What Saul Bellow Saw

The Jewish writer who became America’s most decorated novelist spent his early years prodding the nation’s soul. Then, sensing danger to it, he took up the role of guardian.

Saul Bellow shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. Keystone/Getty Images.

Saul Bellow shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. Keystone/Getty Images.

Essay
Oct. 7 2019
About the author

Ruth R. Wisse is a research professor at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


In May 1949, a year after the establishment of the state of Israel, the American Jewish literary critic Leslie Fiedler published in Commentary an essay about the fundamental challenge facing American Jewish writers: that is, novelists, poets, and intellectuals like Fiedler himself.

Entitled “What Can We Do About Fagin?”—Fagin being the Jewish villain of Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist—the essay shows that the modern Jew who adopts English as his language is joining a culture riddled with negative stereotypes of . . . himself. These demonic images figure in some of the best works of some of the best writers, and form an indelible part of the English literary tradition—not just in the earlier form of Dickens’ Fagin, or still earlier of Shakespeare’s Shylock, but in, to mention only two famous modern poets, Ezra Pound’s wartime broadcasts inveighing against “Jew slime” or such memorable lines by T.S. Eliot as “The rats are underneath the piles. The jew is underneath the lot” and the same venerated poet’s 1933 admonition that, in any well-ordered society, “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”

How should Jewish writers proceed on this inhospitable ground?

There was a paradox in the timing of Fiedler’s essay, since this was actually the postwar moment when Jews were themselves beginning to move into the forefront of Anglo-American culture. The “New York Intellectuals”—the first European-style intelligentsia on American soil, clustered around several magazines and publishing houses—were beginning to gain prominence as writers, thinkers, critics, and professors. Fiedler was thus not a petitioner requesting permission to enter American letters but someone already in place and intending to stay. Indeed, by the end of his essay, after laying out the problem, he proposes an answer:

[We] can begin to build rival myths of our meaning for the Western world, other images of the Jew to dispossess the ancient images of terror. Several, of varying dignity and depth, are already in existence: the happy Hebrew peasant of the new Israel; the alienated Jew as artist (Kafka’s protagonist Josef K.) or dilettante (Proust’s Charles Swann) or citizen (Joyce’s Leopold Bloom); the sensitive young victim of the recent crop of American war novels; the ambiguous figure of Saul Bellow’s novel [The Victim], both victim and oppressor.

According to Fiedler, the response to existing negative stereotypes was to create autonomous new representations. For him, as for others at the time, the modern Jew could possibly even become a literary archetype: the new Everyman of a society in which many felt somewhat alienated, or marginal. In charting this proposed new path of Jewish fiction, Fiedler singles out such forerunners as Kafka and Proust and then, as a contemporary exemplar, Saul Bellow, whose second novel, The Victim, about a New York Jew who is being stalked by an anti-Semite, had been published two years earlier.

It was an auspicious choice of writer and book.

 

I. The Right Amount of Victim

 

Saul Bellow, by now the subject of several biographies including a (thus far) definitive two-volume Life by Zachary Leader, was born in a suburb of Montreal in 1915 to a traditional Jewish family recently arrived from Russia. Raised in Chicago, where the family moved when he was nine years old, he became part of a circle of brainy Jewish teenagers who read and debated weighty books and learned much more from each other than from their formal schooling (which in Bellow’s case included the University of Chicago and Northwestern University).

The young Bellow decided early on to become a writer, and worked at it so hard and so successfully that by the time of his death in 2005 he had become America’s most decorated novelist, recipient of (among many other honors) the 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature, three National Book Awards for Fiction, a Pulitzer Prize, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for the Novel. France made him a Commander of its Legion of Honor, Italy awarded him the Malaparte Prize, and Israel the Agnon Prize for literary achievement.

The young Bellow decided early on to become a writer, and worked at it so hard and so successfully that by the time of his death in 2005 he had become America’s most decorated novelist.

But back then in 1947, age thirty-two and just starting out, Bellow must have shared Fiedler’s sense of entering a culture that was prejudiced against him, because The Victim shows him tackling the issue head-on. Here is how the novel opens:

On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok. The whole continent seems to have moved from its place and slid nearer the equator, the bitter gray Atlantic to have become green and tropical, and the people, thronging the streets, barbaric fellahin among the stupendous monuments of their mystery, the lights of which, a dazing profusion, climb endlessly into the heat of the sky.

This description of New Yorkers as “barbaric,” on a par with the peasants of southeast Asia, feels very odd—until you realize that it was in this same image that the great American writer Henry James, returning briefly in 1904-05 from decades as an expatriate in England, captured his own re-encounter of New York, and more particularly his first encounter with immigrant New York Jews, in The American Scene:

There is no swarming like that of Israel when once Israel has got a start, and the scene here bristled, at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that has burst all bounds. . . . [With] the exception of some shy corner of Asia, no district in the world known to the statistician has so many inhabitants to the yard.

James viewed the city as an alien outpost of Asia where he, an Anglo-Saxon descendant of the Puritans, felt totally displaced. For his novel about anti-Semitism, Bellow slyly adapted the view of America’s greatest novelist. And, just as Fiedler would propound, he had also created his own counter-images, in his case of both the Jew and the anti-Jew.

On this steamy summer evening, as our Jewish protagonist Asa Leventhal gets off the Third Avenue train and makes his way home to his apartment, he has the sense that he is being followed. The stalker is Kirby Allbee, a man whom he barely remembers having once met but who blames Leventhal for having ruined his life. That is the main plot in a nutshell.

Leventhal is living on his own while his wife is away taking care of her aging mother; he is trying to hold down a job, take care of the family of his out-of-town brother, and stay in touch with a couple of people he knows. He feels lucky to have attained this modest security—lucky that he is not one of “the lost, the outcast, the overcome, the effaced, the ruined,” who are all around him in the city. He may be otherwise unconfident, but he is certain that he never wronged his accuser.

Allbee, on the other hand, is a recovering alcoholic, something of a misfit, who fits Leventhal’s stereotype of the anti-Semite. And yet it turns out that he may have a real gripe. Leventhal had once said something that may have prevented Allbee from getting a break just when he was down and out. But Allbee also genuinely doubts that Jews can become the transmitters of American values and culture. He is worried that the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson are now being taught by someone named Lifschitz.

In exploring the mutual distrust between Leventhal and Allbee, Bellow was by no means drawing a moral equivalence between the Jew and his accuser. That possibility is raised in the novel, and rejected. When Leventhal, speaking to a friend of his, tries explaining Allbee’s complaint against the Jews, the friend gets really angry: “No! . . . No! . . . And you’re trying to do something for him? You’re willing, regardless? Boy, do you know what this does to my opinion of you? Are you in your right mind?” Yet, although Leventhal knows he bears no responsibility for Allbee’s failures, and refuses to accept any blame for them, he does begin to understand the Gentile in return for being better understood by him.

Bellow later said he had not yet “hit his stride” in writing this novel, but it marked an important step in his thinking about America. Anti-Semitism had been the monstrous destroyer of civilization in Europe—but America had gone to war to defeat fascism in Europe, and he did not want the anti-Jewish bigotry of someone like Allbee to be mistaken for Hitlerism. Here is how Allbee defends his views to Leventhal:

You know, Moses punished the Egyptians with darkness. And that’s how I often think of this. When I was born, when I was a boy, everything was different. We thought it would be daylight forever. Do you know, one of my ancestors was Governor [John] Winthrop [of colonial Massachusetts]!” His voice vibrated fiercely; there was a repressed laugh in it. “I’m a fine one to be talking about tradition, you must be saying. But still I was born into it. And try to imagine how New York affects me. Isn’t it preposterous? It’s really as if the children of Caliban were running everything. You go down in the subway and Caliban gives you two nickels for your dime. You go home and he has a candy store in the street where you were born. The old breeds are out. The streets are named after them. But what are they themselves? Just remnants.

As the novel shows, Leventhal resists this transparent appeal for sympathy. Nevertheless, each of the two antagonists gradually, painfully, and imperfectly overcomes the other’s fears. Encouraging trust is no simple matter: both of these Americans have reasons for their paranoia.

Bellow aims very high in this novel. The huge idea at the heart of it takes shape in a cafeteria scene where five Jews, Leventhal among them, are discussing the performance of an actress in a recent film and Schlossberg, the oldest and most learned of the group, criticizes the actress for underacting—for responding to the murder of her husband with too little human feeling. Acting (for which, read: writing) should reveal the full worth of the human being. After discussing various portrayals of Queen Victoria, they shift to the baptized Jew Benjamin Disraeli who served as Victoria’s prime minister.

But Leventhal isn’t comfortable with Disraeli’s “acting”:

[Disraeli] wanted to lead England in spite of the fact that he was a Jew, not because he cared about empires so much. People laughed at his nose so he took up boxing; they laughed at his poetic silk clothes, so he put on black; and they laughed at his books, so he showed them. He got into politics and became the prime minister. He did it all on nerve.

Bellow was responding here to the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s argument—detested and contested by the New York intellectuals—that the anti-Semite creates the modern Jew, a position whose reductionism is emphatically rejected in the novel. Hence Leventhal’s discomfort: he does not want the Jew to have to prove himself. This leads Schlossberg into a spontaneous speech on the proper balance between over- and underacting. An actor may not have to prove anything, yet he can still reach for beauty and greatness.

Have dignity, you understand me? Choose dignity. Nobody knows enough to turn it down. Now to whom should this mean something if not to an actor?

For actor in this passage we can again read Jew—or writer. The Jewish novelist and the character who is his fictional stand-in should neither minimize nor overdramatize the hostility they face, but keep reaching for dignity on their own terms. The Jewish writer is not obliged either to present a countermyth or to proceed like Disraeli “on nerve,” but neither should he lower his expectations of man.

Rather than remaining stuck in Sartre’s polarized categories of anti-Semite versus Jew, Bellow sounds another possibility that approaches what Ze’ev Jabotinsky called hadar, dignity or nobility. In immigrant-driven New York, the Jew does not have to overcompensate for his insecurities by displaying the distortions of his former Diaspora existence. If it is unworthy of the American to import European anti-Semitism into America, it is dishonest of the Jew to pretend that he is at that level of danger.

Bellow valued the novel for its ability to display the human being fully, especially in a fully liberated society. I’ve lingered over this early novel because its temperate understanding of America explains why he could aspire to become its greatest writer.

 

II. A New Species of Jewish American

 

The Victim is often shortchanged in studies of Bellow because it came right before his artistic breakthrough in The Adventures of Augie March (1953).

Bellow himself liked to describe that breakthrough: in 1948, after several rejections, he had won a Guggenheim Fellowship and was in Paris trying to write the novel he had proposed for the grant, but the work wasn’t going well. Then, in an inspired moment, he heard in his head the voice of a Chicago kid, someone he knew in his adolescence. Probably fused with other influences like Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and Sholem Aleichem’s Motl Peysi the Cantor’s Son, which his father had read aloud to the family in Saul’s childhood, out came one of the most famous openings in American literature:

I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by the acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.

One can imagine Bellow’s excitement at having hit on the narrative style that would serve him, with variations, for the rest of his life. When Augie March appeared in 1953, Jews and Jewish writers, entertainers, and critics were reaching the peak of their popularity in liberal America, as lingering images of the Holocaust still brought American Jews pity while the defenders of Israel gave them pride. This newfound confidence is heralded in Augie’s buoyancy.

When Augie March appeared in 1953, Jews and Jewish writers, entertainers, and critics were reaching the peak of their popularity in liberal America.

A new species of Jewish American, Augie is free to chart his own path. Though Bellow himself was not an American Chicago-born, he grants his hero that advantage while freeing him from parental Jewish supervision by making him the fatherless son of a weak mother. Freedom for Augie means not sex and drugs and irresponsibility but the right to try out the newly available options.

Augie is the antithesis of John Steinbeck’s Depression victims (The Grapes of Wrath), of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s disenchanted tycoon (The Great Gatsby), and of Ernest Hemingway’s tight-lipped heroes who equate manhood with bullfighting. By contrast, Augie follows to Mexico a girl who is trying to tame a falcon, is schlemiel enough to lose her, ends up a flop at many other things—but is in no way resigned to lead a disappointed life. He leaves us with this thought: “Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”

 

III. Everything For the Writing

 

Biographies and memoirs of Bellow tell us all about his marriages and affairs, his sometime neglect of his children, his finances and quarrels—but what comes through is how he subordinated everything else to his writing, and used the setbacks in his own life to keep probing what the towering 19th-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac called “the human comedy.” A trio of examples from the early and middle years of his career:

  • In a country that encourages success, and rewards you for achieving it, what does one do with failure? How does a man approaching middle age feel when his marriage fails, when he is out of work, and when he cannot live up to the expectations of his father? Of that personal distress came the character of Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day (1956).  
  • What about betrayal? The husband who is cuckolded (as Bellow was) by his best friend, is literature’s oldest prototype of the fool. What do all of the genius advice-givers past and present have to offer someone who has been thus humiliated? Of that came the novel Herzog (1964).
  • Then there is the ever-looming question of mortality, of death. Can it be, say, that when someone dies, someone as vivid as Bellow’s contemporary Delmore Schwartz—he has simply passed in and out of life, or must there be some larger encompassing transcendent reality that reconnects the dead and the living? Is it just quackery to consider a spiritual science like anthroposophy? Bellow raises these questions in Humboldt’s Gift (1975).

Of all of his novels from these decades, the one Bellow called his favorite was Henderson the Rain King (1959), probably because it was the most fun to write. Eugene Henderson—note the initials—is an adult Augie March reimagined in the physique of Ernest Hemingway.

Bellow had actually launched his writing career by issuing an open challenge to Hemingway’s “code of the athlete, of the tough boy—an American inheritance, I believe, from the English gentleman.” Bellow’s stand-in Joseph, the narrator of his first published novel Dangling Man (1944), grants that such closemouthed straight-shooters project a kind of candor, but dismisses them as “unpracticed in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring.” By contrast, Joseph intends to talk all about his own troubles, “and if I had as many mouths as Siva has arms and kept them going all the time, I still could not do myself justice.”

Bellow had launched his writing career by issuing an open challenge to Hemingway’s “code of the athlete”; in Henderson the Rain King, he twisted that code to his own purposes.

That was 1944. Now, fifteen years later, Bellow went himself one better by assuming the fictional guise of an oversized American WASP with the sensibility of a neurotic Jew, driven by an inner voice that says I want, I want, I want and whose wanting propels him to Africa on what was once known as a spiritual quest. Bellow himself was the counterpart of this character—an American, super-rich (that is, with imagination), able to go wherever his talent took him, and restless with the wanting, wanting, wanting to get beyond the fictional territory he had already explored.

Here is Henderson at the point of launching his mission:

When I think of my condition at the age of fifty-five when I bought the ticket [to Africa], all is grief. The facts begin to crowd me and soon I get a pressure in the chest. A disorderly rush begins—my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my soul! I have to cry, “No, no, get back, curse you, let me alone!” But how can they let me alone? They belong to me. They are mine. And they pile into me from all sides. It turns to chaos.

Henderson’s foray into Africa, a flight from mid-life crisis, spoofs the Hemingway game hunts, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the discipline of anthropology (which Bellow had studied in college), the dubious form of psychotherapy practiced by Wilhelm Reich (with whose “orgone accumulator” Bellow had experimented), and Bellow’s own search for personal fulfillment. Henderson’s successive adventures in Africa among the sweet-tempered Arnewi, who cannot bear to kill the frogs that plague them, and the warlike Wariri who put everyone, including their king and their American visitor, on trial for his life, knock some wisdom into Henderson by knocking some of his unformed longing out of him.

I used to have great confidence in understanding. Now take a phrase like “Father forgive them; they know not what they do.” This may be interpreted as a promise that in time we would be delivered from blindness and understand. On the other hand, it may also mean that with time we will understand our own enormities and crimes, and that sounds to me like a threat.

As Bellow’s friend and fellow novelist Richard Stern observed of Henderson’s creator, this real-life American was taking a fantasy crash course on the nature of good and evil. The result was a comic work on the scale of Don Quixote that distills the mixed essence of American Jewish masculinity in a manner that, for its African sections alone, would today be accused of cultural misappropriation.

But then, just as Henderson returns from Africa to everyday America, so does Bellow in the novels, stories, and non-fiction works that followed. I’ll come to the most important of them in a moment, but let me first mention two partial exceptions: The Dean’s December (1982), which takes its characters to Communist Romania before returning them to Chicago for most of the novel, and the memoir To Jerusalem and Back (1976), in which Bellow chronicles an extended visit to Israel while making it clear that his experience of and admiration for the Jewish state is that of an American Jew.

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. He said, “America wasn’t a country to us. It was the world.” I took this to mean that they were fully absorbed by their immediate challenges and opportunities to the exclusion of everything else.

Over time, however, the once eager youth who had wanted a featured place in American culture began to fear for that culture. Henry James and the fictional Kirby Allbee may once have dreaded the Jewish invasion of New York, but by the late 1960s, the New Englanders had been swept away, and it was the Jewish intellectuals who had assumed the role of America’s cultural guardians. Those now afraid for the country’s future included Lionel Trilling, Robert Warshow, Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Lionel Abel, Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz . . . and Bellow, who most notably voiced their apprehensions through the character of Artur Sammler.

 

IV. The Specter of the Sixties

 

Mr. Sammler’s Planet, written at the end of the 1960s and published in 1970, is about “The Sixties.” Until then Bellow’s literary focus had been the modern overstimulated individual, bombarded and discombobulated by myriad impressions. Novels, he hoped, could offset the entropy by featuring the relatively still-coherent human being at its center.

As its title suggested, however, Mr. Sammler’s Planet shifted the emphasis from the main character to the society he was navigating and asked: if America is that exceptional place in our universe, what happens if it should disintegrate, as great societies have done before? 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 1930s, 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. There we meet him, two decades later, living alone in the late 1960s on New York’s Upper West Side, transformed by life’s experience from spoiled little boy into a “survivor.” The entire action of the novel takes place over the course of two days in New York.

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. 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. 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. Elya’s daughter Angela is a promiscuous casualty of the sexual revolution, with what her father calls “fucked-out eyes”; his son Wallace flits from one enthusiasm to another, resisting all responsibility.

The breakdown in private and public behavior is made more dangerous by the absence of any effective authority to resist it. Living near Columbia University, Sammler is invited by a student to lecture on “The British Scene in the Thirties.” As he speaks about H.G. Wells, the Bloomsbury group, and George Orwell, someone in the audience interrupts: “Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. He’s dead. He can’t come.” Sammler is driven from the auditorium, “not so much personally offended by the event as struck by the unbridled will of a young American student simply to offend”:

What a passion to be real. But real was also brutal. And the acceptance of excrement as a standard? How extraordinary! Youth? 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. Because Sammler is so well educated and so experienced (he has even managed two trips to Israel, once during the Six-Day War), he can take on many of the subjects that bothered Bellow, too, one of them being Hannah Arendt’s theory about Adolf Eichmann, the Holocaust, and the “banality of evil”:

The idea of making the century’s great crime look dull is not banal. 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?

Sammler accuses Arendt of “[making] use of a tragic history to promote the foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals.” Far from looking up to Europe’s thinkers as the more cultured branch of Western civilization, he knows one cannot and must never look back there for guidance—which makes it all the more important that America straighten itself out.

Sammler knows one cannot look back to Europe’s “cultured thinkers” for guidance—which makes it all the more important that America straighten itself out.

Of all the valuable byways in the novel, I return to the earlier question of what it means to be fully human. Despite Sammler’s amply illustrated fears for the “planet,” he finds a kind of moral model in what is generally the most vilified, derided, and caricatured figure in modern fiction: the middle-class white male. 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.

But that is enough for Sammler, just as it is in the talmudic teaching, “Where there are no men, try to be a man.” Over the course of the novel’s 48 hours, Dr. 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. 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.

When Gruner dies, in the book’s final pages, Sammler’s closing private prayer for the dead man adapts the traditional kaddish to the Jew who has dutifully performed his mission on earth. It asks to be read aloud:

“Remember, God, the soul of Elya Gruner, who, [a] as willingly as possible and [b] as well as he was able, and [c] even to an intolerable point, and [d] even in suffocation and [e] even as death was coming was eager, [f] even childishly perhaps (may I be forgiven for this), [g] even with a certain servility, to do what was required of him.”

Bellow’s repetition and seeming overuse of seemingly redundant words to enrich the thought—which I have emphasized by listing the phrases alphabetically—echo the cadences of yisbarakh, v’yishtabakh, v’yispo’ar, v’yisromam, v’yisnaseh, v’yis’hadar, v’yis’aleh, v’yis’hallal, יִתְבָּרַךְ וְיִשְׁתַּבַּח וְיִתְפָּאַר וְיִתְרוֹמַם וְיִתְנַשֵּׂא וְיִתְהַדָּר וְיִתְעַלֶּה וְיִתְהַלָּל, the praises due God and in this case also the dutiful man made in His image. 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.

Meeting the terms of one’s contract evokes the covenantal arrangement between God and the Jews, a contract so deeply ingrained in earlier generations of American Jews that Elya followed its strictures without the reinforcement of religious observance. By repeating five times that we know this, are Bellow and Sammler trying to persuade themselves that we still share those moral instincts?

Some critics, like Benjamin DeMott, have accused Bellow of “gratuitous optimism” here, asking whether the evidence provided in the novel really warrants the conviction of the final prayer. I rather think that Sammler channels the deepest sources of a faith, Bellow’s faith, without which he could not have issued this warning against everything that now threatens America. 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.

 

V. The Penitent Bellow

 

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, 1984) or omission (The Bellarosa Connection, 1989). Then, in late autumn 1994, 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. His biographer Zachary Leader details the efforts by the medical community and Bellow’s wife Janis that were needed to pull him through.

When I visited him in the hospital in early January 1995, 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. 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.

Knowing how Bellow reprocessed the events of his life, I wondered whether he was already testing how his recent 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.

The eponymous hero of Ravelstein (2000) is recognizably Allan Bloom, Bellow’s friend and distinguished colleague at the University of Chicago, and the novel’s narrator-amanuensis is a no less obvious version of the author himself. Such a novel, in which real-life events and people are written about under the disguise of fiction is known as a roman à clef—a term Norman Podhoretz thought in this case “verged on understatement.” For her part, Cynthia Ozick, who has often been accused of similar license, advised that when it came to novels, the author’s life and friends were nobody’s business: “Ravelstein is not Bloom.”

But this, too, is not quite right. Abe Ravelstein was both more and less than Allan Bloom, just as Bellow was both more and less than Chick, the book’s narrator who has promised his friend that he will write his biography. Bellow’s amalgam of fact and fiction is a shared ethical will, or a Plato’s Symposium, reconfigured as a colloquy between two American Jewish thinkers. 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.

Bellow begins, as he often does, by signaling the scope of the book before us:

Odd that mankind’s benefactors should be amusing people. In America at least this is often the case. Anyone who wants to govern the country has to entertain it. During the Civil War people complained about Lincoln’s funny stories. 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.

Americans and Jews both want their heroes with a touch of humor, and the more serious the situation, the lighter the touch.

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. That a Jewish (homosexual) conservative should have gone into battle against what, in a bestselling book of that name, he called “The Closing of the American Mind” seems as natural as that a boy born in a one-room cabin in Kentucky to uneducated parents should have become the greatest president of the country. Americans and Jews both want their heroes with a touch of humor, and the more serious the situation, the lighter the touch.

[Ravelstein] had gone public with his ideas. 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. It’s no small matter to become rich and famous by saying exactly what you think—to say it in your own words, without compromise.

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. Ravelstein, the intellectual authority, is coaching the younger Chick in the writing of political biography, while Chick, the tutee whose consciousness controls the narrative, undertakes the messier project of capturing all of life in the round. Chick’s young wife Rosamund, his former assistant and Ravelstein’s former student at the University of Chicago, is something of an ingénue at the festive start of the book but, as the mood darkens, becomes its anchoring strength.

Although neither of the two men has had Sammler’s exposure to the Shoah, they are Jews only a generation removed from Europe who fully share Sammler’s concern for what has been happening in America. As Ravelstein lies dying, and as Chick then almost follows suit, they have only their thinking to help stanch the deterioration. Although Ravelstein has entrusted Chick to be the Plato to his Socrates, the two men differ on a number of points.

Ravelstein, for instance, thinks Chick too soft, too prone to account for human frailties:

“Read any good book about Abe Lincoln,” he advised me, “and see how people bugged him during the Civil War about jobs, about war contracts, franchises, consular appointments, and mad military ideas. As president of all the people he thought he was obliged to talk to all these parasites, creeps, and promoters. All the while he was standing in a river of blood. War measures made him a tyrant—he had to cancel the habeas-corpus writ, you know. There was a higher thee-ah thee-ah need. He had to keep Maryland from joining the Confederacy.”

Of course my needs were different from Ravelstein’s. In my trade [as a writer] you have to make more allowances, taking all sorts of ambiguities into account—to avoid hard-edged judgments. All this refraining may resemble naiveté. But it isn’t quite that. In art you become familiar with due process. You can’t simply write people off or send them to hell.

While Bloom the political philosopher had a war to win, Saul Bellow the novelist had his richest opportunity, in the figure of Bloom-as-Ravelstein, to convey the “full worth of the human being.” This meant including his subject’s “thee-ah thee-ah” peculiarities of speech and details of his personal life that Bloom’s friends would not forgive Bellow for making public. Chick in the passage above calls this becoming “familiar with due process.” In law, due process means that government must respect all of a person’s legal rights; in art, it means respect for the human being in his actuality. Though Bellow considered Bloom a better thinker than himself, he defended the novel’s higher calling—which (although Chick never invokes this comparison) is more like the Bible’s inextricable blend of narrative and commandment than like Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed. If great, the novel must hold its own as truth.

And here we return in advanced form to Leslie Fiedler’s vexing question of Jewish writing in a tainted Anglo-American tongue. In preparing Chick for the task of writing his biography, Ravelstein recommends the memoirs of the economist-statesman John Maynard Keynes. In those memoirs Keynes describes the moment during the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference, which he attended, when the British Prime Minster David Lloyd George lost his temper and lit into the French Finance Minister Louis-Lucien Klotz, who happened to be a Jew. In Ravelstein’s heightened and revolted summary:

Lloyd George did an astonishing kike number on him, crouching, hunching, limping, spitting, zizzing his esses, sticking out his backside, doing a splayfoot parody of a Jew-walk. All this was described by Keynes to his Bloomsbury friends. Ravelstein didn’t think well of the Bloomsbury intellectuals. He disliked their high camp, he disapproved of queer antics and of what he called “faggot behavior.” He couldn’t and didn’t fault them for gossiping. He himself loved gossip too well to do that. But he said they were not thinkers but snobs, and their influence was pernicious. The spies later recruited in England by the GPU or the NKVD in the 1930s were nurtured by Bloomsbury.

Ravelstein is unambiguously disgusted by the kind of culture that tolerates Jew-baiting. Klotz had to swallow the insults, but American Jewish intellectuals do not. Chick rereads those passages in Keynes (himself an anti-Semite who had delighted in this performance by Lloyd George, a figure for whom he otherwise had little use) and wonders why he is “drawn back to this again and again.” At the start of his career, Bellow had tried to “understand” the anti-Semite; in this book, he has Ravelstein warning Chick that condemnation of anti-Semitism takes precedence over understanding it.

At the start of his career, Bellow had tried to “understand” anti-Semitism; in Ravelstein, he warns that condemnation of it takes precedence over understanding it.

Along the same lines, Ravelstein disapproves of Chick’s socializing at the University of Chicago with their colleague Radu Grielescu—modeled on the real-life historian and philosopher Mircea Eliade, whose membership in the fascist Romanian Iron Guard was a matter of record. Chick admits to Rosamund that he finds the Romanian interesting:

[At] dinner he lectured about archaic history, he stuffed his pipe, and lit lots of matches. You grip your pipe to keep it from shaking, and then the fingers with the match tremble twice as hard. He kept stuffing the pipe with the rebellious tobacco. When it didn’t stay stuffed, he didn’t have enough thumb-power to pack it down. How could such a person be politically dangerous? His jacket cuffs come down over his knuckles.

To which Rosamund, who loves Chick but is also Ravelstein’s student, says, “This is how you do things, Chick: the observations you make crowd out the main point.” Just as decent people paid little attention to the mass murders of the 20th century, Chick is distracted by the superficial and even charming features of a man implicated in those mass murders. Chick must be made to realize that in maintaining the social grace demanded by the occasion rather than confronting a man who had once been complicit in Jew-murder, he had taken the easy way out. Through Chick, Bellow implies that as a novelist in thrall to art, he has been in danger of being too accepting of evil.

But Jewishness here is by no means limited to concern over anti-Semitism. As Ravelstein knowingly nears death, Chick observes him following “a trail of Jewish ideas or Jewish essences”:

It was unusual for him these days, in any conversation, to mention even Plato or Thucydides. He was full of Scripture now. He talked about religion and the difficult project of being man in the fullest sense, of becoming man and nothing but man.

Jewish experience has become the touchstone of the human condition. This Ravelstein has learned from his teacher, Professor Davaar, modeled on Bloom’s actual teacher, Leo Strauss, whom he quotes verbatim: “The Jews are historical witnesses to the absence of redemption.” Jews are witnesses to what human beings are capable of. This is the opposite of nihilism, which pretends that nothing makes any difference. There may be incongruity, by all means, because the absence of redemption requires a continuing reach for redemption, but such consciousness rules out liberal fantasies about innate goodness or pretending that enemies are friends. It confronts the truth about human behavior without self-delusion, allowing no escape from reality, no happy diversions into superficiality.

Chick, then, has much to learn from the tough mettle of Ravelstein, as from Rosamund’s bracing love. Yet he also has something to impart. The highly rational Ravelstein has no use for the metaphysical dimension of Judaism and does not recognize the “afterlife.” Chick, by contrast, believes in the soul’s immortality and is persuaded that his friend Abe somehow shares that faith.

Chick’s concluding words in the novel, “You don’t easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death,” sign off on what may be the truest-to-life portrait in literature. Like Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the book ends in homage to the human being, but unlike Elya Gruner who is a generic type, Ravelstein is an intellectual hero, a supreme modern Jewish teacher. In portraying his friend, Bellow wanted to get at what made him vital, the quality of his being.

What happens when someone dies? What happens to that person’s personality, to the soul of the deceased? People have agonized over this question, built tombs of preservation, made plaster casts of heads and hands. Blessed are they who believe that the souls of the righteous experience eternal life in the presence of God, but we, for our own sake as much as theirs, want to retain the dead among us. Bellow opposes human finitude because he believes in the deathless soul, and because he believes in fiction.

Every age deals with mortality in its own way. Ravelstein—both the novel and the Jewish intellectual who is its subject—tries to prevent the closing of the American mind. In the novel, and hardly in this novel alone, the Jewish author tries to breathe life into the American soul.

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More about: American Jewish literature, American Jews, Arts & Culture, Literature, Saul Bellow