The five essential Saul Bellow novels

Adventures of Augie March jacket

The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

This is the novel in which Bellow found his voice. Augie, its picaresque hero, declares himself “a Columbus of those near-at-hand”, by which he means a discoverer of new fictional territory, since he himself narrates his adventures. The “reality instructors” and “Machiavellis of small street and neighbourhood” that Augie delights in portraying, most of them Jewish, come from Bellow’s childhood and youth in immigrant Chicago. The freedom he seeks from their “get real” outlook is a freedom Bellow himself sought. “Look at me!” Augie cries in the final paragraph, “going everywhere”; by which he means, as Philip Roth puts it, “going where his pedigreed betters wouldn’t have believed he had any right to go”. It is not only those near-at-hand that Augie depicts. Bravura episodes are set in Mexico, in Paris, in Depression-era boxcars (“the jointed spine of the train racing and swerving, the steels, rusts, bloodlike paints extended space after space”). Chief among reality instructors is Augie’s brother Simon, a thinly fictionalised portrait of Bellow’s brother Maury, “the totally American brother,” the totally Chicago brother. “Maury overpowered me,” Bellow later confessed, “and in a sense he led me to write The Adventures of Augie March.”

Henderson the Rain King jacket

Henderson the Rain King (1959)

The oddest and most audacious of Bellow’s novels, set in Africa, a continent he had yet to visit. The richly detailed customs Bellow devises for the novel’s fictional tribes, partly drawn from the anthropological texts he studied at university, are what make its Africa so magical and funny. They also connect to the novel’s main themes. Eugene Henderson, its noisy protagonist, “an absurd seeker of higher qualities”, is in despair, lacking or having neglected dimensions of life – mystical, bodily – he hopes to find in Africa.

What he’s missing derives as much from the theories of Wilhelm Reich as from Bellow’s anthropological studies, and Henderson’s attitudes to his African instructor, Dahfu, is like Bellow’s attitude to Reich. Dahfu, king of the Arnewi tribe, has wisdom but he’s cracked. Praise for the novel’s richness of invention has not always extended to the controversial speech of its African characters. Openly artificial, resembling no real African voice, theirs is the language of “blackface”, described by Bellow’s friend Ralph Ellison as “pseudo-Negro dialect”, “a ritual of exorcism”. This language Bellow drew on and adapted in tandem with the poet John Berryman, with whom he shared an office at the University of Minnesota. It is the language of Berryman’s “Mr Bones” in The Dream Songs.

Herzog jacket

Herzog (1964)

“Dear Doctor Professor, I should like to know what you mean by the expression ‘the fall into the quotidian’. When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?” This urgent appeal, addressed to Martin Heidegger, comes from Moses Herzog, in the grip of mania. Like other letters Moses writes (to Nietzsche, Spinoza, Governor Stevenson, President Eisenhower, Freud, God, his doctor, his shrink) it is never sent. Moses is an intellectual historian, author of a book entitled Romanticism and Christianity, and his letters overflow with erudite allusion and reflection. Far from limiting the novel’s appeal, the letters helped to account for its commercial success, sparked by the approving attention they received from reviewers. Herzog spent 42 weeks on the bestseller lists and sold 142,000 in hardback. That Herzog’s learning does him no good may also help to account for the novel’s appeal. When put to the test – betrayed by wife and best friend – the lessons of high culture simply don’t apply. “That’s where the comedy comes from,” Bellow writes. “What do you propose to do now your wife has taken a lover?” Herzog asks. “Pull Spinoza from the shelf and look into what he says about adultery?” Where was Spinoza when Moses married a woman who really does “eat green salad and drink human blood”? Where was he when her lover smarmed his way into Herzog’s confidence? Moses comes to terms with the reality of his situation over the course of an artfully plotted recovery, both moving and funny. In addition, there are brilliant scenes from Herzog’s Montreal childhood, as memorable and autobiographical as anything Bellow ever wrote.

Humboldt's Gift jacket

Humboldt’s Gift (1975)

For Bellow, Chicago was “one of the terms that expressed the depth of our penetration into the physical world”. The power of the city “lay in things and the methods by which they were produced”. The Chicago sections of Humboldt’s Gift, the funniest of Bellow’s novels, offer a wide range of character types, including real and wannabe gangsters, high-powered academics, vengeful wives, femmes fatales, expensive lawyers. Bellow goes after the lawyers with particular relish, partly because he suffered so at their hands (having had five wives and been divorced four times). Here we meet, among others, Forrest Tomchek and Maxie Pinsker. Tomchek is too important for Charlie Citrine, the novel’s narrator. “He wouldn’t put you in his fish tank for an ornament.” Pinsker, hired by Charlie’s shrewish wife, Denise, who is bleeding him dry, is known as “Cannibal” Pinsker, “that man-eating kike”. Both are “completely at home in the fallen world”, a world Charlie, like Bellow, is both attracted to and deplores. “Chicago with its gigantesque outer life,” Charlie declares, “contained the whole problem of poetry and the inner life in America”. The non-Chicago sections of the novel, involving the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, render this problem with comic poignancy.

Ravelstein jacket

Ravelstein (2000)

Bellow’s last novel, written in his 80s, is a loving and openly biographical portrait of the political philosopher Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), a bestselling polemic against trends in university education. To some, the novel’s portrait of Bloom as Ravelstein is a betrayal; to others, it is as much what Bloom would have wanted as the narrator’s portrait of Ravelstein is what his friend Ravelstein wants. Ravelstein is a homosexual, as was Bloom, whose sexual orientation was known to friends and colleagues, though not to the wider public. Ravelstein dies of Aids, or complications from Aids, which Bloom may have died from as well. According to Bellow, the novel was, in effect, solicited by Bloom, just as Ravelstein solicits Chick, the narrator, a biographer of sorts, “to do me as you did Keynes, but on a bigger scale … Be as hard on me as you like.” For Chick, as for Bellow, “it was up to me to interpret his wishes and to decide just to what extent I was freed by his death to respect the essentials”. Bellow was drawn to larger-than-life figures and his fiction is as filled with them as the novels of Dickens or Balzac are. Ravelstein is the last of their number, a brilliantly funny and eccentric character, as exotic and colourful in the grey academic landscape of Chicago’s Hyde Park as the flocks of escaped parrots who nest in its back alleys and tall shrubs. “You don’t easily give up a character like Ravelstein to death,” is the novel’s raison d’etre.

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