At the Koret Jewish Book Awards last week in San Francisco, Stanford Professor and Koret Awards chair Steven Zipperstein asked for a minute of silence to remember Saul Bellow, who had just died. Zipperstein rightly praised Bellow for his unique contribution to Jewish and American letters, and we must give Bellow his due for helping create a new American language mixing high and low, combining the immigrant’s energy with the scholar’s subtlety.
But it was just in that moment of silence, contemplating the contours of Bellow’s voice, that I realized what, for all these years, prevented me from truly loving Bellow: He never stopped talking.
This may seem a bizarre criticism for a writer, who by definition is always talking to us. Perhaps it is even stranger when directed toward a scribe whose signal contribution was the creation of an erudite, wisecracking, fluent voice that invested in the very act of talking and arguing a metaphysical urgency. Call me a lowbrow critic, but the things I remember from Bellow’s novels are not, I would guess, the things Bellow would have wanted me to remember. In “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” for instance, I cherish the description of a young Sammler hiding from the Nazis in a Polish graveyard, nursing his gouged-out eye, wondering if perhaps he were already dead like the corpses below him. Here was an uncannily vital and imaginative description of a man, and of an existential condition. And so why do we have so little of Sammler in Poland, and so much of him in Manhattan excoriating the counterculture, or in interminable dialogue with an Indian philosopher about H.G. Wells and space travel?
Or in “Herzog,” why must Bellow skip past the young narrator’s rich aunt Zipporah presenting her nieces and nephews with a paltry egg to share in the middle of the Depression, while imposing on us the older Herzog’s impossibly long letters to the philosophers Hegel and Nietzsche? Yes, Herzog’s recourse to language, argument and ideas suggests something about his inner life, but we don’t find in this disquisition the emotional intensity that Dostoevsky packed into his abstractions, or the way architectural and zoological observations replace more normative human conversation for W.G. Sebald’s main character in “Austerlitz.” There is something strangely self-centered about Bellow’s novels. This is a criticism more often leveled against Philip Roth, for endlessly plumbing the concerns of characters called “Philip Roth,” or his alter ego “Nathan Zuckerman.” Robert Alter, in a review of Roth’s 1993 novel “Operation Shylock” in “The New Republic,” complained that “everyone in this book, including Israelis with a presumably imperfect grasp of English, sounds exactly like Philip Roth,” and that the stage of Roth’s thinking is merely his “limiting theater of self-presentation.”
I would suggest that Roth is playing with conventions of semi-autobiographical writing more than actually writing about himself. Whatever the case, I wonder why Bellow wasn’t taken to task for the same sin of authorial narcissism, suffocating his characters as soon as they were born so that he, and his controlling intelligence, could return to center stage. Whether or not a character named “Philip Roth” indeed speaks for Philip Roth, a character like Herzog or Arthur Sammler is always speaking for Bellow.
Bellow once observed that Tolstoy the moralist could never fully submerge Tolstoy the novelist. And one could say that Bellow the intellectual, despite his best intentions, could never quite bury Bellow the keen observer of human nature. Perhaps in the future Bellow will be remembered less as the Jewish-American Tolstoy than as the Jewish-American Plato, employing the tools of fiction to penetrate the mysteries of politics and philosophy, but not the inner life of characters.
I probably sound disproportionately bitter with Bellow concerning his faults. But despite his dazzling gifts, I can’t deny my disappointment that Bellow — regardless of the Pulitzers and the Nobel Prize and his enshrinement in the American and Jewish canons — never became the writer he could have been.
Daniel Schifrin’s column appears every other month.