Saul Bellow Critical Essays

Saul Bellow Critical Essays-78
He had read half, which was already four hundred pages in typescript; at this rate, it would be “far too thick for comfortable reading and far too long for the importance of its subject”.’ Moreover, ‘the summaries of Bellow’s novels were too detailed, and there was too much tracing of the characters to their real-life sources.’ Comfortable reading clearly isn’t Leader’s concern – each volume is a bulky handful – and his measure of Bellow’s importance is more pharaonic than Shils’s, whose increasing disdain for Bellow’s inflated stature acquired a mean squint.But Leader would have been wise to heed Shils’s counsel to Atlas about paring longueurs and sparing us pages of appositional dithery-do about which ex-girlfriend inspired which fanged harpie in X, which former friend provided the basis for some stooge in Y, the sausage ingredients that went into the making of even lesser character sketches, not to mention all the travel itineraries, dinner party lists, conference guests, investment schemes gone sour or bust, goldfish-bowl reports on personnel management and administrative functioning at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought (where Bellow was a prominent mover-shaker), a deep rummage through the mail bag of Bellow’s crackpot correspondents (one is described as ‘unbalanced’, another as ‘obsessive’, while others, we’re informed, ‘were certifiable’), and other surplus arcana.What is at risk of being lost amid all the turkey stuffing is that Bellow was a witty writer, as much a snappy dresser in prose as he was splashed out in his slick duds, a cool operator and crafty observer beneath all his ponderous concerns and preoccupations. I of Leader’s biography was titled in 1964 – Bellow’s semi-epistolary novel about a divorced Jewish cuckold and highly evolved malcontent who, writhing in the throes of a midlife crisis and sexual combat (‘What do [women] want?

He had read half, which was already four hundred pages in typescript; at this rate, it would be “far too thick for comfortable reading and far too long for the importance of its subject”.’ Moreover, ‘the summaries of Bellow’s novels were too detailed, and there was too much tracing of the characters to their real-life sources.’ Comfortable reading clearly isn’t Leader’s concern – each volume is a bulky handful – and his measure of Bellow’s importance is more pharaonic than Shils’s, whose increasing disdain for Bellow’s inflated stature acquired a mean squint.But Leader would have been wise to heed Shils’s counsel to Atlas about paring longueurs and sparing us pages of appositional dithery-do about which ex-girlfriend inspired which fanged harpie in X, which former friend provided the basis for some stooge in Y, the sausage ingredients that went into the making of even lesser character sketches, not to mention all the travel itineraries, dinner party lists, conference guests, investment schemes gone sour or bust, goldfish-bowl reports on personnel management and administrative functioning at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought (where Bellow was a prominent mover-shaker), a deep rummage through the mail bag of Bellow’s crackpot correspondents (one is described as ‘unbalanced’, another as ‘obsessive’, while others, we’re informed, ‘were certifiable’), and other surplus arcana.What is at risk of being lost amid all the turkey stuffing is that Bellow was a witty writer, as much a snappy dresser in prose as he was splashed out in his slick duds, a cool operator and crafty observer beneath all his ponderous concerns and preoccupations. I of Leader’s biography was titled in 1964 – Bellow’s semi-epistolary novel about a divorced Jewish cuckold and highly evolved malcontent who, writhing in the throes of a midlife crisis and sexual combat (‘What do [women] want?

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Bellow’s principal works are: The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift, and in a briefer compass, Seize the Day.

The earlier novels, Dangling Man and The Victim, seem now to be period pieces, while Henderson the Rain King and Mr.

was Atlas’s highly anticipated successor to his wunderkind biography of the brilliant, bedevilled Delmore Schwartz, whose combustible presence served as the inspiration for Von Humboldt Fleisher in Bellow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel headliner turned paranoid derelict who died in a fleabag hotel while taking out the garbage, Schwartz was a minor literary artist who tore through life like a human cannonball, an influential period figure and cautionary example whose mystique emanated primarily from the short story ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’, a smattering of critical essays and poems, a quiver of mordant wisecracks, and the sad promise of what might have been. ‘To write a biography of Saul Bellow would be, in a sense, to write my own autobiography, a generation removed.’ weren’t a total massacre, but the favourable notices snuffled with platitudinous reviewerese, the superlatives lacking that special zip, while the notices that mattered, the ones that penetrated the hull, were by intellectual formidables such as the critic and editor Richard Poirier, who methodically dismantled in this paper (after a patronising observation from Atlas about Bellow’s unsure footing when he ventures into ‘the realm of ideas’, Poirier dryly commented: ‘Atlas himself occasionally ventures into the “realm of ideas”, but unfortunately doesn’t seem to know that he’s in it or how to find the safest way out’), and wily buccaneers such as Frederic Raphael, who lashed ‘Atlas’s anthology of received opinions’ to the mast in the .[*] Zachary Leader, formerly the biographer of Kingsley Amis, prudently avoided such horn toots of hubris in the amassing of his two-volume Life of Bellow, the authorised and definitive biography that groans with the graven heft of stone tablets. As monumental as Leader’s investigation is, with its copious documentation and minute reconstruction of such a long, labyrinthine lifespan (just keeping track of the zigzag traffic of Bellow’s girlfriends must have made him dizzy), his manner and approach are modest and self-effacing; his personal piques and objections to Bellow’s personal and professional misdemeanours are mostly kept in a diplomatic pouch, in marked contrast to Atlas’s snorty exasperations. But although Leader has avoided Atlas’s egregious attitudinising, he runs afoul of several hazards that bog him and the impatient reader (me, pumping the accelerator) in extensive tracts of whichy thickets.

Atlas and Bellow had much in common: Chicago, Jewishness, an insatiable relish for the printed word.

And yet its central figure remains a wavering representation, compared to some of the subsidiary male characters, and its women seem the wish-fulfillments, negative as well as positive, of Herzog and his creator.

This seems true of almost all of Bellow’s fiction: a Dickensian gusto animates a fabulous array of secondary and minor personalities, while at the center a colorful but shadowy consciousness is hedged in by women who do not persuade us, though evidently once they persuaded him.I wanted to trophy his fear.’ Sammlerise him, in other words.One night, out stalking, Staples finally spotted his prey and gave pursuit, hoping to catch Bellow in the propitious shadows, where ‘he’d have to face me in the dark’.No American reader in the atomic-Afro black power tumult of the era gave two wags about some French dude’s organ, not in any psychosexual, symbolic shock value sense. – was the afterlife of this scene, which would trail him for much of his career. But he was also offended by and sore at a character’s descriptions of black people in , along with the novel’s use of the head-snapping phrase ‘sexual niggerhood’.On his evening walks around Chicago’s Hyde Park, Staples would pass Bellow’s building, toying with the idea of lingering in the shadows and staging a confrontation.The quick death of (set in a ‘shenaniganed Africa’, one critic observed) with wry owlishness and show-off facility, a reader-pleasing set of cape flourishes and diamond dazzle.Where some of his contemporaries went gonzo (Norman Mailer, , the provoking incident blotting out readers’ perceptions of nearly everything else witnessed through ‘the bushy eye’ of its protagonist, Artur Sammler, a seventy-something Holocaust survivor, lecturer and urban scarecrow for whom ‘everything is peroration’, as the critic Anatole Broyard put it.‘Over the past ten or 15 years,’ Julian Moynihan announced in the grew too loud, ‘I can always stuff my ears with money.’ Success radiated like a post-coital glow, but failure also took a bite, as if to remind that the gods giveth and the gods taketh away.The literary triumph of , which opened and closed on Broadway within a month, done in by miscasting in the central role and poor notices pointing out that it wasn’t so much a play as a fluffed-up monologue – a lumpy filibuster.It would have sufficed for Leader to note the seesaw action of a major American author having a resounding hit and a mortifying flop in the same season, but for some buggy reason he decides to autopsy the causes for ’s demise, pages of production background that produce a groan when we get to the postmortem phase with a paragraph that begins: ‘The classicist David Grene, Bellow’s colleague at the Committee on Social Thought (an interdisciplinary Ph D programme at the University of Chicago, also a sort of high-powered academic .’ (‘Intriguing parallel’ is one of those phrases that makes one start counting the ceiling tiles.) ‘To extrapolate from Grene’s suggestion, one might compare Bellow’s spoof of psychoanalysis to Aristophanes’ spoof of philosophy in , both plays being simultaneously knockabout and deadly serious.’ Yes, one might, but why?Since one play is a classic, the other a seldom revived clunker, this compare and contrast exercise can only spin its wheels, and Leader finally concedes that Bellow’s own estimation of his plays – ‘trifles’ – sounds about right.

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