Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Saul Bellow-Me

So I have an on-again off-again relationship with Saul Bellow. First Bellow I read was Humboldt's Gift as a sophmore in high school. Fed up with the few to none 20th century American courses that dealt with post-war fiction, I tried to do it on my own. I remember reading snippets of Humboldt's Gifts for months, between other books and things. It's so long, so so long...that's mostly what I remember about it. But I thought the prose was so beautiful. Certain lines I wrote down because I thought they were lyrical and unique and powerful. (these quotes are long lost now, however) Bellow, at the sentence level, is one of the geniuses of the 20th century. I see some of this in Michael Chabon, who can turn a sentence in just the right way at the right moment that it's kind of breathtaking.

So I read Augie March last year...another epic tome that took me months to read in snippets in between the avalanches of other novels I was reading. I had studied the opening in a creative writing class before and I was happy to return and read the whole thing. Like Humboldt's Gift, there were some amazing sentences. The plot turned me on more than Humboldt as well...a romp through the slums of Chicago into Mexico with antics by Trotsky thrown in. It's got everything I was looking for...commentary on the wonders of new urban spaces, the treatment of immigrants pre-homogenization of whiteness, ghostly black figures who haunt the text in weird ways, the interesting quasi-colonial relationship depicted between Americans and Mexicans in's a great coming of age story. Fiedler talks about the adolescent American 20th century novel (after the 19th century books written for kids) and praising that the novel is slowly growing up while he was writing in the 50s. Bellow is Fitzgerald of the hard knocks, the greaser to his prep. Same adolesence, however (even old Bellow, still writing about 50 year old men, wrote about them as if they were teenagers, in a perpetual mid-life crisis)

So I read Bellow this week. I made a last minute decision to swap Herzog for Henderson the Rain King, the least critically talked about of Bellow's works and I can see why. It's kind of an anti-book. Typical Bellow (anti)hero who is in a philosophical frenzy throughout most of the book with an almost manic fever that overwhelms the plot. But this time it also overwhelmed the sentences and there's none of the lyrical beauty of later Bellow. The characters oddities and actions move so quickly with so little reflection or completeness that there is little time for the nice sentences later Bellow perfected.

So Henderson the Rain King is about the white Wasp millionaire who doesn't care about his wife (his second), can't remember how many kids he has, turns his estate into a pig farm and is dealing with this voice in his head that constantly tells him "I want, I want" and won't let him be satisfied. He decides to solve his problems by going to Africa and learning how to "live" and not fear death and find satisfaction. Coming from an author who grew up poor and oppressed, before it was cool to be Jewish and a writer, it's easy to read this as a parody. However, right before it came about, Bellow wrote this article in the Times about how whacky readers are for looking too hard for symbols in literature. And then comes out with a book that could be read as a complete and utter allegory.

The book is absurdist (For example, Henderson tries to help an African tribe who has refused to use their water supply because it was infested with frogs, so he makes a bomb to kill the frogs and ends up destroying their levee, and Henderson quickly jumps town). Henderson runs around trying to "help" Africans but usually with terrible consequences, sometimes bumbling and sometimes deadly. There's no moralizing in the book, which is okay by me, but there's nothing else either, no interesting aesthetic in its place, no time or no thought anywhere. It's just a book of nothing. We follow a completely unsympathetic character in the first person for 350 pages. It kind of reminds me of the second Ace Ventura movie (i SWEAR some of the gags are the same)

Bellow majored in anthropology and sociology, so he knew what was up with the Other and the problems of primitivism. So is the book just a big joke...laughing for those who go in for the idea of this white rich man who becomes best friend with a well-educated English speaking African King who hates his own people? Is he purposefully laying red herrings throughout the book (in the first part, his daughter finds a colored baby in the back seat of a car and adopts it. After ignoring the baby's screams for weeks (SYMBOL) he finally sends his daughter back to boarding school and they return the child. He then escapes to Africa,--subtext being he didn't want to hear the cries of civil rights) But this red herring quickly gets lost in the millions of others. The whole book, I was just thinking "IS HE FUCKING WITH US??" No symbols, but symbols everywhere. What writer is this cruel?

We have no guide through the book but the likeable and hateable Henderson (and his African guide is silent most of the book and when not silent, praying for deliverance from the mad schemes his boss gets him into) It's an anti-book in the sense that it offers you zero fulfillment, a plot that leads nowhere (with an empty 'hopeful' ending, and a character who claims to be changed but you have a feeling his desires for an Other to show him the secrets of life are nowhere near to being quenched) When it's funny, it's funny in that roll-your-eyes kind of way of "is he serious??" followed by discomfort because you don't know if he or isn't and whether the joke's on Henderson or on you.

What makes this all the more troubling is that Henderson was Bellow's favorite book he wrote. And that he got into such hot water because of his comments on Africans later in his career:
"Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I'd be glad to read him." And it doesn't help that in general, Bellow was just kind of a dick. And that this book was rated #21 on the Modern Library's Top 100 Books. (whaaa?)

It's weird because its obvious Bellow is trying to change the novel in the same way that Nabokov is, but Nabokov hated Bellow, referring to him as a "miserable mediocrity". It's like Ellison's critique of Hemingway... Ellison critiques Hemingway for trying to unhinge Twain's dialect and style from Twain's content of the interrogation of the problems of America. And thusly, Hemingway is somewhat less than Twain for taking one lesson without the other. Hemingway's style is nice but comes across even deader than its meant to because of his lack of interest in social relationships outside of a closed system (versus Faulkner and Twain, Ellison says, whose interest in stereotypes involves accepting them in order to explode them. Hemingway doesn't even get around to accepting them, he just brushes past brutally)

While Bellow and Nabokov try to uproot the novel from it's modernist/academic swings, Nabokov does it with complex style and as well as complex content that tries to articulate something in a new way; Bellow does the beautiful style with muddled unreadable content beneath it with all the complexity and none of the moral meat to make you want to understand more. The content is complex, but instead of trying to articulate in a new way something meaningful, it tries to articulate nothing in a new way...and it's just not that good.

It's also so strange to me that so many writers praise Bellow so much. James Wood writes in his eulogy:

I judged all modern prose by his. Unfair, certainly, because he made even the fleet-footed—the Updikes, the DeLillos, the Roths—seem like monopodes. Yet what else could I do? I discovered Saul Bellow's prose in my late teens, and henceforth, the relationship had the quality of a love affair about which one could not keep silent. Over the last week, much has been said about Bellow's prose, and most of the praise—perhaps because it has been overwhelmingly by men—has tended toward the robust: We hear about Bellow's mixing of high and low registers, his Melvillean cadences jostling the jivey Yiddish rhythms, the great teeming democracy of the big novels, the crooks and frauds and intellectuals who loudly people the brilliant sensorium of the fiction. All of this is true enough; John Cheever, in his journals, lamented that, alongside Bellow's fiction, his stories seemed like mere suburban splinters. Ian McEwan wisely suggested last week that British writers and critics may have been attracted to Bellow precisely because he kept alive a Dickensian amplitude now lacking in the English novel. [...] But nobody mentioned the beauty of this writing, its music, its high lyricism, its firm but luxurious pleasure in language itself. [...] [I]n truth, I could not thank him enough when he was alive, and I cannot now.

For me, the weird thing is that all these writers mentioned by Wood are better than Bellow. I feel I should read some of the short fiction to make sure this is true, but I think it's odd that a writer that tries so hard to leave his audience cold should be the inspiration for so many writers whose goal is to make readers feel in an intellectual manner. (I dont know why this is underlined, by the way, i can't turn it off) I think Bellow was some of these writer's version of Salinger...teenage fiction that beautifully written, all aesthetic roar without an explict moral that leaves one feeling maudlin and coddled. Beat fiction without the dirty lifestyle and icky liberalness.