A subtle merger of fiction, autobiography

Special to The Times

The work is done. The oeuvre is complete. The energetic production of nearly six decades has come to its inevitable end.

Great novelists have their signature styles and themes. The elaborate, suspensefully ramifying sentences of Henry James; the brooding cadences of Hawthorne: You can open a book of theirs to any page and identify their instantly distinctive voices.

Saul Bellow also possessed a distinctive voice, but what is so remarkable about his work is its tremendous versatility. From his two earliest novels, "Dangling Man" and "The Victim," to his last, "Ravelstein," written more than half a century later, Bellow's subject was himself. But that self, a subtle merger of fiction and autobiography, could alter to reflect the shifting historical and cultural circumstances of its age. Or perhaps the right verb would be "to define."

That he was, by general consensus, the dominant figure in American literature throughout the postwar period, emerged over time. Bellow didn't burst on the scene, as his dear friend Delmore Schwartz did at age 24 when his 1938 debut collection, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," was heralded by critic Allen Tate as "the first real innovation since Eliot and Pound." "Dangling Man," Bellow's debut novel, was published when he was 29; "The Victim" appeared three years later. They were cautious and austere -- Bellow referred to them as his "M.A. and his Ph.D." But he was too hard on them; these apprentice works are as marked by genius as the novels that would earn him an adjective of his own: Bellovian.

Written in the form of a journal, "Dangling Man" chronicles four months in the life of a young intellectual named Joseph. (More allegorical than Kafka's Joseph K., he lacks even a last initial.) The novel is virtually plotless. Awaiting induction in 1942, when the U.S. was poised to deepen its involvement in the war, Joseph drifts through life in Chicago's Hyde Park, in those days -- as now -- a magnet for itinerant graduate students and intellectual hangers-on. What gives the novel its power is the atmosphere of aimless longing it evokes; Bellow writes of Chicago as if it were Paris or Trieste or the St. Petersburg of Dostoevsky's "Underground Man." Like Rilke's journal novel "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge," "Dangling Man" is haunted by a sense of fatality. "Where was there a particle of what, elsewhere, or in the past, had spoken in man's favor? There could be no doubt that these billboards, streets, tracks, ugly and blind, were related to interior life."

Yet, in its bleak way, the novel evoked Chicago as no writer had since Upton Sinclair or James T. Farrell: the clatter of trains on the elevated tracks, the endless sprawl of brick apartment houses with their lattice of wooden back stairs, the smoke of a grim factory wasteland darkening the sky. "Dangling Man" is an indictment of industrial civilization but also a paean to its strange beauty, the turbulent energy of the modern city. It was the first American novel to import the tradition of European literature in its Modernist phase.

Prescient critics were alert to the originality of Bellow's voice. Edmund Wilson, writing in the New Yorker, lauded "Dangling Man" as "one of the most honest pieces of testimony on the psychology of a whole generation who have grown up during the Depression and the war." But it was hardly a triumph. Nor was the novel that followed it. "The Victim" is in a sense a "victim novel" -- the term Bellow applied to his early work. Like its predecessor, it was weak on plot: Asa Leventhal, a pallid New Yorker who has a murkily described job on a trade journal, finds himself saddled with a menacing double in the form of Kirby Allbee, a man he barely knows who harbors against him an imaginary grievance.

The novel's atmosphere is Kafkaesque -- how one's heart sinks to deploy this overworked adjective -- but it accurately conveys its hallucinatory aura. Allbee is openly anti-Semitic, baiting Leventhal with the standard cliches about Jews: New York is "a very Jewish city," there are too many Jews "in public life." Leventhal, however wounded by these slights, is an ethnic, not a religious Jew; in so depicting him, Bellow put deliberate distance between himself and the preceding generation of Jewish writers: Abraham Cahan and Ludwig Lewisohn in immigrant America, and Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Babel, whose stories were set in Poland and Russia but nevertheless made their influence felt on our shores. Bellow characterized himself as "an American, a Jew, a writer by trade." It was significant that "Jew" came second.

Not that Bellow ever expressed, or even felt, the wish to "pass." His work is steeped in the texture of Jewish life. "The Victim," published two years after the end of World War II, marked his initial effort -- there would be many others -- to grapple with the Holocaust. What gives the novel tension is the conflict between American innocence and European guilt, the Old World and the New. Allbee's (failed) attempt to asphyxiate himself by putting his head in Leventhal's oven and turning on the gas reverses the role of perpetrator and victim. It made the Jew triumphant over his tormentor. For Bellow, the novel was a form of expiation: "I couldn't tear myself away from my American life."

A blended voice

The power that life exerted over him found its inaugural expression in "The Adventures of Augie March." Its exuberant freedom is manifest in its famous opening sentence: "I am an American, Chicago-born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted." What was so exciting about this sprawling, gargantuan novel was the way it melded such diverse cadences: the Russian and Yiddish spoken in his parents' home, the formal English and French of Bellow's native Montreal, and, the most pronounced of all, the dialect of American Chicago.

Augie is a spirited young man coming of age in the city to which his creator's family had migrated when he was 9; his adventures in Mexico and Paris, Chicago and New York map his liberation from the tyranny of his parents' cramped immigrant lives -- and from the tyranny of English literature. The novel's last line vindicates the brash claim of the first: "Why, I am a Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze."

"Augie" made Bellow famous. Not only did it achieve a wide readership, but it also ratified the hopes of the Partisan Review crowd, the band of largely Jewish intellectuals that had risen to prominence in the 1930s and '40s as advocates of their own legitimacy. American literature, they argued in the pages of a journal whose modest circulation belied its influence, could be enriched only by the new voice of second-generation immigrant Jews. And Bellow was their designated spear carrier. Norman Podhoretz, the influential editor of Commentary, declared, with only faint hyperbole: "There was a sense in which the validity of a whole phase of American experience was felt to hang on the question of whether or not he would turn out to be a great novelist."

Is "Augie" the "great American novel" that British writer Martin Amis has so insistently proclaimed it? Two years ago marked the 50th anniversary of its publication, and it was suitably canonized in one of those funereal black Library of America volumes, its stature reaffirmed in celebratory essays. Read now, the novel continues to astonish with its charged, rapturous language; open to any page and you're swept up in the currents of Bellow's prose. The words spill off the page with joyous urgency as he realizes that he's found his voice and tests it out, lets it run like a fly fisherman landing his catch. His gift for physical portraiture is unequaled. William Einhorn, the ward politician, deal maker, macher, possesses "a fatty, beaky, noble Bourbon face," "considerable curvature of the nose, small lips, and graying hair let grown thickly so that it touched on the ears; and continually watchful, his look going forward uninterruptedly to touch on subject matters."

And those subject matters go to the heart of things. "There is some kind of advantage in the roughness of a place like Chicago, of not having any illusions either," he explains to Augie. "Whereas in all the great capitals of the world there's some reason to think humanity is very different." Humanity is barbarous, no matter how outwardly civilized it appears: "I've seen a picture of Aristotle mounted and ridden like a horse by some nasty whore. There was Pythagoras who got killed over a diagram; there were the teachers and saints who became martyrs." Chicago offers as good a vantage as any other to witness the dark spectacles of history. Read today, the novel is hard going in places, but it holds up. Whether it has to be awarded pride of place in the hierarchy of American literature seems an empty exercise.

With "Augie," Bellow had "established his beachhead," wrote Harvey Breit, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, and was "successfully fanning out into broader and brighter domains." Broader, but not brighter: The book that followed, "Seize the Day," was a decidedly grim novella. What distinguishes it from Bellow's other fiction, both earlier and later, is the pathos of the central character, Tommy Wilhelm, a lost soul in the shadow of a domineering father. Tommy is a hapless figure who can accomplish nothing -- a far cry from the "larky," freedom-seeking Augie; in the climactic last scene, having lost his money through careless speculation on the stock market, his wife and the respect and affection of his father, he stumbles into a chapel and finds himself in the midst of a funeral. Staring down into a stranger's coffin, he weeps both out of ecstasy and sorrow, transported by "the consummation of his heart's ultimate need."

Success with grace

One of Bellow's most insistent personal themes was the refusal to be typed: Like the drumlin woodchuck that the charmingly eccentric Mark Harris, his first biographer, chose as an anthropomorphic symbol for his subject, he was evasive, hard to capture, quick to retreat into his burrow. The brooding tenor of "Seize the Day," a masterpiece that only "Herzog" surpasses, gave way in the late '50s to the determinedly comic voice of "Henderson the Rain King." Its protagonist, the eponymous Henderson, is a brash, swaggering figure who lights out for Africa and finds a new life among an exotic jungle tribe. It was at this point in the growing Bellow canon that he discovered -- or stumbled upon -- the aggressively first-person voice that he would adopt until the very end, when late Bellow was superseded by later Bellow.

"Herzog" is an exception; the "I" alternates with the third person. I have read it so many times that several copies have fallen apart. More than once I've had to trot over to the Strand, that great used-book emporium in New York, and buy a replacement copy. Randall Jarrell once described the genre of the novel as "a long narrative that has something wrong with it." There is nothing wrong in this novel, not a single false note.

Herzog, a professor in the midst of a tortured divorce, assuages his misery by sending off eloquent missives to the living and the dead. He's a tremendously alive character, at once erudite and impulsive, lucid and crazy; but it's the anthropological monograph on Jewish Chicago -- a world I know intimately as the second-generation child of Chicago Jewish immigrants -- that I find so engrossing. I quote his own appraisal, embedded in the novel, of what he'd achieved: "Out of its elements, by this peculiar art of his own organs, he created his version of it." It was Bellow's "breakthrough" book, spending 42 weeks on the bestseller list.

In life, he wore his success with grace; in his work, the characters he conjured up unashamedly out of his own life were sometimes too self-delighting. "Literature can do with any amount of egotism; but the merest pinch of narcissism spoils the broth," John Updike observed. That Herzog and Charlie Citrine, the protagonist of "Humboldt's Gift," were professors, intellectuals and writers modeled on their creator was less troubling than their ostentatious displays of erudition. Like their incessant boasting about sexual conquest -- also based on Bellow's stormy passage through five marriages and numerous affairs -- their literary triumphalism sometimes grates on the reader. Let us applaud him ourselves.

This tendency to self-admiration was a flaw that spoiled "Humboldt's Gift." Or is that too harsh? Humboldt, the mad, inspired poet whose downward spiral dominates the book, is, by Bellow's own admission, a biographical portrait of Schwartz, who died alone at the age of 52 in a derelict Midtown Manhattan hotel. As Schwartz's biographer, I came to resent the novel's satirical treatment of his fate. Charlie's success, one feels, is earned at the expense of Schwartz's failure. But it would be churlish not to recognize its value both as a critique of American culture and a comic testimony to the courage required to make art in our crass civilization. ("The thing is feasible but tough," says Charlie Citrine.)

No appraisal of Bellow's work should leave out "To Jerusalem and Back." In the fall of 1975, Bellow accompanied his fourth wife, Alexandra, a distinguished mathematician in her own right, on a sabbatical to Israel. Over the next three months, he read up on the situation in the Middle East; visited friends and scholars and politicians; and steeped himself in history. The book that emerged was an inspired piece of reporting, richly textured and touching in its portrayal of the stoical, hyper-articulate Israelis he had met. It also showed great sophistication in addressing geopolitical issues. My guess -- having no proof -- is that "To Jerusalem and Back" secured Bellow the Nobel Prize. His name had come up the previous few years, but it was this book that demonstrated his command of nonfiction prose. Bellow liked to depict himself as bookish and impractical, concerned with the world of the spirit and the soul; but he was a keen observer of this world too.

In 1962, Bellow was hired by the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, a stimulating, somewhat eccentric department that provided sanctuary from the conventional academic tenure track for Hannah Arendt, Harold Rosenberg, the classicist David Grene, Edward Shils and other oddball intellectuals who defied classification. He was happy there, and he would remain there for three decades, until he was lured away by Boston University in 1993. From this high-minded fiefdom surrounded on three sides by a black ghetto, he issued periodic dispatches on the state of American life. He found little that made him hopeful. He was often labeled a neoconservative, linked with the intellectuals of his generation who had made the long ideological journey from youthful infatuation with Trotsky to fervent (and sometimes furtive) affirmation of their American identity in the postwar era.

For some of Bellow's old gang, this rightward turn reflected a disenchantment with the welfare state, compounded by their anger at the radical student movement of the '60s. For Bellow, its impetus was less political than moral. To resist what he regarded as the wearing thin of our moral fabric was a major preoccupation, even a calling. In "Mr. Sammler's Planet," a Holocaust survivor living on the Upper West Side finds himself identified as an enemy of the progressive cause when he arrives to give a lecture at Columbia; in "The Dean's December," a dean at the University of Chicago gets embroiled in a murder case of particular barbarity that provides terrifying evidence of America's decline. It is Corde's "high intention" as a distinguished authority figure "to prevent the American idea from being pounded into the dust altogether."

The later work, a trio of thin novellas, is minor. But there was to be a final flowering: "Something to Remember Me By," the beautiful title story of Bellow's 1991 collection, and nearly a decade later -- when he was 85 -- "Ravelstein." I can think of no other writer, major or minor, who has produced a significant work at this age. "Ravelstein" is, no matter what anyone says, an exact biographical portrait of Allan Bloom, Bellow's closest friend at the University of Chicago and the author of the famously controversial tract against higher education, "The Closing of the American Mind." Volatile, chain-smoking, self-destructive, Ravelstein is a predatory homosexual indifferent to the risks of AIDS but also possessed of a hunger to lead a passionate life, a moral life, a life devoted to both the mind's and heart's (or the body's) needs. His advocacy of the classics as the road to wisdom and enlightenment is not his only cause. "Ravelstein" is what Walter Bate, in his biography of Samuel Johnson, called "one of those great experiencing natures." The novel is a stunning last act.

What is Bellow's rank? Where does he stand in the pantheon? Critics of my biography have pointed out that I failed to assign him a number on the ladder. Maybe they're right, although Bellow himself made fun of the ranking game. Nevertheless, I would put him very near the top -- certainly among American novelists of the 20th century. Hemingway had more emotional depth; Fitzgerald had more intensity. So put Bellow third?

Better to put him in a class of his own. "How do you get out?" Charlie Citrine cries as Humboldt's coffin is lowered into the ground: "You don't! You don't! You don't!"

That is the pity of our human lot. But literature escapes this terrible closure -- in Bellow's case, I suspect, for a very long while.

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James Atlas is the author of several books, including "Bellow: A Biography" and the just-published "My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor's Tale."

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