Humble Executive. Literary Artist. Altruistic Libertarian.
After reading three of Saul Bellow’s novels (The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King and Humboldt’s Gift) I find in his Herzog another exceptional read. Few authors have sustained his level of literary excellence, and I think it worth a moment to ponder. But before we do, I will admit that Bellow may not be to your taste. It could be that I find him appealing as a white, middle-aged, American, intellectual-novelist, and you won’t, because you are not all those things (you are more of a poetic/artistic novelist, IMHO).
Bellow is one of a group of American literary novelists that emerged in the late fifties and early sixties under the shadow of Hemingway, and oddly enough, all of them that I will mention (with one exception) are Jewish: Phillip Roth, John Updike (the exception), Joseph Heller, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and Herman Wouk.
Roth has written a ton of novels and I have only read his most famous, Portnoy’s Complaint. It didn’t strike me as anything special, and nothing I have read about his other work motivates me to pick him up (he wrote one book about a giant female breast that roamed around and did things).
John Updike is a wonderful writer, and I have enjoyed reading six of his essay collections, most of the material drawn from his work for the New Yorker. As for his novels, however, not so much: Rabbit, Run was okay, but didn’t draw me to any of the three sequels. I didn’t really care what happened to Rabbit. Updike’s obsession with sex and adultery gets old, although he pointed out something quite interesting. In the days before television, neighbors socialized far more, providing daily opportunities to develop relationships and illicit intimacies. Once television became prominent, people were more likely to stay home to watch the latest sitcoms, greatly reducing neighborly socialization. Today with internet and cell phones, our social insulation is magnitudes greater, for better or worse.
In my opinion, Joseph Heller wrote the finest American novel of the second half of the 20th century in Catch-22 (with Their Eyes Were Watching God the finest of the first half of the century). In this absurd novel, he captures the utter absurdity of war, and terror bombing in particular. Throughout the patchwork-plot runs the central line of Snowden’s secret. It’s funny, awful and surprising, and purely American. Nothing he wrote later approached Catch-22, and unlike Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison, probably shouldn’t have tried. I found this on Wikipedia, and totally agree: Told by an interviewer that he had never produced anything else as good as Catch-22, Heller famously responded, "Who has?" In fact, Joseph Heller’s sequel to Catch-22 is a literary abomination. Poorly written, messily structured, meandering without a point, ending with a whimper, Closing Time denigrates a masterpiece. Had anyone else written it, and some publisher agreed to publish it, they would have been charged with a literary felony and sent to prison in disgrace. There they would be hacked to death by every inmate who could read.
As for Gore Vidal, I have read several of his novels and found them ordinary (from a literary perspective). He writes good historical fiction, but little I found worth revisiting. His essays, on the other hand, are exceptional, and I plan to re-read his collection United States if I ever re-obtain it (the risks of owning a book store).
Norman Mailer is an interesting case. I recently read The Naked and the Dead and really enjoyed it. While clumsily written, I found his social, cultural, racial and political views fairly broad and deep, particularly for a writer so young. In that regard, it resembled the work of John Dos Passos and John Steinbeck of Grapes of Wrath. There is little else in Mailer’s work I found worth exploring, but in discussing him with David Hartnell [Shannon's literary editor], David asserted that Mailer did some fine work later in his career. Just not to my taste, I guess.
The previous six authors (counting Bellow) are generally respected as fine American literary authors. Herman Wouk is probably considered more popular than literary, but he has done some fine work. World War II figures prominently in his work, and he is probably best known for The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. Both of these are fine historical novels that are very well written, but I think you have to be interested in the subject to genuinely enjoy them. The Caine Mutiny is something more, however, a touch more universal, and contains literary power. My father’s favorite novel was Marjorie Morningstar (one I have yet to read, though it sits on my shelf). My favorite though, and I novel every aspiring novelist should read (and I don’t mean you – you are accomplished, not aspiring), is Youngblood Hawke:
“I want to do the grand job, Mr. Fipps--the job that Cervantes and Balzac did, that Proust and Dos Passos did. The permanent picture of my time. I know right now it must sound like megalomania. I know I have a mountain of reading, a tremendous amount of traveling and living to do. I know all that! Meanwhile I can learn my trade and become financially independent. I hope I can do that in about ten years. Then I can get to work.
“...The critics are going to compare me to Thomas Wolfe, I suppose, because I’m from the South and I write long books. Please don’t think I’m crazy, but I think I can do better than Wolfe did. See, I can’t touch his poetry, but I tell stories. All he did was write his memoirs. Beautiful, lyric, American, colossal, immortal memoirs, but Mr. Fipps, you know Thomas Wolfe never had the mortgage, the old folks going to the poorhouse, the lovely helpless girl tied to the railroad track, now did he? Ah me, let’s save that poor girl, Mr. Fipps! Look at her lying there, all beautiful, and trussed up, the wind blowing her skirts up around those pretty legs! And that train thundering down the mountain pass back there, whoo-whoo! Whooo! Whooo! Look, you can see the smoke! It’s coming fast! WOO-WOO!”
“...No, Mr. Fipps, but don’t you heah that rumble, way up high on the mountain? It’s an avalanche, by God! Yes suh, a white roarin’ slidin’ avalanche, gettin’ bigger an’ bigger every second! Will it bury our girl? Will it bury the train? Here comes that train! There goes the avalanche! Roar, scream, crash, BANG!! Train ploughs into pile of snow, everybody shook up, nobody killed. Girl saved! Engineer jumps down, cuts the ropes, and you know what, Mr. Fipps? She’s his own sister, by the Christ!
“...Mistuh Fipps, Dostoevsky tied that girl on the tracks in the first fifty pages of every book he ever wrote, and in the last fifty he brought in that avalanche! Naturally in his books the avalanche buries the girl. Serious writer. Henry James had the girl and the avalanche, why he never wrote about anything else, hardly. Dickens had two avalanches coming down from both sides. Joyce didn’t, no. That’s why only English teachers read him, though maybe he was the best writer since Shakespeare. No avalanche, Mr. Fipps, no avalanche--”
What prompted this big note was discovering another fine novel by Bellow and thinking he is the best of the bunch. Sure, Heller had the single finest novel, and Wouk some of my favorites, but none of them have consistently engaged existence, the world, women, philosophy, art, cities, humor, charm, despair, intellect, social class, and the finer, largely unnoticed, aspects of a given moment. Bellow’s characters think, feel, and behave in multi-dimensions, and send back to us readers emotional telemetries that range from the grand to the miniscule. The style is fresh, vibrant, intelligent, creative, original and bold. His intellectual range surpasses his contemporaries, providing opportunities to relate elements of his life and experience to art and philosophy, without lecturing or grandstanding. His characters utilize every aspect of modern existence (1965 modern) including political concerns, social issues, fashion, urban life and the country. (His run-down home in the Berkshires reminds me of many places I have seen here in the Adirondacks.) He struggles with ex-wives, girlfriends, the medical profession, law enforcement (he crashes his car with his child next to him and a gun in his pocket), and the same existential crisis many of us face. Bellow restrains from injecting artificial drama or catastrophe into the novel, and instead allows us to experience Herzog’s ongoing struggle and remain with him until he reaches a resting point (I think).
I can’t think of another modern American novelist who reflects so much meaning and experience in his work, and does so consistently. Don Delillo in Underworld is special, but his other works less so (White Noise, Libra, for instance). I love Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides, but his earlier work is ordinary (Lords of Discipline, Great Santini) and his later work doesn’t reach the same level. Joyce Carol Oates wrote the powerful and chilling Blonde, but I am unfamiliar with her other works and unable to render judgment, so perhaps she might rank with Bellow. Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 is special, while Gravity’s Rainbow an unreadable mess. I couldn’t finish “V”.
So Saul Bellow is special, and I look forward to reading another of his novels, most likely Mr. Sammler's Planet.
Saul Bellow's Herzog