On Saul Bellow

A case could be made that he was, and will be, the last great American novelist, the beneficiary of a cultural field sowed by Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent. He was historically necessary: the novelist of the post-war Jewish cultural ascendancy. He could write novels for adults, with references to Spinoza and Marx, because there were enough adult readers—men among them—to support his doing so.


In Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow’s novel about his relationship with the poet Delmore Schwartz, Humboldt-Schwartz is last seen by the narrator looking desolate and finished on the streets of New York.

I knew that Humboldt would soon die because I had seen him on the street two months before and he had death all over him. He didn’t see me. He was gray stout sick dusty, he had bought a pretzel and was eating it. His lunch. Concealed by a parked car, I watched.

A bit later, the narrator Charlie recalls the scene:

I walked out and saw Humboldt, a dying man eating a pretzel stick at the curb, the dirt of the grave already sprinkled on his face.

It comes up three more times—“a dead man eating a pretzel in New York”; “whom you last beheld eating a pretzel in the West Forties”—and if you’re reading carefully you might begin to see at work the Bellow method: the slow accretion, the variation of syntax, the circling repetition. For me, it required hearing him read Ravelstein out loud at the First Church in Cambridge, registering only maybe one word out of two, to begin to understand how he layered his details, kept repeating certain words and changing them, adding onto them. In the books, until you reread them, it can seem aimless.

There was also the way he invoked physical spaces, actual place names, hard to follow unless you’d been there. New York was best for this, for him, with its grid of repeating streets, its simultaneous recognizability and variation. Bellow’s is the liveliest prose in American literature because it’s always describing motion (whereas Philip Roth found its imitators merely “jumpy”). Here is Humboldt’s pursuit of the young book-reviewer Magnasco, whom the poet suspects of sleeping with his wife:

Somewhere Humboldt obtained a pistol and he hammered on Magnasco’s door with the butt until he shred the wood. Magnasco called the desk, and the desk sent the cops, and Humboldt took off. But next day he jumped Magnasco on Sixth Avenue in front of Howard Johnson’s. A group of lesbians gotten up as longshoresmen rescued the young man. They had been having ice-cream sodas…

In those sentences six separate places are invoked, plus some ice cream sodas.

Bellow too was perpetually in motion, and in his old age he went to Boston to die. A friend took me to one of Bellow’s classes at B.U. It was a seminar with maybe ten undergraduates. He must have seemed like a nice enough old man. They discussed Conrad. What a waste! The friend who brought me had been auditing the seminar diligently all semester—he’d gone to Brookline High and knew where to park on Commonwealth Avenue. He’d cultivated Bellow during the writer’s office hours, talking to him (my friend did) about his own lengthy fictional project, a novel about Berlin inspired by the work of Sebald and Broch. “Sometimes,” my friend admitted of the office-hour discussions, “Saul falls asleep.”

His last years took a toll on his reputation. There was the general hardening of his politics (beginning in the late 60s with Mr. Sammler’s Planet) and then his run-in with multiculturalism: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” (Even here, though, good taste, no cliché—he could have said “the Zola of the Zulus.”) There was also James Atlas’s biography (“the Atlas thing,” Bellow called it, fussily), which opened its pages to fifty years of anti-Bellovian griping. Bellow couldn’t tell a clitoris from a kneecap, it turned out, and though he relished any chance to mock Rahv and Phillips and Trilling, it didn’t stop him from preying on the receptionists at Partisan Review. And then proceeding to confuse their kneecaps, etc.

The simple thing to say is that Bellow’s works will survive all this. But actually the thing is they won’t, or not without some help. His novels are hard to get through, written in sentences and paragraphs, hardly ever pages, never chapters. He wrote books for grown-ups. And books about appetite, voraciousness—for books, and culture, food, sex, clothing, airplane tickets—whereas now we have entered a long period of purgation and self-disgust. And he came from a different era in the physiognomy of the race. One lawyer has “a long mulberry-colored mouth, and impressive stature, and warts, and the distorted nose and leopard eyes.” A professor is “tiny, nervous Pulver with his timid, whole-souled blue eyes, his crumbled teeth… the taut skin hectically spotted with high color.” Each character’s specific physical decay, Shakespearean in its variety, bespeaks some peculiar psychological trait, some flaw or defeat. Now in order to have crumbled teeth or spotted skin you’d need to be some kind of exhibitionist. Or poor.

A case could be made that he was, and will be, the last great American novelist, the beneficiary of a cultural field sowed by Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent. He was historically necessary: the novelist of the post-war Jewish cultural ascendancy. He could write novels for adults, with references to Spinoza and Marx, because there were enough adult readers—men among them—to support his doing so. In a situation where the only readers you know about for sure are young people incarcerated in high schools and colleges, it might be tempting to write books for children only. The culture of mid-century was not an infinite resource, and it has dwindled. Another Bellow now would be impossible, socio-historically speaking.

But I don’t really believe that. People change, stores and apartments change and disappear, there is no Howard Johnson’s anymore on Sixth Avenue, but others will take their place. I once had a copy of Humboldt where all the pretzel passages were marked, but in the course of things, of life, I lost it. (Herzog would put it otherwise.) But because Bellow was such a best-seller, it was easy to find another copy, with the same cheap brownish paper, the same terrible cover. And I dug up all of the pretzel quotes at the beginning of this essay with Amazon’s search-inside-the-book. Here is the last one:

[The letter] brought back to me, also, the pretzel he was chewing on the curb on that hot day. On that day I made a poor showing. I behaved very badly. I should have gone up to him. I should have taken his hand. I should have kissed his face. But is it true that such actions are effective? And he was dreadful. His head was all grey webbing, like an infested bush.

The truth in the end is that the culture, the culture which surrounded Bellow and of which he was the finest product, will not quite disappear: that there are enough of us still. But now (and here is the sad part, not because we believed he would write any more books like Herzog, or even come up with another line like the Papuans) although there are still enough of us, now there is one less. And this it is what Bellow was trying to say, over and over, with the dying Fleischer von Humboldt, a mere sorry human standing at the curb with a pretzel stick, already finished and gone, but what an enormous store of everything he took with him.

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