I encountered Saul Bellow in the flesh only once. It was at a small afternoon gathering in a town house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Wide planes of wintry light slammed down from floor-to-ceiling windows, catching sycophants, dust motes and laureate in the slant. At one point I sat on a sofa, conversing with a young child (mine), whom I had been urged by my hostess to bring. I looked up and caught the novelist's steady stare taking in the small tableau of us: Madonna and kvetch. His face was turned slightly away so that his gaze came canted, parallel to the rays of the chill sun. There was a slight smile. I didn't for a moment imagine it was moistened with sentimentality.
I'd been introduced to him some moments before as a university philosopher who had just published her first novel. Bellow, of course, was a writer with a documented interest in philosophers. His characters kibitzed with the immortals on terms of easy familiarity. "Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger," the eponymous Herzog wrote in the last throes of his letter-writing mania, "I should like to know what you mean by the expression 'the fall into the quotidian.' When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?"
Herzog's epistolary frenzy had been precipitated by the discovery that he was being cuckolded by his best friend, and the demented, learned letters -- demanding explanations not only from his wife, her lover, her psychoanalyst and parents but from the likes of Heidegger, Schrodinger and, finally, "[t]o God he jotted several lines" -- had made me weep with laughter. Man oh man, what a stroke of inspiration to haul those luminaries down into Herzog's -- Bellow's -- our! -- farce and sorrow. Once it had been done, you realized that somebody, necessarily, had to do it.
The introduction between us hadn't struck any sparks. But just look at that female philosopher trying to reason with a squirmy kid. Now there was something a bit more tantalizing. I watched him watching me, the slight smile elongating his mismatched lips. Was there some way in which my person was physically arranged -- the prodigal or stingy tilt of my nose, the skeptical or gullible curve of my forehead, the false or true position of my hands upon the child -- that was supposed to be giving the all of me away? I felt the broth of my character being boiled down to its essence.
Bellow was a great believer in characterological essences. "And the great, great crowd, the inexhaustible current of millions of every race and kind pouring out, pressing round, of every age, of every genius, possessors of every human secret, antique and future, in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence -- I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want," he wrote in "Seize the Day." That novella, probably the most perfect -- certainly the most perfectly moving -- of his shorter works, was set in Manhattan, across town from where I was sitting in his probe of vision. The day that did not get seized was a sweltering one in midsummer, accentuating the protagonist Tommy Wilhelm's struggle to draw a breath, squeezed round the neck as he was by his merciless villain of a father and by his crapulous ex-wife. (Oh, the unredeemable rottenness of that category of being, the Bellovian ex-wife. They're so cruel they barely seem human. "What are you trying to tell me, Chick," his Ravelstein asks the Bellow stand-in, "that she's some kind of space alien?")
Not only was Bellow a psychological essentialist, at least for the purposes of his fiction, but his most memorable portraits played the trick of making some physical characteristic or gesture bear the entire weight of character or destiny. He did it again and again, from "The Adventures of Augie March" ("His nose curved up and presented offended and timorous nostrils") to the final novel, "Ravelstein": "Vela had a stiff upper lip. I have always been inclined to give a special diagnostic importance to the upper lip. If there is a despotic tendency it will reveal itself there."
It was a masterful device of his, this compression of different layers of personhood -- the psychological, physical, even the metaphysical -- into the physical. Characters emerged swiftly, forcefully and so unforgettably that we retain them, even after decades. "Novels 1956-1964," which contains "Seize the Day," "Henderson the Rain King" and "Herzog" and is the second volume in the Library of America's edition of Bellow's works, reminds me just how vividly I recall those deftly dense characterizations. Still, as memorable as his compressions were, they are highhanded artifice. Character can't be deduced from the flare of a nostril, the shuffle of a foot, the extension of a young woman's beautiful throat. Bellow's imperious technique is an expression of something that runs deep in him, his attitude toward what he unselfconsciously called "reality."
Bellow is often cited as a hero of narrative realism. But his relationship with reality was as complicated and adversarial as any writer's before or after. A realist loves reality enough to be faithful to it, but Bellow, if he was a lover of reality at all, was a shifty and provisional one: He had no intention of being true, come what may. He was not going to submit himself. Let reality submit.
Though extolled as, first and foremost, a stylist -- most especially by his English admirers, one of whom, James Wood, has edited "Novels 1956-1964" and its predecessor, "Novels 1944-1953" -- his writing was no more about style than his fiction was about storytelling. Bellow wrote in order to take on reality. He loved reality the way Edmund Hillary loved Mt. Everest, or the biblical Jacob loved his nighttime wrestling opponent or Ahab loved the whale.
It's extraordinary how many times Bellow calls out to his mighty antagonist by name: Reality. He uses the word more times than Kant and Hegel put together. That's what he was up against, the thing he was out to master and possess, his metaphorically cleated boot planted smack on its exposed, bulging neck. The zealousness of his figurative language, the intermingling of milky thought and bloody-raw meat -- these are never ends in themselves but a means of taking possession.
No wonder, then, the rage he directed against those recalcitrant morsels of external reality that come in the shape of lovely ladies. They're not to be taken over by you, not entirely, no matter how vivid you make the language of apperception. Rather, it's through your perception that they take possession of you. Damn! "In the depths of a man's being there was something that responded with a quack to such perfume," Herzog reflects. "Quack! A sexual reflex that had nothing to do with age or subtlety, wisdom, experience, history, Wissenschaft, Bildung, Wahrheit. In sickness or health there came the old quack-quack at the fragrance of perfumed, feminine skin."
AND yet, aside from that one perfumed, feminine category of being, reality, the whole shebang of it, could be tackled. All it took was seeing and absorbing and expressing -- inimitably -- everything. The metaphor wasn't mere style in the Bellovian project. In offering a mode of expression irreducibly individual, it was central to the motivating passion, which might explain why Bellow's metaphors burst forth with such clamorous undeniability.
There was only one entity in all the world that better not be messed with, that better not be morphed in any meta sort of way. What was it? Well, what do you think? Let Herzog tell it: "They put me down, ergo they claimed final knowledge of Herzog. They knew me! And I hold with Spinoza (I hope he won't mind) that to demand what is impossible for any human being, to exercise power where it can't be exercised, is tyranny. Excuse me, therefore, sir and madam, but I reject your definitions of me."
Notice the tone of familiarity taken with Spinoza -- treating the divine Baruch just like one of the boys with whom little Moses Herzog might have studied his aleph-bet, there in the cellar of the Montreal synagogue, dodging hurled insults from Reb Shika, "his soft big nose violently pitted with black" -- juxtaposed with the exaggerated dignity claimed for the animating Self.
" 'You've got opposition in you,' " Augie March is told in Bellow's first great masterpiece. "This was the first time that anyone had told me anything like the truth about myself. I felt it powerfully. That, as he said, I did have opposition in me, and great desire to offer resistance and to say 'No!' which was as clear as could be, as definite a feeling as a pang of hunger." The opposition in Bellow is fierce. What a fighter he was, a conquistador in a green fedora, taking reality on, piece by piece, entangling it in the cords of his language. "Take me, for instance," he writes, as Herzog. "I've been writing letters helter-skelter in all directions. More words. I go after reality with language. Perhaps I'd like to change it all into language." You bet he would. And the hunger in him! Interesting how Bellow has Augie compare his opposition to the feeling of hunger. Bellow's hunger was just as fierce as his opposition, being one with it.
Bellow had been discouraged by his professor at Northwestern, William Frank Bryan, from doing graduate work in English. Being Jewish, he wasn't, Bryan opined, "born to it." How much there was to prove! What was it that had to be mastered in order to be worthy? Everything. Augie March, son of impoverished immigrants but on his way up, becomes a book thief, stealing the goods for the college kids, and in so doing discovers his own voracious appetite for books. "I was struck by the reading fever. I lay in my room and read, feeding on print and pages like a famished man." Again, the hunger: "The sense I had was of some live weight driven into tangles or nets of hungry feeling; I wanted to haul it in."
The hunger was immense but it wasn't unappeasable. Bellow's novels usually end happily, even ecstatically, the put-upon heroes speaking the ultimate American message of self-reliance, though with a Jewish book-learning-and- verbiage sort of a slant. So take it on. Take it all on. Give it everything you've got, kid. You can knock those keepers of the canon right onto their boney patrician asses. Not good enough to study their Great Books, are we? They'll be teaching your books, kid, before they even know what hit 'em. The English-accented Harvard professor will be writing the learned endnotes. All you gotta do, kid, is see, absorb and express everything.
"And this is the unwritten history of man," as Herzog, quieting down finally, puts it, "his unseen, negative accomplishment, his power to do without gratification for himself provided there is something great, something into which his being, and all beings, can go. He does not need meaning as long as such intensity has scope." That's what Bellow's descriptive intensity had. In fact, there's no way to surpass him when it comes to scope, since he aimed for it all.
Which is why, though his reductions can sometimes infuriate and his poses can give pause, he was and remains what the academics he loved to hate call "a towering figure." "Seize the Day," "Henderson the Rain King," "Herzog": You read them and the scope, rendered intensely, never fails to get to you. This is where opposition and hunger can lead you. Keep 'em stoked, kid.
I couldn't for a moment forget that Bellow was far more than the sum of those two mismatched lips. Not even as I watched him make a final small adjustment to his smile, knowing he had probably compressed the all of me into some small physical detail or other. I wonder which one it was. *