Saul Bellow

The most successful Jewish American writer may be the most ambivalent as well.

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Staying on Top

Augie March was followed by the acclaimed works Seize the Day (1956) and Herzog (1964) and the African fantasia Henderson the Rain King (1959), which was the basis for Joni Mitchell's song "Both Sides, Now." A sense of defeat and decay, of promises unkept, lingers over Seize and Herzog, which differ nonetheless in their tone and execution. Seize the Day is a brief tragedy of a failed son, and his charged encounters with his father and a fatherly quack investor. Herzog, perhaps Bellow’s most finely etched work, offers another one of the author’s dyspeptic, brilliant whiners, his comments on society, this time directed through a series of unsent letters to everyone from Eisenhower and Nietzsche to his second wife. Novelist Jeffrey Eugenides said of the book, “Herzog's life resembles the way we live now, where we're forever sending off e-mail and texts, fielding cell phone calls: where we're no longer any one place but everywhere — and nowhere — at once. Our life in shards, randomly returning.”

Bellow’s eminence was assured after the success of Augie March and Herzog, and he became a fellow at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. Surrounded by notable conservatives at the foremost American academic institution for conservative thought, Bellow took on some of the bent of his new associates in his fiction.

His Dark, Later Work

In later novels like Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) and The Dean’s December (1982), gloomy predictions of the oncoming end of society are tied to ponderings of the Communist menace (much of The Dean’s December is set in Communist-era Romania) and the lurking American underclass. The fear of the other was cast in dramatically stark (some might say biased) terms: in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, when an African-American pickpocket menaces Holocaust survivor Artur Sammler by silently revealing his manhood. The symbolism of the underclass flaunting its virility, and its aggression, is only too obvious.

“As a well-educated man who has smelled the molten breath and felt the bloody teeth of European fascism,” Stanley Crouch noted in an essay on Bellow’s book, “Mr. Sammler is obsessed with understanding what makes or breaks a society, what causes a civilization to embrace ruthlessness as the best way to realize its ambitions and handle its fears.”

Sammler, wandering the streets of Manhattan, putting out his delinquent family’s fires and remarking on the downward progress of the city he has come to love, is perpetually drawn to note the similarities between New York in the age of street crime and the Holocaust, in which his wife was murdered. “In contraction from life, when naked, he already felt himself dead. But somehow he had failed, unlike the others, to be connected. Comparing the event, as mentally he sometimes did, to a telephone circuit: death had not picked up the receiver to answer his ring. Sometimes, when he walked on Broadway today, and heard a phone ringing in a shop when doors were open, he tried to find, to intuit, the syllable one would hear from death.”

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.