The Moronic Inferno
- The Dean’s December by Saul Bellow
Secker, 312 pp, £7.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 436 03952 4
Iggy Blaikie, Kayo Obermark, Sam Zincowicz, Kotzie Kreindl, Clara Spohr, Teodoro Valdepenas, Clem Tambow, Rinaldo Cantabile, Tennie Pontritter, Lucas Asphalter, Murray Verviger, Wharton Horricker … The way a writer names his characters provides a good index to the way he sees the world – to his reality-level, his responsiveness to the accidental humour and freakish poetry of life. Thomas Pynchon uses names like Oedipa Maas and Pig Bodine (where the effect is slangy, jivey, cartoonish); at the other end of the scale, John Braine offers us Tom Metfield, Jack Royston, Jane Framsby (can these people really exist, in our minds or anywhere else, with such leadenly humdrum, such dead names?). Saul Bellow’s inventions are Dickensian in their resonance and relish. But they also have a dialectical point to make.
British critics tend to regard the American predilection for Big Novels as a vulgar neurosis – like the American predilection for big cars or big hamburgers. Oh God, we think: here comes another sweating, free-dreaming maniac with another thousand-pager; here comes another Big Mac. First, Dos Passos produced the Great American Novel; now they all want one. Yet in a sense every ambitious American novelist is genuinely trying to write a novel called USA. Perhaps this isn’t just a foible; perhaps it is an inescapable response to America – 20th-century America, racially mixed and mobile, 24-hour, endless, extreme, superabundantly various. American novels are big all right, but partly because America is big too.
You need plenty of nerve, ink and energy to do justice to the place, and no one has made greater efforts than Saul Bellow. His new novel, The Dean’s December, has caused some puzzlement in its country of origin, and one can see why. Far more sombre and less exuberant than its major predecessors, it has every appearance of being an ‘engaged’ novel, a mature novel, a statement, a warning; Bellow himself has gone on record, perhaps incautiously, as stressing the difficulty people will have in ‘shrugging this one off’. In 1976 Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, praised by the Swedes ‘for human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture’. T. S. Eliot said that the Nobel was like an invitation to one’s own funeral: no beneficiary of the prize had ever gone on to write anything good. It may be coincidence (as opposed to an onset of Delphic delusion), but Bellow’s first post Nobel novel transmits all the strain and clangour of a juggernaut changing gear. The vision has widened but also become narrower; most noticeably, the fluid musicality of Bellow’s epics – the laughter, the didactic generosity, the beguiling switches of register – has become clotted, dazzled, stalled. This, it seems to me, is what Late Bellow is going to be like. It is all very interesting.
If we take an introductory glance through the dramatis personae of the new book, we see the usual rhythmical clinches but also sense that Bellow is playing in a minor key, and using the mute. There are various judges, shysters and ambulance-chasters with names like Ellis Sorokin, Wolf Quitman and Maxie Detillion (these hardly rival the three divorce lawyers in Humboldt’s Gift, who are called Tomchek, Pinsker and Srole); there is a rock-hard black whore called Riggie Hines, and a suave black rapist called Spofford Mitchell; there is an aging athlete called Silky Limpopo, a prison reformer called Rufus Ridpath, a world-famous journalist called Dewey Spangler ... That last name looks a bit artful and specific for a Bellow character, and perhaps this provides a more general clue to the novel’s intentions. A pivotal figure in the book, Dewey Spangler is somewhere between Walter Lippmann and André Malraux, a flashy trader in geopolitical generalities and global diagnoses. ‘Dewey’, of course, is America’s great philosopher, its star-spangled thinker: and ‘Spangler’, I suspect, has something to do with the decline of the West.