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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

Bellow's Portraits

By Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in the New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1989, and reprinted in Where I've Been, And Where I'm Going

Among contemporary American writers there are many stylists of distinction, for ours is an age of intense literary activity, much idiosyncratic virtuosity and invention. The general assumption may be that "realism" is not an experimental literary convention but simply "the way things are"; but practicing writers know that all genres, all visions, all artful employments of language are conventions, freely available to the virtuoso. Of presumed realists, no contemporary of ours is more distinctive, more consistently inspired and defiantly risky than Saul Bellow, our genius of portraiture. What a gallery of outsized characters he has given us, more benign than Hogarth's but no less individual! What coruscating flights of language in his prose, what waterfalls of self-displaying energy! For one who has been reading Saul Bellow attentively since the early 1950s, the briefest passage of Bellow prose, a sentence fragment or quirky throwaway metaphor, is enough to sound the unmistakable Bellow note.

Saul Bellow's employment of the English language is in the service, however, of a larger agenda. He is not an experimental writer in the usual sense of the word, for the forms of his most characteristic fiction are conventional, and repeatedly used; not does his elastic prose condense to opacity, forcing the reader to stop and admire it at the expense of the story. In Bellow, ideas too, "big" ideas, though obsessively aired, aria-like indeed, seem to us pretexts to enable the author to display, and to admire, and to analyze, the phenomena he loves best: the haunting contours and textures of the physical world, and the mystery of human personality in its extraordinary variety. Who but Saul Bellow would think to lyrically celebrate the "greatness of place," of Gary, Indiana (in The Adventures of Augie March); who could so brilliantly transpose the late Delmore Schwartz into "Von Humboldt Fleisher" (of Humholdt's Gift) that the mysterious charismic power of Schwartz is perfectly communicated to those who never knew him; who but Bellow might say of a character, Moses Herzog's rival Valentine Gersbach with his artificial leg, that the man resembled, walking, a Venetian gondolier, and, in repose, "Putzi Hanfstaengl, Hitler's own pianist." Bellow's fiction provides us too with variations of the writer-self, the mesmerized, indeed besotted, deep thinker, like the young prodigy Zetland of the short story "Zetland: By a Character Witness," who ponders, in s fever: "What were we here for, of all strange beings and creatures the strangest? Clear colloid eyes to see with, for a while, and see so finely, and a palpitating universe to see, and so many human messages to give and to receive. And the bony box for thinking and for the storage of thoughts, and a cloudy heart for feelings. Ephemerids, grinding up other creatures, flavoring and hearing their flesh, devouring this flesh. A kind of being filled with death-knowledge, and also with infinite longings." In More Die of Heartbreak (1987), the wily Ken notes that freaks have disappeared from the public world only to reappear in private life as "psychological types." These "types" are, of course, the novelists prize specimens.

A Theft, Bellow's new novella and his thirteenth work of fiction, is both like and unlike previous work of his. All of Bellow's major characters bear an unmistakable family resemblance to one another, like the overheated, compulsively driven characters in Dostoyevsky; we recognize them instantly when they are described (Bellow's favorite adjective is "powerful"), and as soon as they begin to talk ... and talk, Charley Citrine observes of his friend Von Humboldt Fleisher that he was "the very Mozart of conversation," and a similar observation might be made of Bellow's stand-up monologists with their flights of fanciful verbosity and seemingly inexhaustible energy. Clara Velde, the heroine of A Theft, is of Bellow's tribe, pitched directly at us in the novella's opening paragraph: "In a person of an inert character a head of [Clara's] size might have seemed a deformity; in Clara, because she had so much personal force, it came across as ruggedly handsome. She needed that head; a mind like hers demanded space .... Her forehead was powerful." But because Clara is a woman, and leading women have been conspicuously absent in Bellow's fiction, A Theft is something of a departure for its author, a venturous undertaking into the inner and outer lives of "a rawboned American woman." For Clara is not imagined by way of one of Bellow's articulate, ceaselessly analytic male protagonists, the way Herzog gives us his ex-wife, Madeleine, or Mr. Sammler his daughter; she is presented directly, head-on, and is indeed the pivotal consciousness of the novella.

Unlike previous Bellow heroines, Clara Velde is no mere object of masculine adoration or pejoration. She is strong-willed, with a "back-country" spirit. We are told (though this is never entirely convincing) that she is a "corporate executive" in a journalistic agency specializing in high fashion for women. Her upbringing is Protestant, Midwestern, absurdly narrow; but she is passionate, even Amazonian in her appetites, and has been married, unhappily, four times. She is the "attentive" mother of three small girls, the exasperated wife of a lazy, unemployed husband (Wilder Velde appears only in the corner of our eye: He spends most of his time reading semi-trashy novels), the faithful and unfailingly devoted lover of a high-powered Washington consultant and international figure named Ithiel Regler, whom she loves, as she declares, with her "soul," It is the loss—the theft—of an emerald ring that Regler gave Clara, years ago, when they were considering marrying, that sets the somewhat attenuated plot of A Theft into motion, forcing Clara to more clearly define her relationship with the elusive Regler (he who knows "the big, big picture" and who once debriefed the Shah of Iran on the subject of Henry Kissinger) and with her ten-year-old daughter, Lucy, by way of whom the ring is finally returned, But "story" in Bellow is always subordinated to portraiture, and A Theft is not the sum of its kinetic parts,

Though inspired in passages, and, over all, an intriguing possibility, the novella seems underimagined; its protagonist simply lacks the irresistibly interesting voice that would have made it come alive, in the way that Bellows fiction generally comes alive—the triumph, indeed, of "voice"; of prose written for the ear. Clara Velde does not seem to us intelligent enough for her worldly position, nor even for her author's continued investment in her (how obvious that Bellow much prefers Regler); women readers will smile, or wince, when the mask slips and we are asked to admire Clara preparing an elaborate meal for her lover in the nude, wearing only clogs ("Whether she was dressed or nude, her movements were always energetic; she didn't know the meaning of slow-rime"), and near the novella's conclusion, when Clara and her Austrian au pair girl, a Columbia University student, talk together ("How abnormal for two women, one of them young, to have such a mental conversation"; Frederic, the "arrogant" West Indian who steals the ring, is scarcely there on the page—as a personality he doesn't exist; and there is something melancholy in the coincidence that, only one person of color inhabiting Clara Velde's cartoon-glossy world, it is that person who turns out to be the thief. Clara's complaint to her psychiatrist, "The men I meet don't seem to be real persons. Nobody really is anybody" speaks to the sketchily imagined atmosphere of her narrative.

"You're a Surrealist in spite of yourself," the narrator of the story "Him with His Foot in His Mouth" is told by a friend; and this insight surely applies to Saul Bellow himself. Though he has been widely honored as a "realist" and a "novelist of ideas" (no more Establishment-rewarded American writer has ever lived: three National Book Awards, one Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize in 1976), Bellow might be more accurately seen as surrealist with an eye for the illuminatingly absurd; a writer whose deepest energies incline him, for all his public lamenting of our "fallen species," toward the sunlit spaces of comedy and away from the more subtle counterminings of tragedy. Bellow's works of fiction nearly always end on a strong, positive, "upbeat" note; his characters not only survive their snarled problems and pratfalls, but learn from their experiences, and are articulate about their learning. We are told clearly what they have learned and are not obliged to deduce it for ourselves. This is a fiction very different from, for instance, that of Kafka, or Faulkner, which forces us to participate in experience without defining it for us; Bellow's is a more socialized, accessible art, of accommodation, not terror.