Heartbreak in Bellovia

Zachary Leader’s biography of Saul Bellow is out, the first volume anyway, which is a landmark in the settlement of any dead writer’s place in the cannon, a first reading of the critical will. Are those once-prized novels going to the charity shop or is his room to be left untouched, a shrine whose discarded tissues are deemed publishable? I decide on my own valuation and take the temperature of Bellow’s body of work using More Die of Heartbreak – not because it is particularly significant or representative but wanting to come at something fresh. That voice, the huge cranium of experience and ideas are instantly recognisable. My bookmark is soon slipping like a thermometer under the tongue of read pages.

More Die is narrated by Kenneth, a Jewish academic who has returned from Paris to the USA, much as his creator did. An expert in Russian literature himself, which gives Bellow a chance to show off his reading (like John Updike his books are often doctoral theses in fictional guise), Kenneth is motivated by a desire to help his uncle Benn Crader, a distinguished but otherworldly botanist. Benn has got himself married to Matilda Layamon, the ravishing and brilliant daughter of a powerful physician. For Benn this solves what Bellow characterises as the beauty and sex problems, but the bride’s interest is not so easily explained, until it emerges that her family want Benn to screw money out of a relative to finance Matilda’s debut on Wall Street. That’s about it as far as plot is concerned – and don’t expect a satisfying resolution, a neat gathering of threads at the end. Bellow takes the raw marble of existence and chisels only the basic musculature of a story. It’s the feel of the stone he’s after, the exhilarating mass of the rock.

After a while I stop highlighting brilliant passages and dazzling thoughts. In golf terms that hole is conceded. Instead I begin to note the continuities between this and his other novels which might indict him on charges of bonnet-based beekeeping. As usual the main players are all Jewish men. Women are objects, biologically and grammatically though not sexually, in which realm they are credited with inscrutable motives and unique powers to wound and enthral. The tortuous interplay of need and resentment: that is Bellow on love – in love too, by all accounts. The world of city politics, graft, money, dodgy dealing, shady characters, brilliant ideas – in short of low life and high minds – is another of his obsessions, the well he risked draining but from where he kept bringing back the goods. Now that tap has been turned off for ever might his narrowness of focus, that hilarious but outdated gynophobia count against him in the way Updike’s stock has fallen for being too phallocentric and middle American?

It is not that writing about the same place all the time is a limitation. No one blames Joyce and Mahfouz for specialising, their Dublin and Cairo containing universes of human experience. It is rather that having the USA as their subject associates certain writers with the sins of American exceptionalism or hegemony. Resentment at Uncle Sam’s weight-throwing round the world fastens on its cultural exports as well. Taking a critical stance helps – Steinbeck’s socialism armour-plates his reputation – and here perhaps the great beasts of recent American letters are deemed too infatuated with their subject, too celebratory even of its faults. Of course even a cursory reading of the Rabbit novels would reveal a piercingly honest take on the American Dream; but still the suspicion lingers that these questions matter more than anyone else’s and Updike did not help his cause by flying the stars and stripes outside his house. What, then, of Bellow, the intellectual apostate tinged with neo-liberalism for whom the whole world seemed sometimes to have shrunk to Chicago?

In his case the trick pulled was more artful and layered. The prose glitters  with hard-edged satire to which the adjective Bellovian does scant justice. We need a new word for that brilliant, unsparing acidity. The man was a painter in bile, an acerbicist. Yet still the impression is created that this is the only game worth playing, that the rumbustuousness of life on streets clamorous with dispute, chicanery and desire is a project privileged above all others in its rawness and immediacy. In valuing the material it presented to him as a novelist Bellow, it seems, fell in love with an America so rich in human interest and frailty, so gloriously and uniquely vernacular, and this is on the charge sheet being drawn up by the non-American branch of posterity. But More Die deflects those allegations in ways that surprise. The coruscating sourness is certainly there; yet hold the story up to a different light and other perspectives become apparent. In particular, Benn is portrayed as an innocent in the cut-throat world of marriage, a putz in even the elementary moves of self-preservation, but his commitment to the study of plants and trees, so profound it is almost mystical, gets lampooned in an almost kindly fashion and along with the academic values associated with it emerges as a dignified alternative to the wheeler-dealing around him. And Kenneth, who has women troubles of his own that make him a less-than-convincing adviser, comes to question the costs of involvement in the American drama which he, like Bellow, came back from the Old World to be immersed in. The style, in other words, is as uncompromising as ever but the point of view is more even-handed. Or perhaps it was there all along but just disguised by the moral toughness of the other novels. Bellow as a softie after all. Now that would be a re-evaluation.