Saul Bellow 1915–
Canadian-born American novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, editor, and translator.
Bellow is, perhaps, the most important writer to have emerged in post-World War II America. Thoughtful yet humorous, his work pursues the timely question of what it is to be fully human in an increasingly impersonal and mechanistic world. Bellow firmly rejects the modern concept of the absurdity of human existence. Instead, his protagonists—sensitive, observant, intensely individualistic intellectuals—although sometimes despairing and alienated, are never totally so. Their struggle is for a kind of spiritual balance to enable them to exert the will and imagination necessary to control their lives.
Bellow favors a prose style in which he can "talk his characters into existence," reflecting his casual dependence on plot and his emphasis on dialogue, monologue, and "inner voice". As his protagonists speak to each other and to themselves, the reader is drawn into their struggles with self and society.
Taking his place beside other "Bellow Heroes" (Augie March, Henderson, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler) is Albert Corde, the middle-aged academic of Bellow's recent novel, The Dean's December. Critical reaction to this newer work varies, with some critics being reluctant to applaud yet another of Bellow's autobiographical creations. Nonetheless, Bellow maintains a stature shared by few writers of fiction. A recipient of three National Book Awards, he also won both the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3.)
Saul Bellow has the most effusive intelligence of living American novelists. Even when he is only clever he has a kind of spirited intellectual vanity that enables him to take on all the facts and theories about the pathetic and comically exposed condition of civilized man and distribute them like high-class corn so that the chickens come running to them. That is the art of the novelist who can't resist an idea: to evoke, attract that 'pleasing, anxious being', the squawking, dusty, feverish human chicken. Aldous Huxley could always throw the corn but nothing alive came fluttering to it.
But immensely clever novelists have to beware of self-dispersal when they run to great length. I enjoy Saul Bellow in his spreading carnivals and wonder at his energy, but I still think he is finer in his shorter works. The Victim was the best novel to come out of America—or England—for a decade. The Dangling Man is good, but subdued; Seize the Day is a small grey masterpiece. If one cuts out the end, Henderson the Rain King is at once profound and richly diverting in its fantasy. These novels had form; their economy drove their point home. By brevity Bellow enhanced our experience. And, to a European reader—though this may be irrelevant—he seems the only American of this generation to convey the feel and detail of urban America, preserving especially what is going on at the times when nothing is going on: the distinctive native ennui, which is the basic nutriment of any national life.
It is when he turns to longer books, chasing the mirage of 'the great American novel', that Bellow weakens as he becomes a traveller, spreading the news and depending on the presence of a character who is something like a human hold-all, less a recognizable individual than a fantastic piece of bursting luggage. His labels, where he has been, whom he has met in his collision with America are more suggestive than his banal personal story. (pp. 146-47)
Structurally and in content, the story of Herzog is...
(This entire section contains 986 words.)
unsustaining. But what Herzog sees, the accidental detail of his experience, is very impressive. Here he grows. He really has got a mind and it is hurt. It is a tribute to Mr Bellow's reserves of talent that the novel survives and over-grows its own weaknesses. The muddle Moses is in, his sense of victimization, are valuable. His paranoia is put, by Mr Bellow, to excellent use. If the theme is lost, we have the American scene. Moses is not really exposed, but his New York and Chicago are. Mr Bellow has something like a genius for place. There is not a descriptive insinuator of what, say, a city like New York is like from minute to minute who comes anywhere near him. Some novelists stage it, others document it; he is breathing in it. He knows how to show us not only Moses but other people, moving from street to street, from room to room in their own circle of uncomprehending solitude. Grasping this essential of life in a big city he sees the place not as a confronted whole, but continually askance. His senses are especially alive tothings and he catches the sensation that the things have created the people or permeated them. This was the achievement of The Victim, and it is repeated in Herzog. A wanderer, he succeeds with minor characters, the many small figures in the crowd who suggest millions more. The dialogue of a Puerto Rican taxi driver, a Chicago cop, a low lawyer, a Jewish family, people brash, shady or saddened by the need of survival and whose ripeness comes out of the dirty brick that has trapped them, is really wonderful. It is far superior to Hemingway's stylized naturalism: Bellow's talk carries the speaker's life along with it. Their talk makes them move. They involve Moses with themselves and show him living, as all human beings do, in a web spun by others as well as by himself.
The habit of seeing things askance or out of the corner of his eye has given Mr Bellow an even more important quality: it keeps alive a perpetual sense of comedy and feeds his originality. There is sometimes talk of a taste for elegance in his book; spoken of like that, as a sort of craving or innate possession, it sounds very nearly vulgar. But there is an implicit elegance of mind in his writing: it sharpens the comic edge and dares him to spirited invention. As far as the comedy is concerned it has all the fatality of Jewish comedy, that special comedy of human undress and nakedness of which the Jewish writers are the world's masters. The other gift of Mr Bellow is his power of fantastic invention…. [Herzog] is absurd yet he is fine; he is conceited yet he is raw. He is a great man yet he is torpedoed by a woman who 'wants to live in the delirious professions'—trades in which the main instrument is your opinion of yourself and the raw material is your reputation or standing. At times he lives like a sort of high-class Leopold Bloom, the eternal Jewish clown; at others he is a Teufelsdröckh; again he is the pushing son of the bewildered Polish-Jewish immigrant and failed boot-legger, guilty about his break with the past, nagged by his relations, his ambitions punctured.
As a character Moses is physically exact—we know his domestic habits—but mentally and emotionally amorphous. Any objection to this is cancelled by his range as an observer-victim. It is a triumph that he is not a bore and does not ask our sympathy. (pp. 148-51)
V. S. Pritchett, "Jumbos," in his The Tale Bearers: Literary Essays (copyright © 1980 by V. S. Pritchett; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.; in Canada by Literistic, Ltd.), Random House, 1980, pp. 146-55.
A genre has long since defined itself, Nobel-certified: the Saul Bellow Novel. This is the Novel as First-Draft Dissertation: a rumination on the sorry state of the world, insufficiently formal for the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, however well it may translate into Swedish, but not unworthy of that Committee's encouraging noises. About the sorry state of the world there is nothing to be done save accept it, as every Bellow protagonist must learn for himself the way Job did. And since the Bellow Novel is obdurately protagonist-centered, what the reader gets to do is share his learning process.
In The Dean's December, the Dean—not a Jewish Dean from the Bellow Repertory Company, not at bottom an echt dean at all but a mere dean of students, moreover a moon-faced French-Irish ex-newspaperman named Albert Corde who has drifted into academe, and don't confuse him with his fox-faced creator—the Dean, if I could just finish this sentence, is stranded in communist Rumania waiting for his mother-in-law, Valeria, to die.
His wife, Minna, née Raresh, is an astrophysicist of the Palomar caliber; he cannot understand a thing she does, save that she brings together "a needle from one end of the universe with a thread from the opposite end." Here, Minna being preoccupied with her mother, he gets little solace from her. And it's cold and he speaks no Rumanian: plenty of time to ruminate. Herzog, left in solitude, wrote letters. Corde can simply run on, third-person imperfect. (p. 62)
[At one point in his life, Bellow might] have judged The Dean's December dreary: a book (for one thing) so remote from reliance on idiom that there's nothing save the regime to impede a Rumanian version.
For along the way Bellow has acquired an alter ego named Herzog, who first surfaced in the 1964 novel of that name and promptly addled his creator's head…. (p. 64)
Not that The Dean's December lacks all touch of as skilled a fabulist as you might want. Its opening is rich with possibility.
"Corde, who led the life of an executive in America—wasn't a college dean a kind of executive?—found himself six or seven thousand miles from his base, in Bucharest, in winter, shut up in an old-fashioned apartment."
In the bundle of worries he spends long hours unpacking, Chicago dominates, a place of terminal craziness: its rich without point, its poor without hope, its ongoings rife with jagged violence and sexual hysteria, its very jails full of rats and sodomizings and stabbings. There fate assigns each denizen his place in one or the other of two anarchies: the legitimate, the illegitimate. No melioration of Chicago seems thinkable.
Is there life after Chicago? If so, Bucharest seems to emblematize it. Bellow's Bucharest is neither a Lower Slobovia of ludicrous privations nor a Len Deighton playground for adventurous free-world spirits. It's a suitable limbo for Corde's introspections…. (pp. 64-5)
[In] this way station for his stunned soul Corde has nothing to do but wait: for one more hospital visit, arranged by bribery; for Valeria to die; for a grim day at the crematorium; for the flight home. Not that when he does have, or will have, things to do (in Chicago) does doing any longer seem to signify. In his morass of seeing-all-sides, acts are irrelevant.
So his plight—killing time in limbo—is rather close to the plight of his author, who must fill a book with sheer inaction and has consequently piped in what's been all too fluent for him of late years, the Herzogian vitality to be gotten from opinions….
And [Corde's] drear December has left his creator bereft of occasion for the sort of comic epiphany that can salvage all: scenes like the miniature Noah's Flood in Mr. Sammler, or the page near the end of Henderson the Rain King … where the hero (you have to believe this) climbs into a roller coaster with a mangy old trained bear, too old to ride a bike anymore.
And while we climbed and swooped and dipped and swerved and rose again higher than the Ferris wheels and fell, we held on to each other. By a common bond of despair we embraced, cheek to cheek…. I was pressed into his long-suffering age-worn, tragic and discolored coat as he grunted and cried to me.
That's a high Saul Bellow moment, one of the highest. Devoid of reflections, it prompts them. It would have been understandable to the author of the Book of Job, who envisioned Leviathan drawn out of the sea with a kind of Hebrew safety pin, and tethered on a leash for laughing maidens. Impossible to imagine it in Latin. (p. 65)
Hugh Kenner, "From Lower Bellowvia," in Harper's (copyright © 1982 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the February, 1982 issue by special permission), Vol. 264, No. 1581, February, 1982, pp. 62-5.
As long as Bellow gave us fictional richness, one would have had to be stern indeed to resist his charm merely because he gave away, every now and then, that he too found himself charming, like a hypnotist who puts himself along with his subjects into a trance. But what happens when the fictional juices run out, when a novelist becomes so convinced of his own wisdom, his grasp of the Big Subjects—Western Civilization, The Modern Condition, The Future of Humanity—that fiction seems too fragile a bark to carry all his intellectual cargo? Well, if he's Tolstoy, he decides that fiction is evil, a trick, and gives away all his money. If he's Solzhenitsyn, he turns himself into a witness to history and an ideologue. If he's Bellow, he veers off into nonfiction (To Jerusalem and Back), autobiography (Humboldt's Gift) and sociopolitical tirades disguised as novels (Mr Sammler's Planet).
And so, here we are, at last, with The Dean's December, a novel as flat as the paper on which it is printed, for all Bellow's literary energies have been swallowed up in pontification. This is a book so bitter, so self-infatuated, so boring, as to make one wonder if his earlier books could really have had the intellectual weight ascribed to them at the time. (p. 66)
[In The Dean's December] Albert Corde, a middle-aged journalist and dean of a Chicago college, has gone to Bucharest with his beloved Rumanian astronomer wife, Minna, because her mother is dying. Corde has recently published a series of articles about Chicago, detailing the corruption of the political and judicial systems and the true scope of inner-city—that is, black—degradation and criminality. These articles have offended everybody, as has Corde's insistence on bringing to prosecution a black ex-con and a black prostitute who have murdered a white student.
Corde has a lot of time to think in Bucharest, and among his concerns are: the corrupting influence of journalists, himself excepted; the cowardice of American intellectuals, himself excepted; the moral squeamishness of white liberals, himself not excepted (since he is no liberal); and the failure of humanists to face issues raised by scientists—himself excepted, since he is considering writing a piece about a geologist who attributes the craziness of modern folk in general, and poor blacks in particular, to lead poisoning. What has happened to "the American idea," Corde wonders. Here in Bucharest, the government is tyrannical, but the people are warm and help each other. In America, the government is less evil, but the well-off are corrupt and selfish, the poor close to bestial. Go figure.
In due time, the old lady dies, the two blacks are convicted, and Corde loses his job. His literary rival, a famous journalist, publishes a piece about Corde in which he attributes to Corde a remark equating tenured professors to welfare mothers—freeloaders both—and the provost of the college suggests that perhaps Corde is not cut out for academic life. The book ends with Minna star-gazing at Mount Palomar and Corde wandering around the drafty observatory, promising himself another go at explaining to humanity how far astray it has gone.
The most puzzling question raised by this very puzzling book is, why did Bellow write it as a novel? Corde compliments himself, in the traditional Bellovian manner, on his "poetic" apprehension of complex realities, his intuitive grasp of character—"What a man he was for noticing!"—but this time out, Bellow doesn't deliver. His people barely exist, although we learn a lot about their complexions, hairstyles and noses. (Corde himself is fully inventoried every 20 or 30 pages, as though we might have forgotten what he looked like. And so we have.) Minna is a pleasant cipher. Her mother is a standard matriarch, all warmth and dignity. Corde's enemies—his radical nephew, his journalistic rival, his cousin the dishonest lawyer who is defending the two blacks in court—are grotesque cartoons.
Corde spends a lot of time in Bucharest rereading his piece on Chicago, which is quoted at length. One glimpses the old Bellow in Corde's sketch of the cynical elderly lawyers hanging out at the courthouse, waiting to pick up work; the dilapidated county hospital, where the corridors are lined with bloodstained stretchers and, down in the basement, elderly blacks lie drowsing on kidney dialysis machines; the ex-murderer who runs a detoxification center in an abandoned warehouse. These passages are so much more vivid than the novel that surrounds them, one wishes Bellow had simply given us a nonfiction book about Chicago. At least it would have been well-written.
It would also have been infuriating. Bellow deserves credit for denouncing Chicago's corruption and its writing-off of destitute black neighborhoods, although neither point is the revelation he thinks it. But the only aspect of the black condition that really engages him is the one that affects middle-class whites directly: crime. About crime, from purse-snatching to the most horrendous murders, Bellow waxes powerfully wroth. It is animalistic. It is insanity of an order hitherto unknown in history. It presages a whole new stage in human affairs, characterized by "universal stupefaction, a Saturnian, wild, gloomy murderousness."
This is surprising indeed, coming from a man who has spent the better part of his literary career romanticizing gangsters and crooks. (pp. 66-7)
People are losing their humanity, Bellow tells us, and no one is exempt but himself and a chosen few. Academics are cowards. Criminals are animals. Politicians? Forget it! Students? Behind those preppy demeanors lurk raunchy, low-down drives. Scientists are mostly antihumane. Humanists are universally ignorant. Radicals are fools. Journalists do nothing but offer degraded language and bastardized nonideas to a populace that has lost its sense of reality. (This is a bit thick coming from someone who speaks of "the American idea," but let that pass.) America is saturated with violence, sexual license, incoherence and rudeness. Chicago is ruined. Bucharest is hideous. December is cold and damp.
Our only hope, Bellow seems to be saying, is to undertake a national moral awakening, the nature of which is unspecified but which apparently consists largely of listening with great attention to Bellow himself. He wants very badly to play Jeremiah and philosopher-king to the American establishment, and if he has to strangle the sources of his best fiction to make himself credible in the part, he seems, alas, eager to do so. The wish to be taken seriously as a sociopolitical thinker within the highest circles of punditry and power explains, perhaps, why he has made his latest protagonist-spokesman, Corde, a colorless, buttoned-down, responsibly married Midwesterner, instead of a flamboyant, sexually irresponsible Jew like Herzog, whose testimony might seem tainted by ethnicity and neurosis.
This is a sad development indeed. There was knowingness and humanity in the old Chicago ganef in Humboldt's Gift, who dismissed sexual kinks with a shrugged "For a funny foot, you need a funny shoe." There is only bile in Corde's sour claim that Americans now go to S-M shops the way they used to go to beauty parlors. Could it be that winning the Nobel Prize has awakened in Bellow this urge to issue grandiose pronouncements of impending doom? I hope not. One Solzhenitsyn is enough. (p. 67)
Katha Pollitt, "Bellow Blows Hot and Cold," in Mother Jones (copyright © 1982 by the Foundation for National Progress; reprinted by permission of the author), Vol. VII, No. II, February-March, 1982, pp. 66-7.
Like the earlier Mr. Sammler's, Corde's mission is to be at the moral center of [The Dean's December], the worried and thoughtful person. And at that he is splendid. (p. 6)
[While in Rumania to attend the deathbed of his wife's mother] Corde is following the progress, back home, of a court case involving the murder of a student. Two blacks are accused of pushing him out of a window to his death. They claim he fell, and that he had anyway been asking for trouble. Corde has encouraged their prosecution, but without his interest the case would probably have gone the way of other such cases—postponement after postponement until the witnesses died or moved away, and eventual freedom for the killers. Some, including his nephew Mason, feel that Corde is failing to allow for the social conditions which led to the depravity of the accused blacks. Increasingly appalled by what he has been finding out about the legal system, hospitals, slums, social conditions generally, and the outlook for black people, Corde has written some controversial articles in Harper's telling what he sees.
The action of the novel proceeds simply, without suspense. The mother dies, is cremated, family members gather. Minna and Corde return to Chicago. If the blacks had not been found guilty, Corde would have been in difficulty at the university. But the accused have been tried, convicted, and given sixteen years. Nevertheless Corde resigns his academic post and plans to devote himself to journalism.
His Harper's articles are mostly descriptive. Detectives shoot an escaping young prisoner ten times in the head. In the slum housing project, people, "being afraid to go at night to the incinerator drop on each floor," drop their garbage down the toilets and break them. There are "young men getting on top of the elevator cabs, opening the hatch and threatening to pour in gas, to douse people with gasoline and set them afire." Snipers, rapes, revolting murders, terrible despair—a huge American underclass which is not attached to life, and no one can suggest how to attach it (n.b., "Corde").
People don't want to read about this. The Harper's subscribers are angry. Student militants demand an apology to "Black, Puerto Rican and Mexican toilers" for making them look like "animals and savages." Corde observes that in our society the truth-teller needs a lead apron against the radiation and shock waves set off by mere objectivity—and the complicated formal arrangement of the novel is perhaps Bellow's lead apron.
If there is a lie at the heart of the book it is here, in assuming or pretending that there would be a great public reaction to objective descriptions of American social conditions. Perhaps we are beyond outrage. People do try to write angry descriptive articles and outcries are seldom raised. It's wishful thinking to imagine that one commentator, even Albert Corde, speaking of "superfluous populations," "written off," "doomed peoples," might get through to the rest of us, but it's an honorable wish, and the novel an honorable outcry…. In a sense, Bellow has written a novel about how nobody will read or accept the novel he is writing, any more than the people Corde talks to believe him…. (pp. 6, 8)
[Corde's] is the Arnoldian view that people can be attached to life by culture—but there is no culture in the city, in the wasteland. He is defending humanistic Western culture against the conventional liberal institutions that have failed to maintain it. "Public discussion is threadbare." The communications industry "breeds hysteria and misunderstanding," academics make no effort to lead the public, "the intellectuals have been incapable of clarifying our principal problems."
John Updike's recent novel Rabbit Is Rich is a picture of the moral and spiritual situation of a modern middle-class American man. Bellow's novel is only a picture of a man thinking about the spiritual situation and its actual correlatives; that is, it is abstracted by a process of diffraction through the minds of Corde, of his friend Dewey, of other people he talks to. It would have been possible to dramatize the Chicago novel another way. The dean is awakened one night to learn of the murder of one of his students. He enlists the help of the university in seeing that the killers are brought to justice—and attempts are made to dissuade him from seeing justice done. His ambitious cousin Max is attorney for the defense, etc.
This would have provided a dramatic, active, involving novel with a climactic courtroom scene, or whatever. But it is not the novel Bellow, a masterly novelist, chose to write, perhaps because it would have deprived him of Rumania, and the implicit contrast of a regimented society with our chaos, but also perhaps because this more conventional structure would have required a resolution, some ending, unhappy or happy, to suspense; and that in turn would provide a satisfaction that would belie the view of contemporary life he is taking here. If the formal success of a work of art lies in part in the resolution of the tensions and problems with which it deals, if only in the form, then this novel could be said to fail. Yet to resolve the huge problems that engage Corde, by prescription on the one hand or catharsis on the other, would produce a reassuring work. Perhaps art is meant to be reassuring at the same time that it disturbs. But reassurance, more suited to the matters of the individual soul than to the body politic, would falsify the subject here. So Bellow has chosen a strategy more akin to that of an essay, which leaves questions, and his language is the plain meditative language of thought, in place of the exuberant language he has commanded elsewhere.
Perhaps Corde overstates the failure of press and academy, but it doesn't seem so. The American novel, which has always waxed private and public in turn, has been stuck for three decades in a mode of private confession now very worn, or of experiment, the more vital strain with too few practitioners. Breaking away, as he does, from the confessional mode, Corde is perhaps, as he puts it, "objectivity intoxicated." But he seems nowhere wrong. If the role of art is somehow, as Arnold Hauser suggested, to make you feel that you must change your life, then this novel succeeds by recommending—no, by showing (for novelists are always being enjoined to show, not tell, and Bellow has not forgotten this injunction)—an American in the first stages of change, that is, the describing stage, the stage of admitting how things really are in the world beyond the self. (p. 8)
Diane Johnson, "Point of Departure," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1982 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 3, March 4, 1982, pp. 6, 8.
The Dean's December might not be vintage Bellow but then he probably grew bored with vintage Bellow. It is new ground, seeking to retrieve, most boldly, the territory of social description and prescription so largely abandoned by novelists during this century. Bellow has always been conscious of the European literary heritage—whether it was bringing in the rhythms of Yiddish or digesting the intellectual currency of Paris; here it is Dostoevsky he seems to turn to; and if he falls short, then, who does not? In the attempt there are riches: the failures are so easy to spot that a reviewer must beware, Bellow is an exceptionally clever man. He would not "fail" so simply or seem to fail for no good purpose….
As an intellectual round-up [The Dean's December] has all Bellow's force—made even more forceful by the comparative plainness of the prose he chooses to employ in this case….
What is worrying is the concept of Corde himself and the organisation of the novel. Corde, the Huguenot Dean, does seem in his nerve-ends to be much more a man from the labyrinthine lands of American-Jewish-Intellectual-Ambitious-Questioning-Family than from the long, laconic tradition sketched in for Corde. It will not do to say Corde should have been Bellow because Bellow himself wrote articles on the underclass of Chicago and Bellow himself has a Rumanian wife, (a mathematician) and Bellow himself has expressed some of Corde's thoughts. As a novelist he has often chosen to sail brilliantly close to the autobiographical/documentary winds without capsizing the fiction. In this case, though, I cannot quite understand the necessity for such a distancing.
Similarly, the novel is organised largely as a series of flashbacks. Therefore, some of what is significant is reported by Corde who has a wrapped-up view on it, and his is the only view. This gives us less than usual of the variety of perspective or the vivacity of narrative story telling to which Bellow has so often treated us. Again, I cannot work out why he saw the necessity for this.
Except—and this could answer both worries—that he has said that The Dean's December is the first of a series of novels which will centre on and explore Chicago and, to paraphrase, will be a new sort of fiction for him. Therefore we could be seeing a structure and a character whose ultimate validity will be shown later. Or, he wanted this shape to give clearance for the hammer blows he aims at today's America.
However that might be, there is in The Dean's December enough thought and matter for ten other contemporary novels….
Melvyn Bragg, "Eastword Ho!" in Punch (© 1982 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. 282, March 31, 1982, p. 536.
If Updike is the narrator-as-preacher, nudging his readers to speculate about what it all means, and Nabokov is the narrator-as-aesthete, insisting that his readers pay close attention to his exquisitely detailed observations, Bellow is the narrator-as-taxi driver, telling his readers to cut the nonsense and stop taking this or that fashionable idea seriously. Even though some of his novels are in the third person and others are in the first, it does not seem to make much of a difference; we hear Bellow talking in all of them, hear the voice of a writer who is in turn amused, exasperated, and angered by the way we live now.
As a worldly-wise taxi driver—one, moreover, who has read all the Great Books—Bellow is not afraid to pursue his own reflections while the plot languishes. He is our most essayistic novelist; his main characters are always struggling with ideas—getting angry at them or, more often than not, being confused by them, befuddled by the profusion of ideas on the loose in the modern world.
The dangers of Bellow's essayistic approach to fiction are obvious. At times his novels veer too close to monologue; we do not know who is doing the struggling with ideas—the main character or the novelist. Bellow is most successful when he creates characters who are not intellectuals, such as Tommy Wilhelm of Seize the Day, Hattie of "Leaving the Yellow House" (a short story), and Woodrow Selbst of "The Silver Dish," a recent short story that is one of Bellow's most powerful works of fiction. But even novels such as Herzog and Humboldt's Gift, which have intellectuals as central characters, are generally successful despite their garrulity and gimcrack plots because Bellow makes them farcical as well as serious. He doesn't endorse his central characters' opinions; he merely offers them for inspection….
It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that [Chicagoan Albert Corde in The Dean's December is] simply a spokesman for Bellow, because Bellow has always made much of his Chicago connection. And because Bellow often has trouble distancing himself from his main character, it is hard to know what to make of Corde's opinions. But the problem with The Dean's December is not simply that Bellow is, so to speak, too close to Corde; the problem is that Bellow takes Corde all too seriously. He is not a farcical figure. Far from it, he is a hero of sorts, but his heroism is not sufficiently tested in the novel. Only one other character—an old school pal who is now a famous columnist—acts as a foil to Corde, but Bellow never gives the columnist a chance to challenge Corde's views. Corde comes through the novel with flying colors—getting high marks for insight, decency, moral seriousness. The result is a novel brimming with important ideas yet inert as a work of fiction. (p. 33)
Yet the ideas themselves are compelling. Despite its limp central character, The Dean's December is in the best sense a disturbing novel, disturbing because Bellow confronts the problem of the black underclass—refusing to blink at it, to make easy sense of it by invoking the "deep" explanations of psychology and sociology. Corde realizes that in order to see what life in the underclass is like you have to "recover the world that is buried under the debris of false description or nonexperience." He refuses, for example, to collaborate with an eminent scientist who explains the conduct of the underclass by the pervasiveness of lead poisoning in the slums. Following the train of Corde's thoughts, we sense that Bellow has thought deeply about a subject that is on the minds of most Americans—not bureaucracy, alienation, or the other fashionable subjects most American novelists wine and dine on, but crime. And in this novel he has grimly observed that if in the East the danger comes from above—from the Stalinist bureaucracy with its secret police and informers—in the West the danger comes from below, from an underclass out of control. But Bellow has not imagined the subject fully. One hopes he will return to the question again, for he—more than any other American novelist save, perhaps, Ralph Ellison—has the imagination, intelligence, and knowledge to write a novel that will make us see the question. (pp. 34-5)
Stephen Miller, "Book Reviews: 'The Dean's December'," in The American Spectator (copyright © The American Spectator 1982), Vol. 15, No. 4, April, 1982, pp. 33-5.
[In The Dean's December] we have the bare bones of Bellow: the novel as essay, stripped of the whimsey and decoration of character and fanciful prose. Bellow at his worst. This book has the disquieting effect of encountering an old friend—a good friend—who has undergone some startling decline.
But the symptoms and patterns have been there from the mechanical beginnings in Dangling Man and The Victim. They have persisted, notably in the metaphysical obsession with the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner that virtually took over the latter part of what was supposed to be a portrait of poet Delmore Schwartz in Humboldt's Gift.
The truth of the matter is that Bellow's passion for cerebration has weighed down and sometimes canceled out his interest in fiction. No novelist except Thomas Mann has been able to carry such heavy excess baggage without being crushed by it. Bellow's enduring achievements are his short novel Seize the Day (his only fully fictional work, free of ideas and opinions), the excellent recent story "A Silver Dish" …, the fictional sections of Herzog, the collection of earlier stories entitled Mosby's Memoirs, and his fully realized novel, Henderson the Rain King. "I have no literary interests, but am made of literature," Kafka wrote. "I am nothing else, and cannot be anything else." Bellow, alas, is a mix of things. Only a book as bad as The Dean's December could occasion a reassessment at this point in the career of a writer considered to be America's most important living novelist.
Bellow's erraticism is a fact, and a prior awareness of it could give the reader a more sober estimate of this dismal book, where stale ideas are unalloyed with narrative brilliance. The Dean's December is not primarily a comedown symptomatic of decline, but really another manifestation of Bellow's multiple careenings as a writer. For Bellow is not only seduced by ideas (as here). When Norman Podhoretz wrote of the willed, forced quality of affirmation of The Adventures of Augie March, this was a true insight, which can be related to the gallery of overblown characters (bigger than life: yet really balloon-like) in Humboldt's Gift. For Bellow is a "literary" writer in two senses of that slippery word. Sometimes his prose brilliantly invents reality on a deeper level. At other times his words run away from (rather than toward) him, and the reality he presents glossily outstrips and supplants a felt reality. Nevertheless, Bellow has shown a feeling for the possibilities of life that has lifted his work to high planes of achievement.
The Dean's December has the odd tone of having emerged from (or been exhumed from) a time-chamber; there is a musty feeling of removal and unreality in its stilted language ("rum" as an adjective is used eight times; there are phrases like "a dumb matching a dumb," "shut in like a birdie in a cage," "the generality-mind," "He felt like a pity-weirdo") and the tired nature of the subject matter: a stereotyped radical student out of the Sixties, ossified reflections on the decline of the inner cities and black crime. The dialogue does not help. When the dean tells his wife he has lost his job, she says, "But how disagreeable for you, Albert." (pp. 364-65)
The writing is pale, wooden, flat; the characterizations evaporate into air after the reading. (p. 365)
Beyond the creaky plot, thin characterizations, boring cerebration, and poverty of style, there is one further thing that needs to be brought up about this novel. Every writer at some point in his career is involved in a project that goes totally, inexplicably wrong: the tone is not what was intended, the characters remain woodenly in place, the anticipated excitement is absent. The Dean's December is such a book. It certainly has some of Bellow's worst traits. But primarily it should be seen not as a harbinger, a roadmark, or a symptom of Bellow's status now—but as an aberration. (pp. 365-66)
David Evanier, "Bare Bones," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1982; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXIV, No. 6, April 2, 1982, pp. 364-66.
Since Herzog Saul Bellow has been developing his own quite unique kind of novel. Like Virginia Woolf (though he wouldn't thank me for the comparison) he has gradually discovered a form of fiction in which plot counts for extremely little, but which is open enough to include almost everything. Of course Bellow's minimal plots are very different from Virginia Woolf's: instead of house-parties and village fêtes there are divorces, court cases, deaths. The setting is urban—usually Chicago, which is seen as the archetypal modern city—and the cast includes hoodlums, media men, academics and politicians. The "almost everything" also differs from Virginia Woolf's, for it includes all the horrors of slums and big cities, the rapes and muggings and killings, the greed for fame and money, and the monstrosities that go on over the whole world. Bellow wants to get Bokassa and his jewels as well as Idi Amin, Guatemala as well as Czechoslovakia, Vietnam as well as Auschwitz into his books. These must be nothing less than a long hard look at the whole of our civilization as it now stands, or totters.
Some might admire the ambition, others, more cannily, recognise its dangers. For who is Saul Bellow to tell us how we live and how we should live? Why should we listen to him rather than to anyone else? Bellow's speeches in propria persona are often no more than the public airing of prejudice; a book such as To Jerusalem and Back leaves us predominantly with a sense of the author's bigotry and arrogance. But in fiction all that is changed. Bellow, half-aware of the problem, never gives the impression in his novels that what is being said about the state of the world is being said by himself or is to be taken as the final truth on the matter. Just as important are who is saying it and why, and what pressures the character is under at the time. As with Wittgenstein we cease to listen to what is being said and instead watch the speaker's gestures. For those rantings tell us more about the character than about the objective situation. Indeed, one of Bellow's points, forcibly brought out in The Dean's December, is that there is no "objective situation", that the journalists—even super-journalists—and the scientists—even marvellously humane and concerned scientists—do not and cannot give it to us "how it is", for "it is" only how we grasp it. And this does not mean that understanding remains irremediably subjective, but that in order really to understand what is going on we must ourselves make an imaginative effort. Understanding will never simply reveal itself, it is never simply information which we can add to our existing stock; it comes only at a cost, as the result of a painful shedding of defences.
In The Dean's December the only things that happen are that the Dean's mother-in-law dies and a black murderer is convicted. But it is a far richer book than the sprawling and overlong Humboldt's Gift, which actually suffered from having too much plot….
Those who know Bellow will know what to expect. I don't feel that the novel breaks any new ground, except in one respect, which I will come to in a moment. But the ground can't be gone over too often. Bellow manages to make long intellectual speeches, even internal speeches, deeply dramatic; he has an instinct for the ways in which a grey day, the bare furnishings of a room, will colour our thinking, and for the complex interconnections between daily routine and our deepest thoughts and urgings. Auden made poetry capable of bearing intelligence again, and Bellow has done the same for the novel. Yet this time I was not entirely convinced. What were once insights, discoveries, are now in danger of turning into mere tricks of style. But the problem lies deeper than that.
Bellow's heroes are all-too aware of the temptations of imagining that horror and filth are more real than beauty and humanity. They know the romantic pull of the Chicago stockyards and their human equivalent. But Bellow himself appears to have grown curiously ambivalent. In Humboldt's Gift he seemed to be trying to force us to admire his immersion in the real—here, he was saying, was a man who hobnobbed with gangsters, who really knew what was what, not an effete ivory tower artist. But is a Chicago gangster any more real than Miss La Trobe? Part of Bellow wants to say, no, of course not, death and loss and the sufferings of the heart are the same everywhere, there are no masses, only millions of individual human beings. But part of him also wants to say: America is where it is really happening, and Chicago is where America is happening, and here am I right in the centre of it and not flinching.
Contradictions don't matter if they are faced and recognised—indeed, the power of Bellow's novels up to Herzog was precisely this: his sense that only fiction could hold such contradictions together. But now there is a lack of control, a rift right at the heart of the work. In The Dean's December, though, this is almost compensated for by one thing: Bellow has at last created a plausible and likeable woman, and he has done so with wonderful economy. Minna, the Dean's wife, is a famous astronomer; her dying mother was once Rumanian Minister of Health. This sounds unlikely and unpromising, but Bellow manages to create a woman who is lovable and also—to the doting Dean—often irritating in her absorption in her stars, her failure to listen to him as he puts forward his ideas. Unlike Bellow's other women she is more than a set of theories, she is palpable in her silence and her contradictions; she and her mother and aunt make of the Rumanian scenes something particularly poignant and moving.
Working with so loose a structure, with so little plot and with the possibility of introducing almost anything, via the hero's musings, into the book, Bellow needs to have a particularly firm grasp of inner form. Here his images are never mere symbols, they are real events and objects, but they take on, even if only momentarily, the resonance of something more. They can do this for us because we sense them doing so for the hero. The last brief chapter recounts the trip up to the giant telescope of Mt Palomar undertaken, on her return to America, by the astronomer and her husband. The telescope has been booked for her, and, when they arrive, she gets into her warm suit and enters the lift. It is very cold. The Dean accompanies her and then redescends, leaving her up there, small and determined, to wrestle with her stars. He thinks of that other dome, in the crematorium, half way across the world, where her mother's body disappeared forever. Momentarily he holds the two in balance. He has understood something, and so, mysteriously, have we. Not anything that can be stated in words; rather, the sum of what he and the reader have experienced in the course of the book. This is art of a very high order.
Gabriel Josipovici, "A Foot in the Stockyard and an Eye on the Stars," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4122, April 2, 1982, p. 371.
The themes of Saul Bellow are hardly original: they include the old established counterclaims of the individual versus society and the individual in self-conflict. What Bellow offers is a clarity of vision concerning these issues that is, above all, honest. In all of his writing, Bellow faces squarely the timely issue of personal effacement and consequent degradation that every social trend seems to manifest. He never draws away from the frightening implications of an impersonal, mechanical society.
The distinctive achievement of Bellow, however, lies in his depiction of the individual in such a society, for it is the plight of the man, not society, that is emphasized throughout his work. In Bellow's world, society is rendered in an almost naturalistic manner—as an almost unchanging, indifferent, yet powerful background against which his protagonists in all of their sensitive awareness, their vitality, their frustrating absurdities, are seen. This juxtaposition of a static society and the organic individual informs all of Bellow's novels. That is, how does the individual in all of his individuality, with his dreams, aspirations, and idealism, along with his ever-present awareness of society as a naturalistic reality, find a place for himself, establish a personal and a unique identity, and still maintain an honest integrity of self? (p. 1)
[Bellow's protagonists struggle] to break through to life and to achieve their possibilities; their human potentiality; and, most importantly, their individual potentiality. But they must do so without the loss of a moral and intellectual humanism basic to their views of themselves.
Bellow's heroes, then, find the complexities of their dilemma not only in an alienation from society; they are confronted by a kind of treason within themselves, which creates an even more insoluble problem. (pp. 1-2)
Philosophically, the heroes of Bellow are in the Sartrean position of the en-soi versus the pour-soi: the being-in-itself versus the being-for-itself. Unlike the stone whose being can never transcend itself, and which is therefore complete and whole in itself, a being-in-itself, man, blessed or cursed with an imaginative consciousness, is forever in a state of self-transcendence, or in a state of being-for-itself, as well as being-in-itself. Through his imagination, man would be something other than what he is or what he seems to be; for what he is, or seems to be, is an irritatingly unsatisfying and discomfiting mystery, a mystery to which depth and breadth are given with every stretch of his imagination. Bellow's novels are narrative dramatizations of the fact of this dilemma of existence; they are a working-out not to a resolution, but to a revelation of a human condition.
Bellow the critic has spoken on this issue. In "Distractions of a Fiction Writer" he maintains that novelists in the past have often failed to catch the positive factor in this human equation of the en-soi versus the pour-soi. He feels that they have too often depicted the consequent seeming absurdity of man. (pp. 2-3)
This is not to say that Bellow is crying out for a new optimism, especially one founded on false postures. But neither would he accept a useless and hopeless pessimism. (p. 4)
What Bellow urges, as well as what he attempts to create in his novels, is a depiction of man as subangelic. But to define what subangelic man is, just what the term means, and, equally important, what it does not mean, it is a difficult task. The difficulty lies in the fact that the term has nothing to do with the figure observed; the meaning is to be found within the observer. Hence, all definition is subjective. "Subangelical," when applied to man, is an attitude toward man, not a description of man.
Bellow speaks of the subangelic as the "nobler assumption" that is based on the concept that man at least has the power to "overcome ignominy" and to "complete his own life." We can conjecture that by "overcome ignominy" Bellow means that any depiction of man should grant him the power to rise above the indignities of complete subjection to unseen and unknown forces, to give him a nature not totally in the chains of a miserable naturalistic impotency. Furthermore, Bellow would say that this power must be granted to man, not only because the lack of it closes debate, and not only because its alternative is unthinkable, but also because there is good reason to believe that man actually has the power to complete his own life. It may be true that this power is difficult to find through a scientific dissection or through an objective, cold analysis: its validity is to be discovered more easily in active man, in man involved. In any case, no matter what a laboratory experiment indicates and no matter what a sociological study might conclude, the nature of man is finally defined by no one but himself, and that definition must include the power of the imagination. (pp. 4-5)
Robert R. Dutton, in his Saul Bellow (copyright © 1982 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston) revised edition, Twayne, 1982, 212 p.