A season of reading Saul Bellow

This spring, I immersed myself in Saul Bellow, reading six of his novels, plus an audiobook of his collected Essays, plus parts of his Collected Letters. It was a great experience, and so I wrote about it for the Fiction Writers Review. While I was travelling in Europe, they published my (quite long) essay in two parts.

In the first part, I talk in detail about Bellow’s incredible prose style, and how it developed through his novels–the amazing richness of Augie March, the pace and surprise of Humboldt’s Gift; in the second part, I talk about the somewhat unsatisfying construction of many of those same novels, and try to understand the paradox in Bellow’s work–how his writing seems to combine immense artistic power with strange lapses in story telling, and brilliantly comic yet sometimes troublingly superficial characters.

I still don’t know if I am misjudging one of the twentieth century’s great writers–I did not finish my reading project with my doubts resolved–please read the essay and tell me what you think.

Part One: The Confusing Pleasures of Saul Bellow

Part Two: The Confusing Pleasures, part the second.

Here’s a short excerpt from the essay’s first part:

…But Augie was not the end of Saul Bellow’s development as a stylist. The novel came out when he was thirty-eight, and he continued to write during his long life, publishing his last novel, Ravelstein, almost fifty years later. I detected two additional style periods in my incomplete survey. Firstly, in Seize the Day (1956) and Herzog (1964), Bellow seemed to create a “mature” style, restraining the abundance of Augie in order to create pure beauty. Herzog, in particular, reads so beautifully at times it doesn’t feel like reading, more like looking out a window on a breezy day, or overhearing music.

This is from the novel’s first page:

It was the peak of summer in the Berkshires. Herzog was alone in the big old house. Normally particular about food, he now ate Silvercup bread from the paper package, beans from the can, and American cheese. Now and then he picked raspberries in the overgrown garden, lifting up the thorny canes with absent-minded caution. As for sleep, heslept on a mattress without sheets—it was his abandoned marriage bed—or in the hammock, covered by his coat. Tall bearded grass and locust and maple seedlings surrounded him in the yard. When he opened his eyes in the night, the stars were near like spiritual bodies. Fires, of course; gases—minerals, heat, atoms, but eloquent at five in the morning to a man lying in a hammock, wrapped in his overcoat.

Why is this so great? The tone is quiet, deliberate, a narrator explaining just how things are, someone who will introduce us to the metaphysics in Herzog’s mind but will not be pushy about it. A voice both authoritative and agnostic. And the sentences vary so well in length and rhythm, creating that effortless reading experience I just waxed about. The paragraph opens with two short and simple “be” sentences (“It was,” “Herzog was”), then the third puts the main clause in the middle, and ends with a list whose items come in increasing brevity. Between two sentences that begin with dependent clauses (“As for sleep,” “When he opened his eyes”), Bellow gives us a one clause sentence with an long subject phrase (“Tall bearded grass and locust and maple seedlings surrounded him…”). This variety makes for easy eyes. And, intellectually, we feel like we have touched many things journeying through this one short block of text—the warmth of day and cold of night, processed food versus the thorns of berries, a failed marriage surrounded by pleasant nature, the stars, spirituality versus science, solitude. We feel that real life is actually like this, this constant interplay of complexities, and we were longing for a novelist who knew how to do justice to the scope of our own shimmering thoughts.

Best wishes,

Daniel

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