HEAD AND HEART
Connecting the cerebral and the visceral was one of Saul Bellow’s abiding concerns, writes Don Anderson
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.
SAUL BELLOW’S NONFICTION IS NOT WITHOUT ITS LIGHT MOMENTS
An elderly Saul Bellow at work, above, and as a younger man, right