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The Atlantic Monthly |
Books & Critics
The Supreme American Novelist
tribute to Saul Bellow, fifty years after he published one of the great novels
of all time
by Martin Amis
hereas English poetry "fears no one," E. M. Forster wrote
in 1927, English fiction "is less triumphant": there remained the little matter
of the Russians and the French. Forster published his last novel, A Passage
to India, in 1924, but he lived on until 1970—long enough to witness a
profound rearrangement in the balance of power. Russian fiction, as dementedly
robust as ever in the early years of the century (Bulgakov, Zamyatin, Bely,
Bunin), had been wiped off the face of the earth; French fiction seemed to have
strayed into philosophical and essayistic peripheries; and English fiction
(which still awaited the crucial infusion from the "colonials") felt, well,
hopelessly English—hopelessly inert and inbred. Meanwhile, and as if in
obedience to the political reality, American fiction was assuming its manifest
The American novel, having become dominant, was in turn
dominated by the Jewish-American novel, and everybody knows who dominated that:
Saul Bellow. His was and is a pre-eminence that rests not on sales figures and
honorary degrees, not on rosettes and sashes, but on incontestable legitimacy.
To hold otherwise is to waste your breath. Bellow sees more than we see—sees,
hears, smells, tastes, touches. Compared with him, the rest of us are only
fitfully sentient; and intellectually, too, his sentences simply weigh
more than anybody else's. John Updike and Philip Roth, the two writers in
perhaps the strongest position to rival Bellow, or to succeed him, have both
acknowledged that his seniority is not merely a question of Anno Domini.
Egomania is an ingredient of literary talent, and a burdensome one: the
egomaniacal reverie is not, as many suppose, a stupor of self-satisfaction; it
is more like a state of red alert. Yet writers are surprisingly realistic about
hierarchy. John Berryman claimed that he was "comfortable" playing second fiddle
to Robert Lowell; and when that old flagship Robert Frost sank to the bottom, in
1963, he said impulsively (and unsentimentally), "It's scary. Who's number one?"
But that was just a rush of blood. Berryman knew his proper place.
impertinently, perhaps, you could summarize the preoccupations of the
Jewish-American novel in one word: "shiksas" (literally, "detested things"). It
transpired that there was something uniquely riveting about the conflict between
the Jewish sensibility and the temptations—the inevitabilities—of materialist
America. As one Bellow narrator puts it, "At home, inside the house, an archaic
rule; outside, the facts of life." The archaic rule is somber, blood-bound,
guilt-torn, renunciatory, and transcendental; the facts of life are atomized,
unreflecting, and unclean. Of course, the Jewish-American novel subsumes the
experience of the immigrant, with an "old country" at one remove; and the
emphasis is on the anxiety of entitlement (marked in Roth, too, and in Malamud).
It is not an anxiety about succeeding, about making good; it is an anxiety about
the right to pronounce, the right to judge—about the right to write. And the
consequence would seem to be that these novelists brought a new intensity to the
act of authorial commitment, offering up the self entire, holding nothing back.
Although Jewish-American fiction is often comic and deflationary, concerning
itself with what Herzog (1964) called "high-minded mistakes," something
world-historically dismal lies behind it—a terminal standard of human brutality.
The dimensions of this brutality were barely graspable in 1944, the year that
saw the beginning of Bellow's serial epic. And America would subsequently be
seen as "the land of historical redress," a place where (as Bellow wrote with
cold simplicity) "the Jews could not be put to death."
the Jewish-American novel poses a mind-body problem—and then goes ahead and
solves it on the page. "When some new thought gripped his heart he went to the
kitchen, his headquarters, to write it down," Bellow writes on page one of
Herzog. "When some new thought gripped his heart": the voice is
undisassociated; it responds to the world with passionate sensuality, and at a
pitch of cerebration no less prodigious and unflagging. Bellow has presided over
an efflorescence that clearly owes much to historical circumstances, and we must
now elegiacally conclude that the phase is coming to an end. No replacements
stand in line. Did "assimilation" do it, or was the process something flabbier
and more diffuse? "Your history, too, became one of your options," the narrator
of The Bellarosa Connection (1989) notes dryly. "Whether or
not having a history was a 'consideration' was entirely up to you." Recalling
Philip Rahv's famous essay of 1939, we may say that the Palefaces have prevailed
over the Redskins. Roth will maintain the tradition, for a while. Yet he is
Uncas—last of the Mohicans.
dispraise play their part in the quality control of literary journalism, but
when the value judgment is applied to the past its essential irrationality is
sharply exposed. The practice of rearranging the canon on aesthetic or
moralistic grounds (today such grounds would be political—that is, egalitarian)
was unanswerably ridiculed by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957). To imagine a literary "stock
exchange" in which reputations "boom and crash," he argued, is to reduce
literary criticism to the sphere of "leisure-class gossip." You can go on about
it, you can labor the point, but you cannot demonstrate that Milton is a better
poet than Macaulay—or, indeed, that Milton is a better poet than McGonagall. It
is evident, it is obvious, but it cannot be proved. Still, I propose to make an
educated guess about literary futures, and I hereby trumpet the prediction that
Saul Bellow will emerge as the supreme American novelist. There is, hereabouts,
no shortage of narrative genius, and it tends, as Bellow tends, toward the
visionary—a quality needed for the interpretation of a New World. But when we
look to the verbal surface, to the instrument, to the prose, Bellow is sui
generis. What should he fear? The melodramatic formularies of Hawthorne? The
multitudinous facetiousness of Melville? The murkily iterative menace of
Faulkner? No. The only American who gives Bellow any serious trouble is Henry
All writers enter into an unconscious marriage with their
readers, and in this respect James's fiction follows a peculiar arc: courtship,
honeymoon, vigorous cohabitation, and then growing disaffection and
estrangement; separate beds, and then separate rooms. As with any marriage, the
relationship is measured by the quality of its daily intercourse—by the quality
of its language. And even at its most equable and beguiling (the androgynous
delicacy, the wonderfully alien eye), James's prose suffers from an acute
behavioral flaw. Students of usage have identified the habit as "elegant
variation." The phrase is intended ironically, because the elegance aspired to
is really pseudo-elegance, anti-elegance. For example: "She proceeded to the
left, towards the Ponte Vecchio, and stopped in front of one of the hotels which
overlook that delightful structure." I can think of another variation on the
Ponte Vecchio: how about that vulgar little pronoun "it"? Similarly,
"breakfast," later in its appointed sentence, becomes "this repast," and
"tea-pot" becomes "this receptacle"; "Lord Warburton" becomes "that nobleman"
(or "the master of Lockleigh"); "letters" become "epistles"; "his arms" become
"these members"; and so on. Apart from causing the reader to groan out loud as
often as three times in a single sentence, James's variations suggest broader
deficiencies: gentility, fastidiousness, and a lack of warmth, a lack of candor
and engagement. All the instances quoted above come from The Portrait of a
Lady (1881), from the generous and hospitable early-middle period. When we
enter the arctic labyrinth known as Late James, the retreat from the reader, the
embrace of introversion, is as emphatic as that of Joyce, and far more
The phantom marriage with the reader is the basis
of the novelist's creative equilibrium. Such a relationship needs to be
unconscious, silent, tacit; and, naturally, it needs to be informed by love.
Saul Bellow's love for the reader has always been at once safely subliminal and
thrillingly ardent. And it combines with another kind of love, to produce what
may be the Bellovian quiddity. Looking again at the late short story "By the St.
Lawrence," I found I had marked a passage and written in the margin, "So is this
it?" The passage runs,
She was not a lovable woman, but the boy loved her and she was
aware of it. He loved them all. He even loved Albert. When he visited Lachine
he shared Albert's bed, and in the morning he would sometimes stroke Albert's
head, and not even when Albert fiercely threw off his hand did he stop loving
him. The hair grew in close rows, row after row.
Rexler was to learn, were his whole life—his being—and love was what produced
them. For each physical trait there was a corresponding feeling. Paired, pair
by pair, they walked back and forth, in and out of his soul.
This is it, I think. Love is celebrated for, among other things, its
transformative powers; and it is with love, in concert with his overpowering
need to commemorate and preserve ("I am the nemesis of the would-be forgotten"),
that Bellow transforms the world:
Napoleon Street, rotten, toylike, crazy and filthy, riddled,
flogged with harsh weather—the bootlegger's boys reciting ancient prayers. To
this Moses' heart was attached with great power. Here was a wider range of
human feelings than he had ever again been able to find. The children of the
race, by a never-failing miracle, opened their eyes on one strange world after
another, age after age, and uttered the same prayer in each, eagerly loving
what they found. What was wrong with Napoleon Street? thought Herzog. All he
ever wanted was there.
"I am an American, Chicago born," Augie March says, at the outset. It could
have gone "I am a Russian, Quebec born—and moved to Chicago at the age of nine."
And Bellow is a Russian, a Tolstoy, in his purity and amplitude. Which
brings us to another ghost from Saint Petersburg: Vladimir Nabokov. An earnest
admirer of Pnin and Lolita, Bellow has nonetheless always felt
that Nabokov was artistically weakened by patricianism (the Jamesian flaw); and
it is patricianism, certainly, that distances us from the magnum opus,
Ada, in which the bond with the reader simply disappears. Nabokov was not
an immigrant ("Don't carry on like a goddamn immigrant," Herzog's older brother
says as they bury their father): Nabokov remained an émigré. He couldn't become
an American; he was—however delightfully—slumming it over there. Bellow as a
child, to his immense advantage, knew what slums really were: they presented the
widest range of human feelings, but also directed the gaze upward, to the
Some years ago I had a curious conversation with a notably
prolific novelist who had just finished rereading The Adventures of Augie
March. We talked about the book; then he thought he was changing the subject
when he said, "I went into my study today—and there was nothing. Not a phrase,
not a word. I thought, 'It's all gone.'" I said, "Don't worry, it's not you.
It's Augie March." Because the same thing had happened to me. That's what
Bellow can do to you, with his burning, streaming prose: he can make you feel
that all the phrases, all the words, are exclusively his. At the same time, we
share Augie's utopian elation when, reduced almost to nonentity in Mexico (c.
1940), he glimpses none other than Leon Trotsky.
I believe what it was about him that stirred me up was the instant
impression he gave—no matter about the old heap he rode in or the peculiarity
of his retinue—of navigation by the great stars, of the highest
considerations, of being fit to speak the most important human words and
universal terms. When you are as reduced to a different kind of navigation
from this high starry kind as I was and are only sculling on the shallow bay,
crawling from one clam-rake to the next, it's stirring to have a glimpse of
deep-water greatness. And, even more than an established, an exiled greatness,
because the exile was a sign to me of persistence at the highest things.
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