Saul Bellow and the great American novel?

I have just read part of a Saul Bellow novel, “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” – various blurbs on this late 60s novel: “Of all American Jewish writers…Bellow is not merely the most gifted by far, but the most serious.” “Bellow is the premier American novelist” and “Easily the most exciting novel Bellow has written.”

Screen Shot 2019-03-31 at 8.12.08 AMI had happened to read a review of Bellow in NYRBooks but hadn’t been a particular fan, having tried a bit of ‘Henderson the Rain King.” He was very famous in his time, won the Nobel Prize etc. But, in short, I’m afraid I’m still not a fan – and wonder, seriously, if many people actually read this kind of novel any more – unless obliged by a literature course or reading group – and I suspect that the numbers who read this sort of book must be dwindling. Which is a hard and mean thing to say from someone who’s hoping to get a novel published – but there we are, that’s the mood I’m in.

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So, the novel is smothered in language, in references, in sheer WORDS – it’s not quite stream of consciousness, but clearly influenced by writers like Joyce. And to an extent it works – since you feel a heavy saturation of words descending on you and surrounding you. You feel it physically and it ties in with the descriptions, which, since I now live in Manhattan, are somewhat familiar. You feel all around you the heaviness of Upper West Side masonry, the slightly dank, depressing apartments tucked away in brownstones – a kind of boredom and stuffiness spreading in every direction: ” …and he looked out. Brownstones, balustrades, bay windows, wrought-iron. Like stamps in an album – the dun rose of buildings canceled by the heavy black of grilles, or corrugated rainspots.”

The language is not badly written – but I don’t think it has the richness or invention of a writer like John Updike, a near contemporary. And yet in a way this success is not good – since it successfully immerses you in the stuffy, non-lively, boring mass of masonry and people. And you want to get out of it – you don’t want to be submerged in it for hundreds of pages.

But there’s a much bigger problem. It’s the problem of the middle-class novelist facing the same reality that his middle-class contemporaries and readers know, and trying to write something that’s new and interesting. Essentially simply recreating that world isn’t enough – we already know it, we want to experience something fresh – or at least something fresh happening TO this world. But to me Bellow doesn’t supply it.

He creaks out a few happenings – a lecture with an obnoxious student, a pickpocket on a bus confronts the hero, a water leak in a house and someone eventually dies. It’s not interesting enough. The smothering in words and references makes it hard to say out loud that a novel like this is, in fact, boring crap (OK that’s too harsh – but let’s just say somewhat boring and stuffy) – it maintains an intellectual respectability because of its references – but that hides an underlying lack of excitement. Yes, there are references to the holocaust, to Europe, to the war, to the sixties – but unless you do something interesting with all that, it won’t retain interest – it will fade away with time. And I suspect this is a fate that has already happened to this novel.

Thus we have, inside the hero’s mind “The reprobates converted into children of joy, the sexual ways of the seraglio and the Congo bush adopted by the emancipated masses of New York, Amsterdam, London. Old triumph of the Enlightenment – Liberty, Fraternity, Equality, Adultery! Enlightenment, universal education, universal suffrage, the rights of the majority acknowledged by all governments, the rights of women etc etc etc”

But it just ain’t enough to make lists of references and to smother us with this. The chief problem, for me, is a lack of direction. Ultimately we follow the minute, subtle twists and turns happening in the brain of an elderly Jewish professor living on the Upper West Side. But I don’t think there’s a real story beyond this situation.

Instead we just have him living from day to day. But, for a commitment from today’s reader, it has to lead SOMEWHERE – we have to want to know what happens next – but instead we have to draw in breath and be prepared, be WILLING to follow the next meander, even though we are not drawn or compelled to do so. Thriller writers always compel us to turn the page by withholding information, by having an identifiable hero that we root for, by building a narrative situation.

All of those elements are necessary for any novel to be enjoyable to read – yes, the bare thriller isn’t that satisfying beyond mere action for me, and we need to develop more that comes out of the story – but we do still need story, we do need interesting characters, and we do need to care what happens next.

I think we’ve probably become much more demanding of written stories these days – you simply have to entertain us – you simply can’t expect us to be willing to follow along when we aren’t entertained. And I’m afraid this novel didn’t entertain – and no, of course I didn’t read all of it – only a part – then I skipped through to the middle and end and saw that it continued in the same, ultimately uninteresting way.

Sadly, the word that comes to mind is “joyless”. It was was joyless read.

4 responses to “Saul Bellow and the great American novel?”


    The only Bellow I’ve read much of is “Augie March” It’s a masterpiece. And there’s nothing bourgeois going on in it. You might come to dislike the protagonist, but he’s very well-drawn. I’m told that his late roman a clef, “Ravelstein” is worth reading, but I’m probably not going there.

    1. OK thanks Brian – I’m conscious that I’m being pretty unfair, having only read parts of two novels, but I wasn’t in a fair mood – I may take a look – thanks for the tip.

      1. at least I’ll read the free sample section from Kindle 🙂

      2. OK I tried- I tried reading the first thirty pages of Augie March – and I’m afraid I feel the same sense of suffocation, and no sense that it’s going anywhere significant -anywhere interesting enough for me to be motivated to follow. I derived no pleasure from it at all, because it doesn’t touch my sympathy or interest. It’s as if Bellow writes by simply amassing details, words and references – and it’s not enough. I feel as if I’m wading through a swamp with no direction – meandering references, meander, meander, meander. And, while, as you say, this is a noble attempt to get away from a bourgeois setting, the voice doesn’t ring quite true to me – it’s a weird mix of awkward literary-ness and allusions to working-class events and activities. It doesn’t seem like a real and coherent person speaking to my ear. It’s more a voice thought up with great diligence from the outside – but it remains a pastiche thrown together from endless details and phrases and turns in the prose. Not for me. Sorry to be so negative – I appreciate your engagement and willingness to send a tip.

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