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Dangling man

Novels 1956-1964 Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog Saul Bellow Library of America: 794 pp., $35

February 25, 2007|Rebecca Newberger Goldstein | Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist. Her last book was "Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity."

I encountered Saul Bellow in the flesh only once. It was at a small afternoon gathering in a town house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Wide planes of wintry light slammed down from floor-to-ceiling windows, catching sycophants, dust motes and laureate in the slant. At one point I sat on a sofa, conversing with a young child (mine), whom I had been urged by my hostess to bring. I looked up and caught the novelist's steady stare taking in the small tableau of us: Madonna and kvetch. His face was turned slightly away so that his gaze came canted, parallel to the rays of the chill sun. There was a slight smile. I didn't for a moment imagine it was moistened with sentimentality.

I'd been introduced to him some moments before as a university philosopher who had just published her first novel. Bellow, of course, was a writer with a documented interest in philosophers. His characters kibitzed with the immortals on terms of easy familiarity. "Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger," the eponymous Herzog wrote in the last throes of his letter-writing mania, "I should like to know what you mean by the expression 'the fall into the quotidian.' When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?"

Herzog's epistolary frenzy had been precipitated by the discovery that he was being cuckolded by his best friend, and the demented, learned letters -- demanding explanations not only from his wife, her lover, her psychoanalyst and parents but from the likes of Heidegger, Schrodinger and, finally, "[t]o God he jotted several lines" -- had made me weep with laughter. Man oh man, what a stroke of inspiration to haul those luminaries down into Herzog's -- Bellow's -- our! -- farce and sorrow. Once it had been done, you realized that somebody, necessarily, had to do it.

The introduction between us hadn't struck any sparks. But just look at that female philosopher trying to reason with a squirmy kid. Now there was something a bit more tantalizing. I watched him watching me, the slight smile elongating his mismatched lips. Was there some way in which my person was physically arranged -- the prodigal or stingy tilt of my nose, the skeptical or gullible curve of my forehead, the false or true position of my hands upon the child -- that was supposed to be giving the all of me away? I felt the broth of my character being boiled down to its essence.

Bellow was a great believer in characterological essences. "And the great, great crowd, the inexhaustible current of millions of every race and kind pouring out, pressing round, of every age, of every genius, possessors of every human secret, antique and future, in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence -- I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want," he wrote in "Seize the Day." That novella, probably the most perfect -- certainly the most perfectly moving -- of his shorter works, was set in Manhattan, across town from where I was sitting in his probe of vision. The day that did not get seized was a sweltering one in midsummer, accentuating the protagonist Tommy Wilhelm's struggle to draw a breath, squeezed round the neck as he was by his merciless villain of a father and by his crapulous ex-wife. (Oh, the unredeemable rottenness of that category of being, the Bellovian ex-wife. They're so cruel they barely seem human. "What are you trying to tell me, Chick," his Ravelstein asks the Bellow stand-in, "that she's some kind of space alien?")

Not only was Bellow a psychological essentialist, at least for the purposes of his fiction, but his most memorable portraits played the trick of making some physical characteristic or gesture bear the entire weight of character or destiny. He did it again and again, from "The Adventures of Augie March" ("His nose curved up and presented offended and timorous nostrils") to the final novel, "Ravelstein": "Vela had a stiff upper lip. I have always been inclined to give a special diagnostic importance to the upper lip. If there is a despotic tendency it will reveal itself there."

It was a masterful device of his, this compression of different layers of personhood -- the psychological, physical, even the metaphysical -- into the physical. Characters emerged swiftly, forcefully and so unforgettably that we retain them, even after decades. "Novels 1956-1964," which contains "Seize the Day," "Henderson the Rain King" and "Herzog" and is the second volume in the Library of America's edition of Bellow's works, reminds me just how vividly I recall those deftly dense characterizations. Still, as memorable as his compressions were, they are highhanded artifice. Character can't be deduced from the flare of a nostril, the shuffle of a foot, the extension of a young woman's beautiful throat. Bellow's imperious technique is an expression of something that runs deep in him, his attitude toward what he unselfconsciously called "reality."

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