Soul Bellow

Craig Raine

  • More die of heartbreak by Saul Bellow
    Alison Press/Secker, 335 pp, £10.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 436 03962 1

According to Oscar Wilde, before Dickens there were no fogs, and before Turner no sunsets. Wilde is merely exaggerating a truth, practising the art of aphorism, drawing our attention to this precept: we need art so that we can see what we are seeing. On his way to the Hebrides, Dr Johnson pulled down the blind on what a future generation of writers would take for their subject-matter – wild, ‘romantic’ nature. Johnson, had he lived, would not have seen the point of Wordsworth’s ‘single sheep, and the one blasted tree, / And the bleak music of that old stone wall’. But if art enables and liberates its audience, it can also disable and enslave the subsequent generation of writers. In To Jerusalem and Back, Saul Bellow notes that ‘in every generation we recognise a leader race of masterminds whose ideas (“class-struggle”, “Oedipus complex”, “identity crisis”) come down over us like butterfly nets.’ This insight applies to artists as well as thinkers.

After Dickens, as it were, the weather took a turn for the worse, as Virginia Woolf recorded in Orlando: ‘The great cloud which hung, not only over London, but over the whole of the British Isles on the first day of the 19th century stayed, or rather, did not stay, for it was buffeted about constantly by blustering gales, long enough to have extraordinary consequences upon those who lived beneath its shadow. A change seemed to have come over the climate of England.’ In the 20th century, similar restrictions obtain. Rex Warner recalls how, as Oxford undergraduates, he and Auden used to walk by canals and gasworks because they were ‘already sanctified by a phrase in The Waste Land’. Eliot had altered the landscape and it was to be some time before, so to speak, Auden could write in praise of limestone. Meanwhile, Auden’s coevals were blindly exploring his idiosyncratic geography of deserted leadmines and overshot waterwheels – and wondering why their own environments felt so drab and unpromising as possible subject-matter. Hopkins had the answer to this predicament: admire and do otherwise – a recipe, however, which is more easily assented to than followed.

The classic account of imprisonment by admiration is Ted Solotaroff’s essay, ‘Silence, Exile and Cunning’ (1970), which antedates Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence by three years. There, Solotaroff shows how the aspiring writer’s mind, locked in the cell of its preconceptions, receives visits from real life, but for the most part gets down to serving the sentence. Flaubert was the model, for Solotaroff and Bellow (‘In writing The Victim I accepted a Flaubertian standard’). In the years of virtual silence, Solotaroff, ‘trying to give the words that quiet, impassive gleam through the ordinary of Flaubert’s “Un Coeur Simple” ... would spend months revising a ten-page story so that it might come out like the poem Yeats dreamed of, “as cold and beautiful as the dawn”. These values of “art” persisted, and in the five years after I left Ann Arbor, I wrote exactly seven stories. In terms of experience, they were probably the richest years of my life: I was engrossed in a young, deep, complex, and stormy marriage; we lived mostly in the Village but also in Berkeley and in Maine; I worked in innumerable restaurants and a few gambling houses and racetracks as a waiter or bartender; I was also a psychiatric attendant, a temporary office worker, an eradicator of gooseberry bushes in the Sierras, and an assistant to a Japanese gardener; I twice started graduate school, read a great deal, and even taught myself Latin and German. Virtually none of this went into my writing.’

‘Instead,’ Solotaroff ruefully recalls, ‘I laboured on my few ironic tales of empty lives.’ Most writers, when they begin to write, are actually taking dictation from their immediate great predecessors. Someone fully-formed like Kipling, with a new subject – India – and a new style to go with it, is a rare event. For the rest, while the pantheon casts a long, blighting shadow, some writer nearer in time, or less weighty, may provide the liberation from Literature. Eliot, in ‘To Criticise the Critic’, explains that ‘just as the modern poet who influenced me was not Baudelaire but Jules Laforgue, so the dramatic poets were Marlowe and Webster and Tourneur and Middleton and Ford, not Shakespeare. A poet of the supreme greatness of Shakespeare can hardly influence, he can only be imitated: and the difference between influence and imitation is that influence can fecundate, whereas imitation – especially unconscious imitation – can only sterilise.’ Seamus Heaney has recorded the importance of Ted Hughes to him as an example: ‘suddenly, the matter of contemporary poetry was the material of my own life.’ Athol Fugard has acknowledged a similar debt to Camus. After apprentice work which struggled to accommodate South African material in the dramatic forms supplied by Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, Fugard found what he needed in Camus’s treatment of Algeria: ‘when I first encountered the articulation of that almost pagan, sensual life lived out in the sun, next to a sea, with warm rocks being, in a sense, the ultimate reality, it struck a resonance in me that persists to this day.’ The key word here is surely ‘articulation’, when it is linked to something fundamentally inarticulate – a landscape and an associated way of life.

For Bellow, as for Nabokov, even more than Nabokov, articulation was caught up in one categorical imperative – Speak, memory. In The Victim and Dangling Man, Bellow is paying his dues to Modernism, serving his time. ‘Ironic tales of empty lives’, they are crafted, careful and slightly comatose – except for one page of Dangling Man in which Bellow stumbles on what is to be his subject. That is, autobiography, the long clear packed morning of life, evoked in street-wise, high-minded, headlong prose. The hero is cleaning his wife’s shoes: ‘it was doing something I had done as a child. In Montreal, on such afternoons as this, I often asked permission to spread a paper on the sitting-room floor and shine all the shoes in the house, including Aunt Dina’s with their long tongues and scores of eyelets. When I thrust my arm into one of her shoes it reached well above the elbow and I could feel the brush against my arm through the soft leather.’ When Bellow reaches ‘their long tongues’, the prose suddenly stirs and Joseph is taken back to St Dominique Street and a series of memories whose vividness is their only justification, ending with: ‘two quarrelling drunkards, one of whom walked away bleeding, drops falling from his head like the first slow drops of a heavy rain in summer, a crooked line of drops left on the pavement as he walked’. Cleaning shoes: for any admirer of Bellow, this moment links directly with the end of Herzog, where the style is less constrained, more ejaculatory and excitable:

Moses could remember a time when Willie, too, had been demonstrative, passionate, explosive, given to bursts of rage, flinging objects to the ground. Just a moment – what was it, now, that he had thrown down? A brush! That was it! The broad old Russian shoe brush. Will slammed it to the floor so hard the veneer backing fell off, and beneath were the stitches, ancient waxed thread, maybe even sinew.

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