The Elements of Style
Saul Bellow: Novels 1944-1953
Edited by James Wood
Library of America, 1029 pages, $35.
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‘The Dangling Man,” Saul Bellow’s first novel, published in 1944, begins with a man in a room. Demoralized, rooted in his chair, he feels it necessary to keep a journal. In it, he bemoans his solitude. But readers familiar with the literature of the stalled and alienated (Beckett foremost, but also Kafka, Sartre, Ionesco and Camus) couldn’t be blamed if they found the wall between the main character, Joseph, and the world a little thin. “I seldom go out more than four times a day,” he complains — and that in the less than 10 hours he is alone (aside from the maid who comes to make the bed), since he also happens to have a dedicated and compassionate wife. What he calls solitude rings more like boredom: He is no more made for the suffocation of his room than his author is made for writing a bleak novel about the crises of existentialism. The “racket and frenzy” of life, city sprawl and humanity call to Joseph from outside his window, even if he cannot find a way to plunge himself in. If he suffers a feeling of strangeness of not quite belonging in the world, it is because of a native hopefulness that there is a place for him in it. It is his awareness of this potential that taunts him: “I am unwilling to admit that I do not know how to use my freedom,” he writes, “because I have no resources — in a word, no character.”
Such is the opening of Bellow’s career as a novelist, and so begins the creation of the sort of character needed to claim that great freedom. From the start, there is never any question that the means are available. Literally, the room has a door from which Joseph can come and go (“my average radius is three blocks”); it has windows to look out; he receives the newspaper, which he need only open to “admit the world.” But more significantly, with the first page Joseph has discovered the recourse of his own voice. This refusal to grapple silently (“To hell with that!”) marks the first sign of the irrepressible Bellow of “Herzog” and “Humboldt’s Gift,” where the strongest form of action lies in the writing hand and the vocal chords. Joseph keeps a journal for the same reasons Herzog writes letters and Augie lets out his yawp over the rooftops of the world: “to have it out,” “to make the record in [his] own way,” to be implicated, to relate, to insist, to claim — however much the rest flops — his place in the world. Where Beckett can’t go on but must go on, Bellow can’t help but go on because, for him, to remain silent would be to relinquish the freedom of character and individuality. On the first page of his first novel he makes the battle cry for self-expression — “If I had as many mouths as Siva has arms and kept them going all the time, I could not do myself justice” — and he has been pleading its case ever since.
The new Library of America edition of Bellow’s first three novels, “Saul Bellow: Novels 1944-1953,” traces the evolution of that case through the somewhat tortured and naturalistic early novels “The Dangling Man” and “The Victim” into the full-blown, revelatory, freestyle rant of “The Adventures of Augie March.” Though very different, all three novels are concerned with a man’s struggle to assert himself in the world, neither to withdraw from it like Joseph nor to be at its mercy like Asa Leventhal (hauntingly tormented by an old acquaintance who blames him for his downfall) in “The Victim”; at the very least, a man should pitch himself fearlessly into it like Augie March, without getting too knocked around. Truly to seize one’s freedom requires both desire and energy, and with each novel Bellow seems to discover new reserves of both. The rhetorical volume is slowly cranked from low to ear-shattering as the mood swings from depressed to euphoric. The world is allowed to flood in until, by “Augie March,” Bellow’s pages creak under the weight of it all, his sentences having reached critical mass. Joseph struggles to get out of his room, but in the end, it is only to go off to the army, his freedom “cancelled.” Two books later, all the world can hardly contain Augie March, that Columbus of the near-at-hand who leaps boldly into the uncharted waters of life, slipping free from everyone and everything that tries to bridle him.
Neither “The Dangling Man” nor “The Victim” is a great book. Each is well written because Bellow could hardly do otherwise, even at his earliest; but if it is well written one wants, better to go straight to his masterpiece, “Herzog,” or “The Adventures of Augie March” or “Humboldt’s Gift.” And yet, his first two efforts are important and necessary books. For one, because they are full of the raw manpower of Bellow’s intelligence and his special way of observing and assembling the world. But also because they are a record of the development of his inimitable style, that original combination of precision and relentless plentitude, of acuity and sheer muscle. By “Augie March,” not only have oppressive social and psychological barriers been knocked aside, so too have stylistic ones. The walloping prose of “Augie March” is an anthem to liberty, of all kinds. It is also genius. Never before or since has anyone been able to describe a face (“hot, prompt, investigative, and nearly imploring”), sum up a physical appearance (“sharp financial hat, body-clasping suit… trick shoes, pointed and pimpy, polished like a tango dancer’s”), strike a metaphor for character (“a governor in a limousine… dominant and necessary, everybody’s lover, whose death was only one element, and a remote one, of his privacy”) or balance the account of human motivation (“angry giddiness from self -imposed, prideful struggle, weak nearness to death that impaired her judgment, maybe a sharp utterance of stubborn animal spirit, or bubble from human enterprise, sinking and discharging blindly from death”) quite like Bellow. (Nor, it is worth mentioning, has the semi-colon ever been used to such great effect, as trap door to yet another unexpected dimension, to pull yet another rabbit from the hat.) In the heavy industry of his writing, the weightlessness of living — glimpses, expressions, conversations, all that is fleeting — is compressed into something solid and stamped into personal expression.
By “Augie March,” the suspenseful atmosphere of “The Dangling Man,” along with an added element of lurking horror in “The Victims,” has been chased out. Something has been decided; not so much solved as risked (for though much happens, Augie never exactly figures out what he wants for himself). A way of writing, certainly. But something else, too, harder to describe, a kind of openness matched with effort. The stakes have been raised, a vast human action ventured, and everything is larger and more moving because of it. “My feelings were big, sad, comfortless, of a thinking animal,” Augie admits, as Joseph never could have: “my heart aching like an orb filled too big for my chest.” But despite the sadness, this thinking animal is also finally, an animal ridens, “a laughing creature, forever rising up,” aware that not even nature can win over the strength of human hope. Bellow has found his character, and with it the buoying powers of the soul.
Nicole Krauss, whose work has recently appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review and Best American Short Stories (2003), is the author of the novel “Man Walks into a Room.”