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Becoming Saul Bellow
Looking back at the early novels — including an American masterpiece
BY STEVE VINEBERG
Saul Bellow: Novels 1944–1953.
Edited by James Woods. The Library of America, 1046 pages, $35.


Saul Bellow’s early fiction forges a link between the socialist proletarian writers of the Depression — mainly the Jewish ones, like Albert Maltz, Michael Gold, Edward Dahlberg, and especially Clifford Odets — and the darker, more intensely focused psychological fiction Americans began to read during and after the Second World War. To work your way through the new Library of America volume containing Bellow’s first three novels is a stirring experience: you witness the birth of a great author’s voice, labor pains and all. The distance between Dangling Man, published in 1944 (the year Bellow turned 29), and The Adventures of Augie March, which came out in 1953, is more immense than even the decade between them would lead a reader to expect.

Dangling Man, a mere 140 pages long, is the journal of a man in limbo. He’s been accepted into the military, but tedious, restless weeks and months pass while he’s waiting to be called up, and he becomes more and more remote from the life around him, his own life suspended in a bubble. I first read this novel in my early 20s (I was in a Bellow phase) and found it exciting, but from this vantage point it seems lumpy and overworked, its influences — Kafka, Dostoyevsky, the French Existentialists — insufficiently digested. It’s mostly interesting now as a period piece that both locates a wartime psychological state and reminds us of what young American writers were up to in the ’40s, trying to create a more personal, more unsettled vision, less socially conscious and more neurotic. (Think of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Naked and the Dead, and the novels of Carson McCullers.) The protagonists in all three of the novels in this collection (the middle entry is The Victim, written in 1947) are intellectuals who have read and understood Marx but have moved past him to a perspective that accommodates the jangling, shifting nature of the modern world. " It is a narcotic dullness, " Dangling Man’s Joseph writes. " There are times when I am not even aware that there is anything wrong with this existence. But, on the other hand, there are times when I rouse myself in bewilderment and vexation, and then I think of myself as a moral casualty of the war. "

The Victim is a far more accomplished work; it really gets under your skin. This time, writing a sinister fable about the unexpected consequences of our actions, Bellow has truly assimilated Kafka. An editor, Asa Leventhal, goes for a job interview arranged by an acquaintance, Allbee, gets into a wrangle with his prospective employer, and walks out. He lands another position, but Allbee’s boss takes the incident as a personal insult from Allbee and fires him.

So Allbee begins to haunt Leventhal, insinuating himself into his life at a time when — like Joseph in Dangling Man — he feels unmoored. (Asa’s wife, on whom he has a strong emotional dependence, is visiting her mother; his sister-in-law, all but abandoned by his brother, turns to him when one of her children becomes dangerously ill.) Widowed and homeless, Allbee talks his way into Asa’s apartment, sleeping on the couch, entertaining women in Asa’s bed, putting the burden on his reluctant host to find him a new job. " I’m giving you a chance to be fair, Leventhal, and to do what’s right. . . . Don’t drag anybody else in. This is just between the two of us. " So Asa, whose existence is marked by a generalized guilt at having lucked into a decent life — of having " got away with it, " suddenly finds himself overpowered by " that part of humanity of which he was frequently mindful . . . the part that did not get away with it — the lost, the outcast, the overcome, the effaced, the ruined. "

It’s a very creepy book, suggestive and unresolved. Allbee and their mutual friend Williston both believe that Leventhal made a scene at the interview out of spite, deliberately trying to get Allbee in trouble with his boss, because of comments Allbee made about Jews at a dinner party. Asa accuses Williston of assuming that’s the case because of his own anti-Semitism: " Jews are touchy, and if you hurt them they won’t forgive you. That’s the pound of flesh. " But Bellow never dismisses the possibility that Allbee’s accusation might contain a grain of truth. Yet it’s hard to work up much sympathy for Allbee, a naked opportunist who isn’t above using his wife’s death as sentimental bait to win the pity of anyone he meets and whose egotism is so reckless that it almost devours Leventhal. Allbee is the victim of the title, but at the book’s climax he almost succeeds in passing that role on to his alleged victimizer.

BELLOW TOOK SIX YEARS to get out The Adventures of Augie March, and no wonder: a sprawl of a novel (it runs over 600 pages), a picaresque — as its name implies — with as many vividly drawn eccentrics as a Dickens saga, it’s a towering achievement (it’s just been reissued by Viking in a special 50th-anniversary hardcover edition). You can still hear the Odets in Bellow’s prose — the rambling syntax, the Jewish musicality, the melting-pot vernacular mix, the taste for exotic images: " a small darkness of a reason no bigger than a field mouse yet and very swift " ; " One day’s ordinary falsehood if you could convert it into silt would choke the Amazon back a hundred miles over the banks. However, it never appears in this form but is distributed all over like the nitrogen in potatoes. "

But wide as the novel’s reach is, Bellow’s style is dense and hewn. Augie grows up on Chicago’s South Side, raised mostly by his grandmother, a domineering Russian-Jewish immigrant. Here’s a passage about the world he enters when, as a teenager, he’s employed as a kind of personal aide by the neighborhood’s major property owner, a charismatic cripple named William Einhorn, who oversees his little kingdom from his pool hall:

. . . Grandma Lausch would have thought that the very worst she had ever said about me let me off too light, seeing me in the shoeshine seat above the green tables, in a hat with diamond airholes cut in it and decorated with brass kiss-me pins and Al Smith buttons, in sneakers and Mohawk sweatshirt, there in the frying jazz and the buzz of baseball broadcasts, the click of markers, butt thumping of cues, spat-down pollyseed shells and blue chalk crushed underfoot and dust of hand-slickening talcum hanging in the air.

Einhorn and Grandma Lausch are the two most memorable characters, but Augie’s life is full of dynamic personalities. They include his second boss, the sporting-goods merchant Renling ( " an obstacle-eater " ), and Renling’s European wife, who seizes on Augie as a social companion and disciple; his rough-talking neighbor Mimi, whose confidant he becomes when she tries to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy; Thea Fenchel, his most passionate lover, who takes him down to Mexico, where they train an eagle to hunt lizards; and Augie’s older brother Simon, a go-getter who lands himself an heiress and pushes Augie to court her cousin. Each of these figures could fit the phrase Augie uses for his original mentor, Einhorn: " It always was he who was principally present in a place. "

Augie, by contrast, is pliant; he gets swept up in their vortex and takes on their obsessions, some of them fairly bizarre (like Thea’s eagle). Augie is in the process of becoming, but even at the end of the novel, when he’s married and survived the war and adopted a career, we’re still not certain what he’s become. " I know I longed very much, but I didn’t understand for what, " he says of himself in his Einhorn days. " I was no child now, neither in age nor protectedness, and I was thrown for fair on the free spinning of the world, " he writes of his young adulthood. " Please God! I thought, keep me from being sucked into another one of those great currents where I can’t be myself, " he thinks when a Marxist friend, whom he runs into in Mexico, tries to hire him as Trotsky’s bodyguard. " I want a place of my own, " he protests to his childhood friend Clem Tambow. " If it was on Greenland’s icy mountain, I’d take and go to Greenland, and I’d never loan myself again to any other guy’s scheme. "

Augie’s struggle is that he was born " under the sign of the recruit, " yet, as the intuitive Einhorn realizes, " You’ve got opposition in you. You don’t slide through everything. You just make it look so. " Bellow’s marvelously entertaining novel is one of the most unorthodox coming-of-age stories ever conceived, the tale of a boy whose life bears the imprint of each of his influences, one after the other, but never finds a shape of its own.

The Harvard Book Store will present a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Augie March at the Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston Street, Thursday, October 16, at 6 p.m. with guest speakers Martin Amis, James Wood, Stanley Crouch, and Jonathan Wilson, plus special guest Saul Bellow. It’s free and open to the public; call (617) 661-0372, ext. 2.

 


Issue Date: October 10 - 16, 2003
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