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A subtle merger of fiction, autobiography

From his first novel to his final one, 50 years later, Saul Bellow was a keen observer of the world around him.

April 08, 2005|James Atlas | Special to The Times

The work is done. The oeuvre is complete. The energetic production of nearly six decades has come to its inevitable end.

Great novelists have their signature styles and themes. The elaborate, suspensefully ramifying sentences of Henry James; the brooding cadences of Hawthorne: You can open a book of theirs to any page and identify their instantly distinctive voices.

Saul Bellow also possessed a distinctive voice, but what is so remarkable about his work is its tremendous versatility. From his two earliest novels, "Dangling Man" and "The Victim," to his last, "Ravelstein," written more than half a century later, Bellow's subject was himself. But that self, a subtle merger of fiction and autobiography, could alter to reflect the shifting historical and cultural circumstances of its age. Or perhaps the right verb would be "to define."

That he was, by general consensus, the dominant figure in American literature throughout the postwar period, emerged over time. Bellow didn't burst on the scene, as his dear friend Delmore Schwartz did at age 24 when his 1938 debut collection, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," was heralded by critic Allen Tate as "the first real innovation since Eliot and Pound." "Dangling Man," Bellow's debut novel, was published when he was 29; "The Victim" appeared three years later. They were cautious and austere -- Bellow referred to them as his "M.A. and his Ph.D." But he was too hard on them; these apprentice works are as marked by genius as the novels that would earn him an adjective of his own: Bellovian.

Written in the form of a journal, "Dangling Man" chronicles four months in the life of a young intellectual named Joseph. (More allegorical than Kafka's Joseph K., he lacks even a last initial.) The novel is virtually plotless. Awaiting induction in 1942, when the U.S. was poised to deepen its involvement in the war, Joseph drifts through life in Chicago's Hyde Park, in those days -- as now -- a magnet for itinerant graduate students and intellectual hangers-on. What gives the novel its power is the atmosphere of aimless longing it evokes; Bellow writes of Chicago as if it were Paris or Trieste or the St. Petersburg of Dostoevsky's "Underground Man." Like Rilke's journal novel "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge," "Dangling Man" is haunted by a sense of fatality. "Where was there a particle of what, elsewhere, or in the past, had spoken in man's favor? There could be no doubt that these billboards, streets, tracks, ugly and blind, were related to interior life."

Yet, in its bleak way, the novel evoked Chicago as no writer had since Upton Sinclair or James T. Farrell: the clatter of trains on the elevated tracks, the endless sprawl of brick apartment houses with their lattice of wooden back stairs, the smoke of a grim factory wasteland darkening the sky. "Dangling Man" is an indictment of industrial civilization but also a paean to its strange beauty, the turbulent energy of the modern city. It was the first American novel to import the tradition of European literature in its Modernist phase.

Prescient critics were alert to the originality of Bellow's voice. Edmund Wilson, writing in the New Yorker, lauded "Dangling Man" as "one of the most honest pieces of testimony on the psychology of a whole generation who have grown up during the Depression and the war." But it was hardly a triumph. Nor was the novel that followed it. "The Victim" is in a sense a "victim novel" -- the term Bellow applied to his early work. Like its predecessor, it was weak on plot: Asa Leventhal, a pallid New Yorker who has a murkily described job on a trade journal, finds himself saddled with a menacing double in the form of Kirby Allbee, a man he barely knows who harbors against him an imaginary grievance.

The novel's atmosphere is Kafkaesque -- how one's heart sinks to deploy this overworked adjective -- but it accurately conveys its hallucinatory aura. Allbee is openly anti-Semitic, baiting Leventhal with the standard cliches about Jews: New York is "a very Jewish city," there are too many Jews "in public life." Leventhal, however wounded by these slights, is an ethnic, not a religious Jew; in so depicting him, Bellow put deliberate distance between himself and the preceding generation of Jewish writers: Abraham Cahan and Ludwig Lewisohn in immigrant America, and Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Babel, whose stories were set in Poland and Russia but nevertheless made their influence felt on our shores. Bellow characterized himself as "an American, a Jew, a writer by trade." It was significant that "Jew" came second.

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