening out of control, than he is able to do in any of his more ambitious works. Reaching past polluted Broadway in the 1950's to a timeless world of "Dew-bespangling Herbe and Tree," Bellow methodically and splendidly fulfills the promise of his title. (pp. 23-4)
Carol M. Sicherman, "Bellow's 'Seize the Day': Reverberations and Hollow Sounds," in Studies in the Twentieth Century (copyright 1975 by Stephen H. Goode), Spring, 1975, pp. 1-31.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3136
What make [Mr. Sammler's Planet] worth writing about, I feel, is its level of artistic organisation, a significant achievement for Bellow, already considered by many to be among America's finest writers. In two sections, one on meaning, the other on form, I shall highlight distinctive features of this compact work….
First of all, the reader's approach to the book. Are we to take Bellow's feelings about life and society as identical with Sammler's?
There is a tendency to regard fictional protagonists as if they are a direct embodiment of their creator's life and attitudes. Some writers, not properly understanding Mr. Sammler's Planet, have criticised Bellow for showing more interest in the dying than in the living because of Sammler's preoccupation with the dying Elya Gruner and his own close escapes from death. In fact there is scant evidence that Bellow shares the weariness of life Sammler has. (p. 138)
In reading Mr. Sammler's Planet one is left in little doubt that Bellow is presenting a vision of contemporary society. But I believe a useful key (and Bellow seems to agree with me in this) to the interpretation of the book is found in a paper by Bellow entitled 'Skepticism and the Depth of Life.'… (pp. 138-39)
In 'Skepticism and the Depth of Life' Bellow, listing three literary tendencies he sees in this century, gives as the third "The rejection of sentiment and antagonism to human qualities which seemed to interfere with the supremacy of consciousness … which has the support of many contemporary psychological developments."… [He continues,]
It seems … that intelligence has reached a point of extreme skepticism about this human carrying-on. It is with this skepticism that the writer today has to deal. It gives readers and spectators great satisfaction to see these old dramas of personality, love, duty, beauty, family, "heroic will", exposed…. The modern public has developed a curious spectator-passivity and detachment from things formerly felt and believed…. A withdrawn, musing anti-self watches the emotional circus.
From this quotation … we may infer Bellow's position: he sets out to deal with, to combat and to cure a destructive scepticism about the depth of life. So withdrawn musing Sammler is not Bellow. It is Bellow's way of reaching a public he fears epitomise a "withdrawn, musing anti-self (watching) the emotional circus" with cynicism. Bellow's work gives, then, a view of society, not of self. (pp. 139-40)
[There appears little enough significance in the bare events of the novel.] Yet Bellow's narration makes the book dense with meanings. And though little happens in the conventional sense the book is a wholly convincing reading experience, for much of the meaning is conveyed without abstract intellectualisation and the book remains novelistic, evoking a sense of real life. This, in a novel of ideas, is a significant achievement. (pp. 140-41)
Various critics have suggested it as a flaw in Bellow's earlier work that, in supposedly naturalistic works with intendedly full characters, the important element of a dynamic reciprocal relationship such as exists between real individuals was missing or poorly done. This sort of relation between characters is similarly absent from Mr. Sammler's Planet yet it is not missed there. Perhaps this is partly because the book is wholly the consciousness of Sammler, a man in any case distanced from others. There is a form of relationship between characters, though, and through this a great deal of the significance is conveyed. It is not an existential relationship but a static relation of marriage or blood, or relative function in society, or trend or generation represented. Such relationships convey meaning immediately because this is how we tend to identify characteristics in daily life. This is often how characters are cast in films and plays. As types. By age, job, race, family status.
So the organisation of the characters in the novel parallels the shape of the meaning Bellow conveys. Sammler is the focal point and he is related to most of the characters directly or by marriage. Were a genealogy drawn for all the book's characters and in place of their names was written what they are made to represent, the genealogy would be a picture of the recent historical forces shaping this society, as Bellow sees it. And the notable thing is the way it works without the reader realising or being jolted from the world of the book by abstract comment extraneous to the fiction.
We can see the process in Sammler's own characteristics. Bringing together details revealed gradually in the course of the narrative, we see Sammler as a tall, ruddy-faced old intellectual, a Polish Jew of monied parents, brought up as a gentleman, first interested in culture by his mother, becoming like a 'Britisher' by imitation, living in the Bloomsbury of the thirties and taking pride in knowing H. G. Wells. (p. 141)
The name Uncle Sammler—a European Jewish Uncle Sam (USA). The imitation of British culture: and the multi-level meaning of his having one eye and knowing H. G. Wells. Some connections are evident, others more uncertain. It may be, for example, that his first name, Artur, is not only after Schopenhauer but is in one passage an allusion to Art as an activity. When Sammler is trying … to report a theft he has seen on the bus the policeman calls him "Art" several times…. The policeman has no time to spare and the conversation displays the irrelevance of the individual in an over-stressed society. But the conversation may also be a poignant metaphor for the artist like Bellow ("Art …") trying vainly to convey his perception of how something of deep value to us is being 'stolen', while most of us are, as Bellow has said elsewhere, too busy with other priorities to heed. (p. 142)
Sammler has only one eye. This not only serves to set him apart from others and convey the awful time he had in the war (as representative of a whole generation and race), it suggests an inner eye that looks to deeper knowledge. For his damaged eye does distinguish light and dark. Good and Evil? And the references to H. G. Wells (his optimistic view of how life would develop by our time ironically contrasted with the reality) calls up Wells's short story 'The Country of the Blind'. If we do not already know the story Bellow, with characteristic reflexive awareness, makes Sammler mention the connection whilst talking with Dr. Lal. In Wells's story, instead of the one-eyed man being king in the country of the blind, as the proverb foretells, he is almost persuaded that his is the faulty perception and is about to agree to be blinded, when he regains confidence in his vision. Bellow's use of Sammler's one-eyedness is manifold. But one significance seems ironically to invert Wells's view of scientific enlightenment.
This touches only a few of the connections Sammler's characteristics suggest. As we pass from Sammler to Shula, his "loony" daughter, we can see her as representing the meaningful cultural attitudes of the parent generation emptily mimicked by the children. The daughter is a cultural scavenger. Any information or education, religious or cultural, she soaks up but is unable to respond to or use in her life. (pp. 142-43)
If we see Shula-Slawa as the confused cultural manifestation of a generation originating in the thirties, her relationship with her husband Eisen, from whom she is separated, comes to be a comment on the relationship between a generation and its artists (or some of them). Eisen is about to become recognised as an artist. Previously he has been a reasonably competent craftsman. His art is absurdist art. And as he beat Shula till she finally left him, so absurdist art beats society till its audience deserts. Eisen's art, which makes those it portrays hideous and deathlike and ridiculous, may exemplify the destructive art referred to in Bellow's essay on scepticism previously quoted.
This Eisen downs the princely negro by swinging at him from behind with a bag of iron sculpture. Mad Art crushes the noble thief who here seems to represent man's last sense of his own barbaric nobility. The negro thief is "probably a mad spirit". But he is "Mad with an idea of noblesse." And that even this corrupt nobility should be destroyed by degraded, absurd Eisen is one of the most sad and shocking moments in the book.
Feffer the student-entrepreneur is unintentionally involved in the destruction of this mad nobility. Feffer seems to personify the insatiable curiosity of Americans, the get-up-and-go, the time-and-energy-for-everything syndrome. He has scores of crazy schemes. His curiosity and his desire to use the sight of the pickpocket at work leads him into a struggle with minor evil that he cannot win. A struggle Sammler (personifying the old culture) is powerless to save him from without calling upon the culture of the next generation, mad Eisen, to 'save' him in a way almost more awful than the fate he otherwise faces. (pp. 143-44)
Many threads like this can be followed up to yield an analysis of recent and contemporary society. Almost every detail of each character works to convey a sense of real individuals and this larger pattern. With so many functions for each to fulfil, it is perhaps no wonder that we do not notice the characters' lack of 'relations' in Mailer's sense.
Unifying these socio-historical details is Sammler's worldview, a metaphysical stand brought out mainly through conversations with the Indian Dr. Lal.
Sammler sees personality types as particular "forms taken by spiritual striving." They are not fully developed, merely alluded to, but the idea seems to be that what is perceived and explained is but the form taken by the underlying 'thing-in-itself' as mind imposes its own form upon it. Behind 'appearances' is 'spirit' which endures unchanged, 'appearances' including man's nature and the perceptual world. Sammler apparently believes that individual personality is an innovation, comparatively speaking, in man's history. And that the bitterness at the suffering the failure to find a viable individual personality has caused gives rise to such things as the Theatre of the Absurd (I take this from Bellow's essay). Sammler tells the story of mad King Rumkowski as an example of the process. This 'king' was an absurd failure, set up as puppet king over the Jews of Lodz by the Nazis, to rule even as his people were loaded for Auschwitz. This 'king' acted out a king's old functions with pageants, ceremonies, government; he even printed money and stamps. He terrorised his 'people'. It was a reality for them, yet entirely set up by the Nazis. One might think of it as a Monty Python programme played with real people. In seeing the abasement of human beings in failed forms of humanity the Germans took great delight.
Sammler sees this failure of personality not as an intrinsic failing of human beings but only as a failure so far "to produce a human figure of adequate stature" to match the obscure whisper of intuition, the often unheeded demands of the spirit. But he sees depths beyond our present awareness, something more than the scientifically discoverable make-up of man, and this is what the book seeks to evoke at the end. (pp. 145-46)
So far I have left out one slant of all Sammler's thought: his mistrust of explanations. "All will explain everything to all, until the next, the new common version is ready", Sammler thinks ironically.
Yet paradoxically this book contains much explanation, of various sorts, from insights to fictionalisation of abstract points. Bellow's work could be regarded as a novel of ideas of explanations. And yet of mistrust of explanation. Talking with Dr. Lal, Sammler says "One must live with all combinations of the facts." And indeed this seems to be what Bellow is doing.
In practice the volume of explanation in his work makes it futile for him to express mistrust. (p. 146)
Saul Bellow's previous novels have been criticised for the weakness of his narratives which were seen to have dramatically unjustified resolutions and characters not fully realised. He has been criticised for presenting a solipsistic world, and for failing to create a convincing spatial world. In Mr. Sammler's Planet Saul Bellow transcends these limitations, for he makes features that had been limitations work for him. The solipsistic tendency in most of his work becomes justified in the book since it is intentionally restricted to the consciousness of one man. Story is relegated so far into the background that we hardly see it sufficiently to become aware whether it is dramatically justified or not as the rapid flow of thought and image holds attention.
And as for the world of space and time found in conventionally naturalistic works, in this work we are aware of almost no sense of space and time. There is compression of time. By transitions from inner world to dialogue with the external world Saul Bellow dislocates the time and space sense of the reader (without causing discomfort) and creates a literary world where the flow is not experienced as time flow. (p. 148)
It is worth highlighting here the manner in which, by virtue of Bellow's great self-awareness of the act of writing, the book becomes an explicit commentary on its own processes. I have already mentioned several places where an implicit characteristic is pointed up in the narrative. For example, the connection between Sammler's one eye and the H. G. Wells story. Bellow's in medias res may have been his view of the form of the book. Or he may have meant it at face value, just as describing Feffer. With hindsight, his earlier works can be seen working their way towards this form. Herzog already manifested many aspects of it. But Mr. Sammler's Planet is the purest example yet. It is as if the writer has realised the direction and potential of a naturally developing form and consciously clarified it. In referring to Joyce he is acknowledging his debt; indeed we already suspected from the name Moses Herzog, the name of a minor character in Ulysses, that Bellow had been dipping into Joyce's writers' manual.
The important thing is that Bellow succeeds in using this self-awareness without throwing the reader out of the fictional world into an awareness that he is not 'in' the story but merely reading a writer's excrescence. (p. 149)
Bellow is on record as disapproving of imposing form on the novel. It is likely, then, that the form in medias res arises from the effort to express his vision…. Though Mr. Sammler's Planet is a mixture of various things, novelistic in parts, elsewhere philosophical, essay-like, sometimes speechifying, aphoristic, speculative, these are unified as an expression of Bellow's vision of contemporary reality, so that the separation of meaning and form in discussing the book is just a critic's simplifying device which has no reality in the book. The meaning is in the very structure of the sentences, the paragraph and subject changes, the way characters are introduced, and dialogue, and in the rhythm of events.
By referring to details in the narrative I shall attempt to show more precisely the nature of this form.
One aspect is the quality of flow. This is a lateral flow, by association of ideas as Sammler moves from one thought to something laterally—rather than sequentially or logically—related. The flow is kept unbroken by an interesting device: when a character is about to appear or an event occur (this is only noticed in retrospect) some small reference to it is made within the flow. Not only does this stop disparate events diverting the flow; it puts us into the middle of things before they happen, which is what the form demands. (pp. 149-50)
These are things that dislocate our sense of clock time within the book, dissolving the separation between mind and external reality. Consequent upon this creation of a timeless, spaceless literary world the flow of Sammler's thought is no indication of time passing. We have few reference points to indicate whether moments, hours, or days have passed between successive emergencies from Sammler's inward thought into his witnessing of an external event. The mode of flow by association rather than timeflow by sequence of event, the mode most commonly found, is broadly similar to that used by Henry Miller; though Bellow has said that to his knowledge he is not influenced by Miller.
One striking occurrence of the compression of time is pointed up—with Bellow's characteristic awareness, and confidence—when Sammler asks himself, "Feffer's lecture, twenty-four? forty-eight hours ago?" A question most readers will be unable to answer immediately. For in accordance with the form (mirroring Bellow's sense of the ways consciousness moves in its layers?) we have been thrown from day 1 into day 2 without our being aware of it and without being able to say precisely where in the book it occurred. (pp. 151-52)
Not everything in the book strikes me as harmonious. The most severely jarring parts are the comparatively long passages detailing Sammler's Second World War experiences. I find their quality unconvincing. Perhaps it is my failing, for I do not understand what function Bellow intends these passages to fulfil. It is true that people had such experiences, and they were certainly awful. (p. 152)
The fact that such events happened does not justify their inclusion in fiction. Perhaps part of their unconvincing quality is in the essaylike nature of these descriptions, out of character with the quick flow and turn of Sammler's other thoughts. It is more like someone writing a report. Part dispassionate, yet with just enough of a touch of sensationalism to remind one uncomfortably of the cheap romanticism of poor films and women's magazine stories.
Bellow has Sammler deny any romantic value. "To some people, true enough, experience seemed wealth. Misery worth a lot. Horror a fortune." This disclaimer almost disarms us but it finally fails to dispel the association with cheap romanticism. One can continue to speculate on Bellow's intent, moral, symbolic, as a correction to seeing suffering as glamorous. But contextual justification failing as it does by the nature of the piece, there can be no other justification.
Finally, I am not sure that the vision of society Bellow presents is true of society as a whole. Perhaps all America is like that. To me the vision looks like that experienced by only a very small sector of humanity, living a certain sort of big-city life. Or it is a generalisation of the image presented by glossy magazines, weekly tv mags, and a substantial part of the national media. The greater part of society is moved by far more real values and desires than are Shula, Margotte, Feffer, Wallace, and Angela. (pp. 152-53)
Roger Jones, "Artistry and the Depth of Life: Aspects of Attitude and Technique in 'Mr. Sammler's Planet'," in The Anglo-Welsh Review, Spring, 1976, pp. 138-53.
Rita D. Jacobs
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It is … [the] seemingly paradoxical currents in Bellow's work, the dignity of life and the comic accident that we exist at all, that are so exhilarating. Like the true comedian, the one who shows the truths of life, Bellow discards the easy laugh in favor of the deeper, cosmic laughter which responds to the human condition….
The ghetto feeling, the feeling of being set apart and yet making a kind of virtue of this separateness, is strong in Bellow's work. His characters are often outside the mainstream of society and go through internal conflicts about whether this is a condition that is imposed or chosen. In a sense, this ghetto image is a metaphor of alienation not only for the Jew but for modern man. (p. 194)
In speaking about his novel Herzog Bellow has said that "any Bildungsroman—and Herzog is, to use that heavy German term, a Bildungsroman—concludes with the first step. The first real step." In this sense all of his novels are Bildungsromane. Throughout the novels his major characters are striving to "be," rather than to exist in a state of "becoming." In the Bellovian world the first real step is made when one stops becoming and starts to be….
All of Bellow's characters wander, physically or mentally, until they take their first real steps.
This agony, this intense desire to be and in that be-ing know a true direction, is Bellow's depiction of the crisis of modern man. This desire is constantly thwarted by all of the alternatives and stimuli, the cacophony of modern life. The strident and self-announcing possibilities of the modern world, of technology, of urban life, of sexuality, are often overwhelming and prevent his characters from finding a truth about themselves. Hence they spend much of their time relishing their consideration of alternatives and at the same time feeling the burden of choice imposed by the presence of alternatives. (p. 195)
[A theme that occupies] Bellow throughout his career [is] man's difficulty in reconciling his desire for individuality and greatness with his desire for community and love. It is only when harmony is achieved that his characters can take the first steps. But for modern man, and especially for Bellow's intellectualizing, rationalizing men, the knowledge that although these desires appear to be contradictory they can be accepted as complementary and compatible is hard to come by. In essence, the battlefield is within the self, the struggle is between head and heart. The individual resides in the head. Indeed, Bellow's characters are among the most intelligent and articulate in American literature, and the communion comes with a balance of head and heart.
But there are many things that distract Bellow's modern men from finding a balance. They test and try the alternatives and sometimes get swept away by the sheer variety confronting them….
The city for Bellow is representative of distraction, of the modern striving for originality and the concomitant exhibiting selves that clamor for attention. As Herzog says, "The question of ordinary human experience is the principal question of these modern centuries." But where is that ordinary experience to be found? Certainly not in the glass and steel structures known as our modern cities. What is found in the cities is condemned as ultimately uninteresting. (p. 196)
Bellow's characters go in search of reality instructors, models or teachers who can help them make their choices. Henderson finds the African king, Tommy Wilhelm listens to the pseudo-psychologist Dr. Tamkin, Herzog takes instruction from his ex-wife Madeleine and his onetime best friend and Madeleine's current lover, Gersbach, and Charlie Citrine tries to learn through his antagonistic encounters with a small-time hoodlum, Cantabile. But these reality instructors are foils. They have no glimpse of any reality but their own, and Bellow's central characters eventually learn that reality is indeed nothing that can be taught but something that must be known for itself. It is true that everyone in the city speaks his own language and that each one sees his own world. Bellow's protagonists finally know that they can never accept anyone else's reality until they have accepted their own. Henderson's innermost self continually screams, "I want, I want," but it is only when he can identify what it is that he wants that he can hear the other people—the "he wants," the "she wants"—who surround him.
Lest it seem that Bellow's world is only one of agonizing thought and self-recrimination leavened by puns and costumes, it must be stated that his characters and their adventures are lusty and humorous. The characters pursue sensuality and sexuality and are often prone to pratfalls for passion's sake. Bellow's female characters are never as fully characterized as his males and are often overly bitchy or overly sensual, but they are not cartoons or caricatures. (pp. 196-97)
Bellow's women are often one-sided for argument's sake, but he always gives us at least a glimpse of them in other contexts where they display fuller character traits…. He does not create women as central characters but as foils, in much the same way as the reality instructors are portrayed. Bellow's men cannot find their own realities through the women, but they cannot exist without them; and much of the humor in his novels emerges from this very human conundrum. Ultimately it is the reality and the intensity of the self that Bellow's characters hunger for and find. It is the self that the intellectual, the city dweller, the man burdened with the history of civilization and confronted by the ambiguities of modern forms can only come to by working through and then past the questioning, always seeking mind…. [The] only way to find the truth is to intensify, to feel intensely and not to attempt to make sense of it, not to interpret but to welcome it as a gift.
For Henderson and Herzog the buried poetry of America is brought to the surface by Whitman….
There is a coming-of-age quality about Bellow's work that has nothing to do with chronology but rather with the achievement of a harmonic balance of self. Balancing the head and the heart and ceasing to have to prove oneself, not seeking success but embracing dignity and humor, appreciating history but breaking free of its shackles—there is about all of these notions a peculiarly American quality. It is an American goal—to be born anew with the lessons and riches of the past clearly present in the minds of the founders alongside the belief that here, at last, the past will no longer be a burden but a liberation. Bellow tells us we can make it if we only allow ourselves to be what we are. Bellow has not been afraid to say that "the mystery is too great." Yet unfailingly and with great skill he has followed his own notion that "novelists are wrong to put an interpretation of history at the base of artistic creation…. It is better that the novelist should trust his own sense of life." (p. 197)
Rita D. Jacobs, "'Truths on the Side of Life': Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize 1976," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 194-97.
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Saul Bellow is the living author I most admire. Since having read his description of a woman washing window-glass in "The Dangling Man" so many years ago I have found him the most interesting author I know writing in English, which is the only language I can read with ease these days. Saul's virtuosity, his keen sense of the perils of his vocation and the architecture of his accomplishments seem to me peerless. (p. 3)
John Cheever, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 4, 1977.
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[Bellow is] amused by a crucifix (as if it were a toy without a history); and about sex he's a baby. But beyond this, one reads him with the seriousness one brings to the redemption of the garbage pile of one's own life. He mixes recklessness with a primordial awe, and his philosophic whine concentrates mainly on the petty, where we live. His perception of the unity of the human mind doesn't wash out its diversity. He uses language like a gill. Our worst writers (even when they are, in language, our best) write as if their own being were a one-shot affair, instead of an instance of a continuing history; solipsists, who want to be "original," bore because they don't believe in evil. Bellow, even when he is on the run from history, believes in history; and his whole fiction is a wrestling with the Angel of Theodicy. It's uncomfortable to read him because he doesn't allow a distance (as Chekhov does) between the rumpled spirits of his fiction and the reader, and because in this sense he isn't a "modern"; also he is argumentative and nags after a victory. All this means he is a real Voice.
What, in literature, is a Voice? A presence—a corpus of fine size—that can speak to its own generation because it has itself been spoken to by the generations before. (p. 66)
Cynthia Ozick, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 4, 1977.
Glenn A. Kindilien
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Saul Bellow's "Looking for Mr. Green," which records social worker George Grebe's attempt to deliver a relief check in a Chicago ghetto, is typically and correctly read as a search for the real self. But why is the object of the search called Mr. Green? Wouldn't any other name serve this theme as well? The answer is no. Green is used because the story is about more than a search for the self; it is also about how the self in modern society is defined.
The story says, in effect, that the self is created by money. Rather than detract from the search-for-the-reality-of-the-self theme, however, this idea gives greater depth to the theme by defining the nature of that reality. To understand this process it is first necessary to become aware of the identity between the name "Green" and money.
"Mr. Green" is a common courtroom code-word, one that would be familiar to social workers like George Grebe and authors as well versed in the law as Saul Bellow. If an attorney's client fails to pay his bill, the lawyer normally asks for a postponement of the case. He begins his request by addressing the bench as follows: "Mr. Green is not here." To laymen it simply means that a key witness has not appeared; to insiders the attorney has signalled the judge that he wants a delay because he has not received his client's money (his "green"). The client is left without counsel, and until he pays his bill, he doesn't (in the court's view) even exist. Once the payment is made, he will again be represented by counsel as a "real" person.
This process is also at the heart of what happens in "Looking for Mr. Green." Here too "Mr. Green" defines a state of non-being; here too money is the passport (or password) to identity. Grebe's search may lead to Mr. Green, but until Green actually accepts the check he doesn't really exist. His reality is determined by money—because that is how identity is determined in the modern world.
In the story the money-identity equation is defined by Winston Field, another of Grebe's check recipients. His scheme to create a series of Black millionaires "by subscription" states the central truth of the story: "… the only big thing is money…."
Winston Field thus knows that a person cannot be respected by society until society recognizes his existence, and that in the modern world he exists who has sufficient capital to participate as a competitive consumer; he does not exist who lacks that capital. This is the assumption upon which society (and the story) operates: money precedes identity, precedes respect. (pp. 104-06)
The lawyer's client is an anonymous "Mr. Green" until he pays his bill; Winston Field's people are non-beings until they become, also through money, participating members of society; Bellow's Mr. Green is likewise without identity until he receives his check. The name "Green" is thus the very substance of the search-for-the-self motif, clarifying the definition of self and offering insight into an economic system that uses money as a measure of character. (p. 107)
Glenn A. Kindilien, "The Meaning of the Name 'Green' in Saul Bellow's 'Looking for Mr. Green'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1978 by Newberry College), Winter, 1978, pp. 104-07.
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[Bellow] is actually not a novelist at heart but an essayist disguised as a writer of fiction. In Seize the Day, The Adventures of Augie March, and Henderson the Rain King, Bellow makes serious use of fictional techniques, but even there the essayist-lecturer is always ready to step in, stealing the stage from the fictional characters to make the fiction more "important."
Bellow's self-indulgence takes various forms. On occasion it appears as stylistic fiddling—as language designed mainly to show off Bellow's gifts as philosopher, poet, mimic, or Jewish humorist—not aimed, as it should be, at clarifying action and character or at controlling the reader's attention and response, heightening his pleasure and understanding. When Bellow is feeling self-indulgent, his language, instead of sharpening effects, distracts the reader, calls attention to the writer and thus away from the story unfolding like a dream in the reader's mind. Fiction should go after understanding by creating characters who subtly embody values and who test them. with clear but inexpressible results, in action. Discursive thought is not fiction's most efficient tool; the interaction of characters is everything. But Bellow can almost never handle more than one character at a time (an exception, perhaps, is his creation of both Humboldt and Citrine in Humboldt's Gift), and that one major character, Bellow's surrogate, has always an inordinate love of talk. At every opportunity, Bellow leans his characters and action on some doorframe, turns off his fiction's clock, and from behind the mask of his hero expatiates. When the essay voice begins, we are asked to appreciate, mainly on the basis of the speaker's charm, a set of prejudices and opinions, or shrewd observations—it makes no great difference—that have nothing to do, directly, with the progress of the action or the values under test.
Bellow may sometimes get away with his intrusions, partly because of his comic gift and his gift for finding powerful symbols—for instance the symbol of the moral individual buried alive in Mr. Sammler's Planet—and also because his opinions often strike the reader as carefully thought out and wise. Certainly his stand is boldly opposed to those trashy popular philosophies we so often encounter in other writers' work—cynical nihilism or the winking, mugging despair of Thomas Pynchon (Bellow counters with a theory of faith and responsible love); self-regarding existentialism (Bellow offers, instead, a theory of universal relatedness in which animals and people have certain common woes); tyrannical Marxism and a whining hatred of "American business" (Bellow offers, instead, a view of people—even naïve Communists and crass business people—as individuals, of suffering as universal and a thing to be dealt with, and of history as a moral search). And it is true, too, that though Bellow's intrusions offend, they nevertheless prove that Bellow can still feel unabashed concern. But the fact remains that his novels come off in the end as sprawling works of advice, not art. (pp. 30, 32)
John Gardner, in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), April 1, 1978.