In my copy of Saul Bellow’s Collected Stories, the introduction (written by the well-known literary critic James Wood) states as though it were an absolute truth that Bellow “is, with Faulkner, the greatest modern American writer of prose.” My most literate friend, a lover of Turgenev and O’Neil and Calvino, had only heard of Saul Bellow a week before I asked her about him. In fact, although Bellow has quickly become one of my favorite writers, I first picked up a book of his only this past winter, while scanning through my late grandmother’s book collection. The truth is that most people my age don’t read Bellow at all, let alone think of him as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
And I don’t think this is too much of a mystery. For one thing, Bellow’s subject is singularly – overwhelmingly – Jews from a distant era. His characters are Fonsteins, Adlers, and Rexlers, nebbishy uncles and bent-nosed Hollywood stars who’ve changed their names. Peppered in his lyrical, almost elegiac prose are Yiddish phrases and names of Jewish neighborhoods. His work is laden with themes of filial guilt and ethical questioning, commentary on sentimentality and religious hypocrisy; Bellow’s Jews, still so linked to the Old World, balk at orthodoxy and wrangle with the stereotypes they were born into. In spite of, or perhaps because of, this rejection of religion, Bellow’s characters embody the epitome of the American “cultural” Jew, along with all his rumination, insecurity, and success.
To me, Bellow’s work reads like the journal of an old relative, full of winks and familiar tragedies that ring true on some level. But to a different reader (I have friends in mind), I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, the reference to “that hard-edged Jewish look” – a reference I found myself nodding at – fell completely flat. This barrier is understandable.
Beyond this, though, there is something in Bellow’s writing that is outmoded, even to me: the whole backdrop of Bellow’s canon, his whole compositional universe, is rooted in a generational narrative that no longer exists. In so many of his stories, we read about young men grappling with what it means to be a first-generation Jew in America. Their fathers, with whom they all have complicated relationships, are the immigrants: Old World men with thick accents, ill-fitting clothes, and penchants for crookery, criticism, or both. These fathers are not well educated, but they have the canniness and the hustle to have made a life in America (and in some cases, to have made it here at all). The sons, on the other hand, are never enough for their fathers. Despite their relative realization of the American dream, the sons are always disappointments. Each son struggles with that disappointment, wrestling simultaneously with his resentment of and reverence for his father.
What has changed is this: in Bellow’s world, the children of Jewish immigrants resent the oppressive disapproval weighing down on them from the baseborn older generations, despite their own objectively higher level of success. For many of us today, the dynamic has been inverted: our parents and grandparents are the ones who achieved great success and intellectual prominence in America. The pressure we face is not the longing for some Tantalus-like patriarchal approval (“I was at the bar of paternal judgment again, charged with American puerility”), but the uphill climb of generational decline.
On top of that, our connection to the Old World is all but erased, so in this post-Holocaust age, religious backlash is a little passé. There is no perfect inversion here, but the fact remains that generational dynamics have shifted since the Fonsteins and Rexlers touched ground here almost a century ago.
All the same, I find Bellow spellbinding. He is one of those rare authors whose prose makes you want to underline every passage on a page because each one just makes so much sense to you on a visceral level, begs to be read aloud on its own as a supreme kernel of insight. I described the sons and fathers in Bellow’s stories sweepingly, yet although they encounter similar conflicts, none of his characters fall into tropes.
In the end, despite the vast generational gap between us, what is it that makes Bellow’s writing so riveting?
Is it the occasional truism, Wilde-esque, that draws you in with its pithiness and perspicacity? For instance, take his description of Woody Selbst in A Silver Dish: “He didn’t like being entirely within the law. It was simply a question of self-respect.” Bellow has a way of making confident narrative observations: “He spoke like a man in a three-piece suit,” or “She had a straight sharp nose. To cut through mercy like a cotton thread.” Even his short turns of phrases, packed with meaning: “Buglike tropism for publicity;” “Mahogany solitude;” “Blue with winter, brown with evening, crystal with frost.”
Perhaps it’s Bellow’s humor, which if you read too quickly you might miss altogether. In this vein, I think first of that bit of radical, dangerous humor in The Bellarosa Connection, in which he remarks,
In Auschwitz he would have been gassed immediately, because of the orthopedic boot. Some Dr. Mengele would have pointed his swagger stick to the left, and Fonstein’s boot might by now have been on view in the camp’s exhibition hall – they have a hill of cripple boots there, and a hill of crutches and of back braces.
This way of addressing “unspeakable” horrors in non-sacrosanct tones might still come across as shocking to a reader today, but for its time it was unprecedented.
Like many of his male protagonists, Bellow must have prided himself on earnestness. There is, of course, less risky humor in his writing as well. For example, “My own wife was something of a Twiggy. One never does strike it absolutely right.” Bellow nails the tone once again. Or one protagonist’s response to an Israeli rabbi’s imploring comment about how reuniting with a dying relative would be a blessing: “Christ, spare me these mitzvahs.” It isn’t hard to see inspiration for Woody Allen (more accurately Alvy Singer, but can you really distinguish the two?) in Bellow’s witticisms.
I think his perceptiveness and humor are both of the highest caliber, but as I read more and more of his stories, I’ve come to realize that the best part about Bellow, the most important part, is his razor-sharp understanding of human nature. It’s the way he makes you nod and think, Wow, I’ve seen that look, or God, I hate when sisters do that, or Yes, that is the way October feels in your lungs. But to say that his writing is universal would be false. Indeed, it’s the opposite: As a writer, Bellow understood that truth stems not from universality, but rather from specificity. Instead of trying to curry favor with readers through the misguided twenty-first century concept of “relatability,” he packs idiosyncrasies into every digression, description, and detail, bringing his stories to life.
There is a beautiful passage in A Silver Dish in which Woody, a sixty year-old tile contractor, is forced to confront grief after his elderly father, a petty criminal, passes away. Within that passage is the following description: “Woody was moved when things were honest. Bearing beams were honest; undisguised concrete pillars inside high-rise apartments were honest. It was bad to cover up anything. He hated faking. Stone was honest. Metal was honest.” Bellow is honest. It’s high time my generation starts reading him.