Con­nect­ing the cere­bral and the vis­ceral was one of Saul Bel­low’s abid­ing con­cerns, writes Don An­der­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

It is an open­ing sen­tence to blow your mind, and blow our minds it did back in 1964. “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses E. Her­zog.” It, and the novel it be­gan, so blew our minds that later in the 1960s Frank Moor­house ded­i­cated his story Becker on the Moon, sub­se­quently in­cluded in his 1972 col­lec­tion The Amer­i­cans, Baby, to “the brave mem­bers of the Moses E. Her­zog Glid­ing Club”. One can only trust Her­zog would have been pleased, though his creator Saul Bel­low seems, on the ev­i­dence of his let­ters and Zachary Leader’s bi­og­ra­phy, to have been pretty im­pla­ca­ble.

Moses Elka­nah Her­zog, self-styled “suf­fer­ing joker”, sees him­self as ‘‘ea­ger, griev­ing, fan­tas­tic, dan­ger­ous, crazed and, to the point of death, ‘com­i­cal’.” In Chicago in 1934, he was class ora­tor at McKin­ley High School, his text taken from Emer­son. “He didn’t lose his voice then, telling the Ital­ian me­chan­ics, Bo­hemian bar­rel-mak­ers, Jewish tailors The main en­ter­prise of the world, for splen­dor … is the up­build­ing of a man. The pri­vate life of one man shall be a more il­lus­tri­ous monar­chy … than any king­dom in his­tory. … If he had lost craft and crew some­where near Biloxi, that didn’t mean he wasn’t in earnest about beauty and per­fec­tion.”

Nor was Bel­low. When Her­zog as­serts, “I go af­ter re­al­ity with lan­guage” he might well be speak­ing, with a cru­cially dif­fer­ent em­pha­sis, for the author. The dif­fer­ence of em­pha­sis is all. Bel­low pro­vides a sin­gu­lar, though not soli­tary, case of the dan­gers of read­ing fic­tion as thinly veiled au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It is a cen­tral prin­ci­ple of Leader’s scrupu­lously doc­u­mented (the fi­nal 150 pages of this 800-page book con­sti­tute schol­arly notes and in­dex) bi­og­ra­phy, The Life of Saul Bel­low: To Fame and For­tune 1915–1964, that “Bel­low’s use of peo­ple he knew, his re­spon­si­bil­ity to­ward them, the ef­fect us­ing them has on his char­ac­ter, fig­ure as fic­tion­alised top­ics through­out his writ­ing, from The Ad­ven­tures of Augie March (1953) … to Ravel­stein (2000).” It is the fine dis­crim­i­na­tion be­tween fic­tion and mem­oir that would vex Bel­low and ir­ri­tate his “fa­mous touch­i­ness”, as a young Nor­man Pod­horetz, later editor of the con­ser­va­tive mag­a­zine Com­men­tary, put it.

Yet one can­not avoid the im­pres­sion that for Bel­low “Writ­ing well is the best Re­venge”. For all his protes­ta­tions con­cern­ing the fic­tional na­ture of his and any nov­els, Bel­low can write of the Cana­dian writer Jack Lud­wig, the model for Valen­tine Gers­bach in Her­zog, “By the time I’m through with him, he’ll be laughed right out of the lit­er­a­ture busi­ness.” (Leader’s end-noted source for this is James At­las’s 2000 Bel­low: a Bi­og­ra­phy, whose source in turn is a stu­dent of Bel­low’s at Bard Col­lege. Thus bi­og­ra­phy, like ru­mour, may be an in­fi­nite regress.)

Any base mo­tives aside, Bel­low was the most dec­o­rated writer in Amer­i­can his­tory, win­ner of the 1977 No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture. But some peo­ple are never con­tent. Each year af­ter 1977 he would be­come gloomy around No­bel prize time, know­ing he could not win it twice. Did he not take com­fort from win­ning three Na­tional Book Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the For­men­tor Prize, the Amer­i­can Academy of Arts and Let­ters Gold Medal for the Novel, and awards from the French Re­pub­lic? As Leader notes: “At his death in 2005 [he was born in 1915], as for much of his adult life, his stand­ing in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture could not have been higher.”

His be­gin­nings were far from high. He was a son of Rus­sian-Jewish im­mi­grants who set­tled in La­chine, Que­bec, and then moved south to Chicago. His fa­ther was a some­time and not par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful boot­leg­ger, his mother a fount of “potato love”. It was a life in which there was lit­tle still­ness and much chaos, again like Her­zog’s. The reader loses count of how many times Bel­low mar­ried and di­vorced, and per­haps he did also. Like his pro­tag­o­nists he never ceased to com­plain about the de­ple­tion of his fi­nances by the de­mands of al­imony, and it is not the “com­i­cal use of com­plaint” of which he and Her­zog speak else­where.

In­deed, in 1977 Bel­low was held in con­tempt by the Cook County Cir­cuit Court in Chicago for his fail­ure to pay al­imony and child sup­port to former wife Su­san. (This is the Su­san whom he threat­ened, “I’ll get you!” be­fore he “loused her up” as the shrewish Denise in Hum­boldt’s Gift.) Bel­low was sen­tenced to 10 days in jail, though the sen­tence was sub­se­quently over­turned. Who had the last laugh, author or char­ac­ter? What hap­pened to that fine line be­tween lit­er­a­ture and life?

There is more than a lit­tle of Balzac about Bel­low. He saw the novel as “the high­est form of hu­man ex­pres­sion yet at­tained”, as a ve­hi­cle for moral and in­tel­lec­tual, if not so­cial, change. He would doubt­less have lined up with Flaubert who wrote that his Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion, if read, might have pre­vented the blood­shed of the Paris Com­mune. As a Chicagoan, Bel­low might have taken heart from the ex­am­ple of Up­ton Sin­clair, whose utopian so­cial­ist novel The Jun­gle in­sti­gated so­cial leg­is­la­tion that af­fected the Chicago meat industry. One hopes the an­tic Bel­low would have no­ticed the irony

that whereas Sin­clair had hoped to protest on be­half of the im­mi­grant work­ing class that toiled in the stock­yards, the so­cial change his novel pro­duced was leg­is­la­tion aimed at pro­tect­ing the Amer­i­can con­sumer.

Leader’s bi­og­ra­phy stops at 1964 with the tri­umph of Her­zog, which sold 142,000 copies in hard­back, re­main­ing for 42 weeks on the best­seller list. We may have to wait some time for vol­ume two, which will in­clude Mr Samm­ler’s Planet (1970), Hum­boldt’s Gift (1975), and

The Dean’s De­cem­ber (1982), and per­haps through them trace Bel­low’s move deeper and deeper into neo-con­ser­vatism. It will per­haps men­tion his be­ing griev­ously ill in 1994 aged 80 with ciguat­era poi­son­ing caused by eat­ing con­tam­i­nated reef fish. (“Socrates said the un­ex­am­ined life is not worth liv­ing, but some­times the ex­am­ined life makes you wish you were dead,” as Bel­low ob­served to the Rome-based Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist Des­mond O’Grady.)

Yet he bounced back off the ropes at age 84 to fa­ther a child with his con­sid­er­ably younger wife Ja­nis. He had that mir­a­cle of mod­ern med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy, a pace­maker, in­stalled and, as he wrote to Martin Amis, “this keeps my heart reg­u­lar, and I can drink all the wine I like at din­ner and thumb my nose at caf­feine”. Rage, rage against the dy­ing of the light, in­deed.

“My sub­ject ul­ti­mately was Amer­ica.” Bel­low told Philip Roth in a late 90s in­ter­view that is in­cluded in Benjamin Tay­lor’s col­lec­tion of Bel­low’s non­fic­tion, There is Sim­ply Too Much

to Think About. Tay­lor pre­vi­ously edited Saul Bel­low’s Let­ters (2010). The es­says, speeches, in­ter­views in this new book in­clude thoughts about Theodore Dreiser and the Tri­umph of Art, Ernest Hem­ing­way and the Im­age of Man, Jewish Sto­ry­telling, Is­rael: the Six-Day War, the No­bel Lecture, Re­flec­tions on Alexis de Toc­queville, the Jewish Writer in Amer­ica, Pa­puans and Zu­lus, Ralph El­li­son. The No­bel Lecture be­gins with re­flec­tions on Bel­low’s feel­ings of kin­ship with Joseph Con­rad, who “ap­pealed to me be­cause he was like an Amer­i­can speak­ing French and writ­ing English with ex­tra­or­di­nary power and beauty”.

Bel­low’s quest was for a mid-cen­tury Amer­i­can English no less ex­tra­or­di­nary. He told Roth, who must have been sym­pa­thetic, that “there was some­thing deeply un­sat­is­fac­tory about the lan­guage used by con­tem­po­rary writ­ers — it was stingy and arid, and it was not con­nected with any­thing char­ac­ter­is­tic, per­ma­nent, durable, ha­bit­ual in the writer’s out­look”. One won­ders what the great Wil­liam Gad­dis, on whom Bel­low poured scorn, would have made of this, or in­deed Don­ald Barthelme, who was a per­haps inat­ten­tive stu­dent in one of Bel­low’s classes.

While gen­er­ally sober and se­ri­ous, Bel­low’s non­fic­tion is not with­out its light mo­ments. At the White House cer­e­mony to cel­e­brate the sign­ing of the Egyp­tian-Is­raeli peace treaty, ‘‘Sen­a­tor [Daniel Pa­trick] Moyni­han told me how greatly the af­ter­noon cer­e­mony had moved him. Mr [Henry] Kissinger told me noth­ing but coldly en­dured my hand­shake. He was very like Queen Vic­to­ria, it struck me. (‘We are not amused.’)’’

If an abid­ing con­cern may be de­tected through­out There is Sim­ply Too Much to Think

About it is an urge to “only con­nect” the cere­bral and the vis­ceral. The lat­ter per­vades the nov­els, es­pe­cially The Ad­ven­tures of Augie

March, while the former char­ac­terises the es­says. In Her­zog and other fic­tion Bel­low mar­ries the two to­gether, as a par­tic­u­larly Chicago phe­nom­e­non. “The chil­dren of im­mi­grants in my Chicago high school, how­ever, be­lieved they were also some­how Rus­sian, and while they stud­ied their Mac­beth and Mil­ton’s L’Alle

gro they read Tol­stoy and Dos­to­evsky as well, and went on in­evitably to Lenin’s State and Rev

olu­tion and the pam­phlets of Trot­sky.” Re­call Her­zog’s class ora­tion, re­call that Augie March en­coun­ters the corpse of Trot­sky in Mex­ico. Bel­low con­tin­ues: “I took up Marx and En­gels and I re­mem­ber, in my fa­ther’s bleak of­fice near the freight yards, blast­ing away at Value, Price, and Profit while the po­lice raided a brothel across the street — for non­pay­ment of pro­tec­tion, prob­a­bly — throw­ing beds, bed­ding and chairs through the shat­tered win­dows.” That is surely a mar­riage of heart and head, which is a — if not the — ma­jor Bel­low theme. Lit­tle won­der he stud­ied an­thro­pol­ogy in col­lege, reck­on­ing that “to a young Amer­i­can it was the sci­ence of sciences”.

Leader’s half-life of Bel­low (the author lived an­other 50 years af­ter the suc­cess of Her­zog) is also a true-life bil­dungsro­man, which is only ap­pro­pri­ate as Bel­low at times seemed like noth­ing so much as 20th-cen­tury Amer­ica’s pre-em­i­nent 19th-cen­tury Euro­pean real­ist nov­el­ist. Leader, who has pub­lished on and an­thol­o­gised the English ro­man­tics, sees a con­nec­tion be­tween Her­zog’s per­cep­tions and Wordsworth’s de­scrip­tion of po­etic cre­ativ­ity in the Pre­lude: “an en­nobling in­ter­change / Of ac­tion from with­out and from within; / The ex­cel­lence, pure func­tion, and best power / Both of the ob­ject seen, and eye that sees.” Ex­cept that Her­zog dis­plays a self-crit­i­cal irony hard to find in Wordsworth, or in many English ro­man­tics save By­ron.

Speak­ing of ro­man­ti­cism, there are echoes of Wil­helm Muller and Schu­bert in the neu­rotic epis­toler Her­zog, but con­sider Die Post in Schu­bert’s set­ting of Muller’s Die Win­ter­reise: “Die Post bringt keinen Brief für dich. / Was drangst du den so wun­der­lich, / mein Herz?” (“The post brings you no let­ter. / Why then do you throb so strangely, / my heart?”) Sub­sti­tute “mein Her­zog” at the end of each of the poem’s four stan­zas and con­sider Moses’s dra­matic de­ci­sion at the novel’s end to write no more let­ters: “Noth­ing. Not a sin­gle word.” Just as the in­sis­tent rhyme of Die Post is “herz’’, so is Her­zog all “heart”, tes­ti­mony to the vi­cis­si­tudes of the “suf­fer­ing joker”.

Leader’s bi­og­ra­phy is also a so­cial his­tory: of as­pir­ing Amer­i­can, es­pe­cially Jewish Amer­i­can, im­mi­grants af­ter World War I, of the read­ing habits of the chil­dren of such im­mi­grants which seem so for­eign to us and to our chil­dren, and of New York in­tel­lec­tu­als and their pub­li­ca­tions such as Par­ti­san Re­view, Com­men­tary, and The Noble Sav­age af­ter World War II. Whereas we to­day cel­e­brate Bel­low’s dis­tinc­tion and Her­zog’s “con­stant hu­mour” (to quote Dave Eg­gers), it was not al­ways so. Bel­low was un­der­stand­ably deeply distressed, if not pro­foundly en­raged — he could do a con­vinc­ing im­pres­sion of Her­cules Furens as a let­ter to the English pub­lisher John Lehmann from 1951 bears wit­ness — at a re­view by Richard Poirier in Par­ti­san Re­view (Spring 1965, “Bel­lows to Her­zog”), where Bel­low had been an editor.

Poirier be­gan: “Her­zog is an in­suf­fer­ably smug book”, and ended by call­ing its hero’s ideas “sopho­moric tag-lines”. Years later, when Poirier and Par­ti­san Re­view editor Wil­liam Phillips were ad­mit­ted as mem­bers of the Cen­tury As­so­ci­a­tion, a club with a dis­tin­guished lit­er­ary his­tory lo­cated on West 43rd Street in New York City, Bel­low re­signed in protest. Ars

longa, vita bre­vis, and re­sign­ing well is the best re­venge. Roll on, vol­ume two.

Don An­der­son taught Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture at Syd­ney Univer­sity for 30 years.


An el­derly Saul Bel­low at work, above, and as a younger man, right

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