- What Saul Bellow Saw
- C.S. Lewis and His Critics | VQR Online
- A National Journal of Literature & Discussion
In private conversation I once asked Bellow how come he and his young Jewish friends who were then in their twenties had paid so little attention to what was being done to the Jews in Europe during World War II. It was the world. Over time, however, the once eager youth who had wanted a featured place in American culture began to fear for that culture.
Novels, he hoped, could offset the entropy by featuring the relatively still-coherent human being at its center. As its title suggested, however, Mr. To pose this question, Bellow needed a character with greater moral authority and tougher experience than his. So, though he habitually wrote from the perspective of someone close to him in age, he created for Artur Sammler the counter-biography of a man in his seventies, almost two decades older than he then was, and a foreigner to America. Born into an assimilated Jewish family in Poland, educated in England and a journalist there in the s, Sammler is then trapped back in wartime Poland as a Jew.
Left for dead, he digs his way out of the mass grave where his wife remains buried, lives to fight among partisans, loses an eye but after the war recovers his daughter from the convent where he and his wife had been able to hide her, and then has the good fortune to be brought with her to America by a relative of his wife. It took Bellow many drafts and revisions to craft this Jewish product of some of the worst havoc wreaked by the 20th century: a professional observer, scarred, unsentimental, yet free of cynicism. Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr.
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Sammler entertained the possibility it might collapse twice. He did not agree with refugee friends that this doom was inevitable, but liberal beliefs did not seem capable of self-defense, and you could smell decay. You see the suicidal impulses of civilization pushing strongly.
An erudite man, Sammler realizes that in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Yet even as he observes and analyzes the collapse of society, he is unable to correct it. For instance: uncommonly aware of his surroundings thanks to having learned the skills of survival, he sees on the bus a black pickpocket plying his trade but, after a vain attempt to alert the police, discovers that he has no protection against the man.
His daughter Shula steals a manuscript she thinks will be valuable to her father; herself a casualty of the war, she is morally careless and perpetually frazzled.
What Saul Bellow Saw
Even lower down the moral continuum are the American-born children of Dr. Elya Gruner, the relative who sponsored and who continues to support Sammler. The breakdown in private and public behavior is made more dangerous by the absence of any effective authority to resist it. What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. What a passion to be real. But real was also brutal. And the acceptance of excrement as a standard? How extraordinary! Together with the idea of sexual potency? All this confused sex-excrement-militancy, explosiveness, abusiveness, tooth-showing, Barbary ape howling.
Or like the spider monkeys in the trees, as Sammler once had read, defecating into their hands, and shrieking, pelting the explorers below. In fact, something like this had happened to Bellow himself when he spoke at San Francisco State University; in this fictional scene, he was able to get in the last word about that incident. But the wisdom of elders is without power, and the youngsters who wield the power are at the level of monkeys. Bellow crams the 48 hours of this book with enough incident and ideas to constitute a course on Western civilization.
Politically, psychologically, the Germans had an idea of genius.
The banality was only camouflage. What better way to get the curse out of murder than to make it look ordinary, boring, or trite? Of all the valuable byways in the novel, I return to the earlier question of what it means to be fully human. This is Elya Gruner, the relative who has brought Sammler to America, a husband and father who emerges as heroic not in any absolute terms but in relation to the utter degeneracy that Sammler has witnessed in Europe and now in America. Gruner lies in a hospital bed suffering from an aneurysm.
We learn his virtues and flaws. As a loyal Jew he contributes to Israel and has visited there regularly, exhibiting the strong family feeling that makes him not only rescue the Sammlers but keep supporting them.
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Yet he has indulged his children rather than raising them responsibly. Otherwise conscientious and generous in all of his dealings, he has performed illegal abortions for some of his shadier patients and hidden the money from the IRS. And so forth. It asks to be read aloud:. Sammler continues:. At his best this man was much kinder than at my very best I have ever been or could ever be. He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet—through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding—he did meet the terms of his contract.
The terms, which, in his inmost heart, each man knows.
As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know. By repeating five times that we know this, are Bellow and Sammler trying to persuade themselves that we still share those moral instincts? Just as the traditional kaddish is insistent in its praise of the Creator, so, between the collapse of civilization in Europe and the escalating crisis in America, author and character conjoin in reminding us of the need to appreciate the decency of the imperfect Jewish bourgeois gentleman, the citizen who performs most of his duty.
As Saul Bellow aged, his characters aged with him, and his later works came to showcase penitent men desirous of atoning for sins of commission Him with His Foot in His Mouth , or omission The Bellarosa Connection , Then, in late autumn , approaching his eightieth year, he came down with a near-fatal case of ciguatera poisoning that consigned him for a month to the intensive-care unit of Boston Medical Center, followed by lengthy recuperation.
When I visited him in the hospital in early January , he had already been moved to a regular room and was regaining his strength. Rather than engaging in our usual topics of conversation, he wanted to tell me about the harrowing dreams he was having—one situated in a bank vault resembling a crypt and another involving cannibalism.
C.S. Lewis and His Critics | VQR Online
Knowing how Bellow reprocessed the events of his life, I wondered whether he was already testing how these intimations of mortality could be recast into fiction. So I was not surprised to find whole swaths of this frightening experience, including the nightmares, reconfigured in his last completed novel, about two men approaching the end of life. But this, too, is not quite right. Bellow and Bloom were a unique combination who had also taught courses together and whose joint legacy was to be represented in part by this book.
In America at least this is often the case.
A National Journal of Literature & Discussion
Anyone who wants to govern the country has to entertain it. Perhaps he sensed that strict seriousness was far more dangerous than any joke. But critics said that he was frivolous and his own secretary of war referred to him as an ape. Before Abe Ravelstein, then, there was Abe Lincoln, and we should not be surprised by the likeness, because both of these very tall men were trying to win a civil war. Americans and Jews both want their heroes with a touch of humor, and the more serious the situation, the lighter the touch.
He had written a book—difficult but popular—a spirited, intelligent, warlike book, and it had sold and was still selling in both hemispheres and on both sides of the equator. The thing had been done quickly but in real earnest: no cheap concessions, no popularizing, no mental monkey business, no apologetics, no patrician airs.
His intellect had made a millionaire of him. Not coincidentally, this was also pretty much how America had allowed Saul Bellow to become rich and famous.
The novel begins in Paris where Janis and Saul Bellow had joined Bloom in celebrating his literary success.