Saul Bellow, his works--and his triumph over the poetry of humiliation

April 14, 1991|By Stephen Margulies


Ruth Miller.

St. Martin's.

385 pages. $24.95.

Is Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow a great man, a luminary who can illuminate us? Or is he a slapstick comedian, a victim of his own shticks? Is he a genius or a jerk?

Few American writers possess Saul Bellow's elegantly humane dignity, his personal grace. Few can match his world-recognized accomplishments, which seem to be a fulfillment of the fantasies of characters in his early novels -- or duplications in real life of the success of fictional creations like Henderson or Benn Crader. Three National Book awards, the Nobel Prize, the chairmanship of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago -- these things indicate success in both the academic and the artistic worlds. And, of course, he has achieved the wealth of a best-selling writer.

But, as Anthony Burgess recently pointed out, there is no use in envying the wealth of American writers such as Mr. Bellow and Norman Mailer, since they lose most of it in alimony. Patriarchal Norman Mailer probably is proud of supporting a legion of ex-wives, but Mr. Bellow is, one supposes, less of a tribal chieftain in mentality. Mr. Mailer seems to swell up with the glory of his own barrel-chested vulgarity -- he reacts to criticism with increased swagger. He is seedily magnificent.

But Mr. Bellow (who was born in 1915), is keenly aware that American high-mindedness will inevitably take its pratfall. The suave professor will get his hat knocked off. The greatest artist will be mocked and robbed. Mr. Bellow laments such absurdity, but he can take his fall with the comic wisdom of Charlie Chaplin.

In America -- as in Russia -- there is a poetry of humiliation. Ruth Miller's critical biography does a fairly good job of demonstrating that the author of "Herzog," "Humboldt's Gift" and "The Adventures of Augie March" is fully a match for his own invented characters in both the poetry and the humiliation of his own life. The zest for life and ideas of Herzog or Charlie Citrine or Saul Bellow himself is as attractive in its sturdy American innocence as is the earlier vitality of Walt Whitman. But unlike Whitman, Mr. Bellow and his creations slip up on the messiness of the emotions. Our high-mindedness somehow splatters on the floor -- and we skid.

The traumatic slapstick moment in Mr. Bellow's life came in 1959 when he discovered that his wife had cuckolded him with his best friend. Moreover, his friend also was his partner in a literary magazine whose very title sums up Mr. Bellow's idealistic effort to unite flesh and spirit: "The Noble Savage." As Ruth Miller puts it: "After all the fireworks of his soul in search of a unique destiny, of a fate good enough, he was . . . the most commonplace of victims . . . To be dismissed unloved and unwanted was bad enough, but to be a fool?"

Mr. Bellow's noble and hilarious masterpiece "Herzog" eventually resulted from this incident -- but also,obsessively, the plots of many of his later novels. His experience with the switcheroos of failure and success in America -- his heavy workouts with our nation's lawyers -- gave him a lyrically paranoid sense of the relationship between love and power. Saul Bellow was hurt into comically aware song.

But although Ruth Miller has been a friend of Mr. Bellow's for 50 years and has had access to his private papers, her book is only moderately readable and informative. Her somewhat nosy periodical intrusions into his life are a bit embarrassing, since she comments on his wives' varying degrees of hospitality, etc. One is not surprised to learn that Mr. Bellow withdrew his support for her work.

Yet, almost against the reader's will, one realizes that Ms. Miller's book has the power to shock in an unexpected way. With casual relentlessness, she documents the stupidity and racism of much of the critical response to Mr. Bellow's work. To me, it seems part of Mr. Bellow's excellence that he fuses the scary vitality of Chicago with the gritty yearning of a Yiddish background -- while at the same time allowing himself to joyously inherit the world's literary treasures.

It is not surprising that 60 years ago Mr. Bellow was denied admission to an English department on the grounds that a Jew "would never have the right feeling . . . for English words." It is, however, surprising and depressing to discover that such "distinguished" contemporary critics as John Updike and Anthony Burgess say or hint the same thing. It is very depressing, also, to discover that Hugh Kenner of Johns Hopkins should be guilty of a crudely anti-Semitic attack when "The Dean's December" came out.

In an article in Harper's, Dr. Kenner referred to Mr. Bellow as the "fox-faced creator" of the novel, a "sardonic connoisseur of Old Testament motifs." For Dr. Kenner, Mr. Bellow possesses a "tribal penchant for arguing." The supposedly non-Jewish narrator of "The Dean's December" is but a Jonah fastened to his whale by "a Hebrew safety pin."

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