Thursday, April 07, 2005

My Share of Bellowing

I wrote about Saul Bellow once, a review of his Collected Stories in The Washington Times, and since I'm not embarrassed by the piece (in my book, a pretty high standard for a 3-and-a-half-year-old article), I thought to post it:

Saul Bellow's stories of character and cognition
David Skinner

Saul Bellow doesn't carry the reader aloft with otherworldly visions; he holds him fast with quick, penetrating close-ups of the familiar. But in his hands, the familiar gains such power these fleeting insights may as well be strange and new. The result might be amazement, with Mr. Bellow's revved-up perceptiveness, or even dread, as the reader gets locked in with these characters, all of them heavy breathers who can't be ignored.

There is something grubby even about Mr. Bellow's most elegant characters, an inner Herzog furious at life for making us the low beings we are. In the well packed pages of "Collected Stories," which bills itself as the first major collection of Mr. Bellow's short fiction, there is wide display of such I-and-the-world antagonism. It is the natural effect of the Bellow passion for character. Make character preeminent and the other engines of storytelling become auxiliary. This is not really a complaint: Mr. Bellow elevates character, in all senses of the word, well beyond commonly recognized boundaries. No writer quite loves a psychological tic, physical deformity, or an internal compulsion as fully as Mr. Bellow does. So much that his work is concisely described as portraiture.

What then - if not direct conflict - gives a Bellow story action? What is it that happens if not mostly a plot? In these short stories, as in Mr. Bellow's novels, the answer, for the most part, is cognition. "Our consciousness is a staging area, a field of operations for all kinds of enterprises that make free use of it," Mr. Bellow writes in an afterword. He is thinking of the modern reader, bemoaning the "idea men, advertisers, communications people, columnists, anchormen, et cetera" who make a living on the public's attention. But the consciousness of Mr. Bellow's characters is no less under siege from memory, ideas, stories to make sense of people and things.

Rob Rexler in "By the St. Lawrence" visits Quebec, his birthplace, to present a lecture. He is really not well enough to be making the trip ("I've been playing hopscotch at death's door"). But thoughts of the grave are merely a prelude to the story's action: remembering an eventful childhood.

"A Silver Dish" opens with Woody Selbst wondering how to mourn his father and from this all things flow. His beliefs (that "God's purpose was . . . that this world should be a love world") and his deeds are all recalled and presented in summary, explanatory premises of the man he's become. Death, concentrating the mind, often frames these portraits. All the better to judge a single life in its fullest aspect.

"The Bellarosa Connection" is another story distilled through the mental exercise of the main character. The unnamed narrator tells us in the first paragraph: "Memory is life." He is an awful WASP for an American Jew, spending his retirement studying the antiques in his old American mansion in Philadelphia. His nature serves as a lighthearted counterpoint to the death-defying escape from war-torn Europe being recalled. Which points to another element of the Bellow method: comment.

The rememberer may as well behave like a blue-blooded WASP since his charming, utterly American unseriousness guarantees that he is several degrees removed from the great recent calamity of his people. Fated to remember the Holocaust, he opens a gimicky self-improvement business whose only service is to help people improve their memory skills. In such hands, drama, action, and conflict are called (or rather, recalled) like a sporting event and this likable old outcast is the announcer.

Clara Velde in "A Theft" is also something of a hedgehog, a one-idea type. Her idea is a person, a man, her true love. But this man of her dreams doesn't just live in her mind. He's a regular part of her life in New York City, though politics keeps him in Washington and other women (he's a divorce several times over) have always kept him from marrying Clara. In the dialectic of this story, Clara finds herself sitting on another idea, the perfect antithesis to her primary idea, a woman for the man she loves. What might be, then, mere matchmaking in the hands of a less cerebral author, one less in awe of the power of character, becomes an intellectual necessity in Mr. Bellow's story. Thus Clara Velde struggles to make peace with herself by actively pursuing a most hypothetical whim.

The importance of ideation, the mental processing of life, is common to all Bellow stories. And one thing that is uncommon about Mr. Bellow is his way of building stories around the life of the mind. His are no disembodied intellectuals who bore you with endless spontaneous essays on the platonic ideals that order their existence. These are flesh and blood men and women. Rob Rexler, a Bertolt Brecht expert, has "an abrupt neck, a long jaw, and a knot-back." Clara Velde's idea, the Washington player, is a Kissinger-like intellectual of Clintonian habits. Another big brain works at a for-profit think tank with an international clientele; his obsession, however, is the hardscrabble history of a nomadic tribe. A revealing story along these lines is "What Kind of Day Did You Have?," which first appeared in Vanity Fair. It chronicles a 24-hour shift in the job of mistress to a dying, famous intellectual and art critic.

The married girlfriend is ready to surrender custody of her children for the privilege of accompanying the old Marxist on a short trip. And her lover is untroubled by the price she pays. Mr. Bellow gives over most of the story to the mistress. Less space seems to be needed for the compact ratiocinations of the old man himself, who never tries to sugarcoat his own cynical nature. "Evidently," Victor Wulpy has understood, "whether he liked it or not, his was a common sexual type. He was beyond feeling the disgrace of its commoness. She kept him going, and he had to confess that he wouldn't know what to do at all if he didn't keep going."

For an intellectual, Victor Wulpy is supremely aware of certain vulgar facts that his own erotic tastes lean toward the bourgeois and that his mistress is anything but singular. With her rounded figure and minimal brain thrust, she holds no office in his august life, merely a sexual function, the erotic equivalent of a chair for him to sit in.

This role she clings to passionately; to him it is of less importance, though necessary. Lower nature and the life of the mind go together easily in the portraiture of Saul Bellow. And to gaze on death, as Victor Wulpy does repeatedly, brings it all together in one person, one life, one portrait.

"Collected Stories" assembles 13 such portraits, the best of which look well next to Bellow's most important works, and the least of which still provoke far more interest than the numerous volumes of American fiction coming out this season.
David Skinner is assistant managing editor of The Weekly Standard.

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