The Moronic Inferno

Martin Amis

  • 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-chasers 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.

The Dean’s December is spent in Bucharest, 6,000 miles from home. The Dean is Albert Corde, ex-journalist, ex-womaniser, ex-trivialiser (he is also a Gentile – surprising for such an obvious and detailed Bellow-surrogate). Home is Chicago. The year is uncertain: there are mentions of Carter, Margaret Thatcher, but also of Entebbe, Cambodia. The Dean has come to Bucharest with his Rumanian wife Minna, a distinguished astronomer. Minna’s mother Valeria is dying. ‘Corde had come to give support.’ He is consciously testing his reserves as a good husband, exhaustively considerate and correct. He is a reformed character, proving his seriousness. In a way, this is what the novel is doing too. It is a necessary connection. ‘I was then becoming careless about time,’ says Charlie Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift, ‘a symptom of my increasing absorption in larger issues.’ Such a crack would be unthinkable in The Dean’s December. There has been a moral tightening. No more gadabouts like the unpunctual Citrine. You have to get life right before you start going on about its meaning.

Old Valeria, one-time Minister of Health, is in an ambiguous position vis à vis the Party, and Minna herself is a defector. The powers that be being what they are, Mr and Mrs Corde are given a hard time as they brace themselves for their bereavement. And ‘the city was terrible!’ says Corde, helplessly, in a bracketed aside. ‘Aged women rose at four to stand in line for a few eggs’; the queues have ‘an atmosphere of compulsory exercise in the prison yard’. But this is not crudely emphasised. Bucharest is summoned in terms of peeling stucco, bad food and bad light. ‘Air-sadness, Corde called this. In the final stages of dusk, a brown sediment seemed to encircle the lamps. Then there was a livid death moment. Night began. Night was very difficult here, thought Albert Corde.’

There is not much Corde can do in Bucharest. He attends to his wife’s grief, and to the stiff cousins who glide in their bad clothes through the antique apartment. He sits in his wife’s childhood room. He goes to bed after breakfast. ‘As he did this, he sometimes felt how long he had lived and how many, many times the naked creature had crept into its bedding.’ For the Bellow hero, however, solitude always opens the way to the gregariousness of memory – to the inner riot of the past. In Herzog, Herzog relives a marriage while putting on his tie. In Humboldt, Citrine reviews a literary career while meditating on his sofa. Albert Corde has his own ‘restless ecstasy’ to contend with: but the Dean’s December, like The Dean’s December, is caught up in more public matters.

Corde’s troubles emerge slowly, piecemeal. Humboldt’s Citrine came out of his Chicago apartment block one morning to find that his Mercedes had been beaten up with baseball bats: ‘Now the moronic inferno had caught up with me.’ The phrase recurs here: but this time we are closer in, much nearer the first circle. As college Dean, Corde is involved in an investigation into the murder of one of his students. It happened during a torrid Chicago night: ‘one of those choking, peak-of-summer, urban-nightmare, sexual and obscene, running-bare times, and death panting behind the young man, closing in’. On the night of his murder, the student ‘had been out for dirty sex, and it was this dirty sex momentum that had carried him through the window.’

The Dean’s involvement with the moronic inferno has another dimension. Recently Corde published two long articles in Harper’s – articles about Chicago, ‘the contempt centre of the USA’. (One reflects that Bellow has been very lucky with his home town: a great city, vast, bloody, hugely mercantile, and not much frequented by writers.) In these pieces Corde submitted to an atrocious anger: ‘he gave up his cover, ran out, swung wild at everyone.’ The articles examine Chicago’s ‘underclass’, the disposable populations of the criminal poor. Born into slums, jails and hospitals, the Morlock sub-race is permitted – even expected – to destroy itself with violence, lead-poisoning and junk. In Bucharest, with its ‘strict zero-blue and simple ice’, ‘the trees made their tree gestures, but human beings were faced by the organised prevention of everything that came natural.’ Chicago is repeatedly described as a jungle populated exclusively by rats. In Bucharest, the city rodents have been ‘rolled flat by trucks and cars’; they are ‘as two-dimensional as weather vanes’, just like everything else.

The Rumanian ordeal continues. During the frigid Christmas, Corde and Minna preside over Valeria’s obsequies. Tottering relatives in fake fur coats join the Cordes at the suburban crematorium. Feeling himself ‘crawling between heaven and earth’, Corde descends from the fiery crematorium into the deep-frozen crypt, ‘the extremes of heat and cold splitting him like an ax’. It is a memorable scene, conspicuously intense, the emotional crisis of the book. And here, the slowly solidifying ‘thesis novel’ – so quietly and subtly arrived at – is abandoned, rejected, put aside. The Dean’s December ceases its inspection of East and West, the vying perversions of humanity, and goes on to bigger things.

The heroes of Saul Bellow’s major novels are intellectuals; they are also (if you follow me) heroes, which makes Bellow doubly remarkable. In thumbnail terms, the original protagonists of literature were gods; later, they were demigods; later still, they were kings, generals, stupendous lovers, at once superhuman, human and all-too-human; eventually they turned into ordinary people. The 20th century has been called an ironic age, as opposed to a heroic, tragic or romantic one; even realism is felt to be a bit grand for the 20th century. Nowadays, our protagonists are a good deal lower down the human scale than their creators: they are anti-heroes, non-heroes, sub-heroes.

Not so with Bellow. His heroes are well tricked out with faults, neuroses, spots of commonness: but not a jot of Bellow’s intellectuality is withheld from their meditations. They represent the author at the full pitch of cerebral endeavour, with the simple proviso that they are themselves non-creative – they are thinkers, teachers, readers. This careful positioning allows Bellow to write in a style fit for heroes: the High Style. To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the 20th century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work. It began with The Adventures of Augie March (1953), at times very shakily: for all its marvels, Augie March, like Henderson the Rain King, often resembles a lecture on destiny fed through a Thesaurus of low-life patois. Herzog erred on the side of private gloom, Humboldt on the side of sunny ebullience (with stupendous but lopsided gains for the reader). Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970) came nearest to finding the perfect pitch, and it is the Bellow novel which The Dean’s December most clearly echoes.

The High Style is not a high style just for the hell of it: there are responsibilities involved. The High Style attempts to speak for the whole of mankind, with suasion, to remind us of what we once knew and have since forgotten or stopped trying to regrasp. ‘It was especially important,’ Corde reflects, ‘to think what a human being really was. What wise contemporaries had to say about this amounted to very little.’ The Bellow hero lays himself open to the world, at considerable psychological cost. Mr Sammler is ‘a delicate recording instrument’; Herzog is ‘a prisoner of perception, a compulsory witness’. All that can be done with these perceptions, these data, is to transform them into – into what? Humboldt suffered from ‘the longing for passionate speech’. Corde, like Sammler, aches to deliver his ‘inspired recitation’. It is the desire to speak, to warn – to move, above all.

Albert Corde is ‘an image man’, ‘a hungry observer’. He has a ‘radar-dish face’, for ever picking up signals ‘from all over the universe’.

He looked out, noticing. What a man he was for noticing! Continually attentive to his surroundings. As if he had been sent down to mind the outer world, on a mission of observation and notation. The object of which was? To link up? To classify? To penetrate?

Corde has ‘the restless ecstasy’ common to Bellow’s heroes – a global version of Henderson’s I want, I want, I want. He suffers from ‘vividness fits’, ‘storms of convulsive clear consciousness’, ‘objectivity intoxicated’. And

it wasn’t just two, three, five chosen deaths being painted thickly, terribly, convulsively inside him, all over his guts, liver, heart ... but a large picture of cities, crowds, peoples, an apocalypse ...

Up to now the Bellow hero has always kept these convulsions to himself. They provide the substance of his meditations and, at most, they give the spur to some climactic effort of passionate utterance – to a friend, a girl, anyone who will listen. But Corde, like the book built round him, has gone public. The key to his self-exposure, and self-injury, is his journalistic outpouring on Chicago, which might almost be seen as a pre-emptive strike for the novel itself. Corde’s articles are reckless, irresponsible: but their main presumption, as Dewey Spangler gloatingly points out, is that they are full of ‘poetry’. They constitute an act of romantic regression and are an embarrassment to everyone, Corde included.

An old childhood pal, Spangler is ‘just another VIP’ (in his own words) passing through Bucharest in a ‘sweep’ across Eastern Europe. Like Dr Temkin in Seize the day, or Allbee in The Victim, Spangler is a malevolent alter ego, a traveller on a parallel path, the wrong path. He lives in ‘a kind of event-glamour’, unaware that

the increase of theories and discourse, itself a cause of new strange forms of blindness, the false representations of ‘communication’, led to horrible distortions of public consciousness. Therefore the first act of morality was to disinter the reality, retrieve reality, dig it out from the trash, represent it anew as art would represent it.

The alternative to the East is not the West; the alternative to the West is not the East. The alternative to both is the unobtainable world glimpsed through art, the ‘pangs of higher intuition’ which balance ‘the muddy suck of the grave underfoot’.

It remains uncertain whether the novel, as a novel, is very grateful for this emphasis, which occupies its last hundred pages. But then again Bellow ceased concerning himself with the idea of a ‘well-made fiction’ as early as Augie March. Since then his preoccupations have required something freer and looser: the business of orchestrating his characters, of getting them from A to B and back again, all the mechanical drudgery of the novel, have caused him increasing impatience. He wants to speak, to sing, and the novel simply happens to be the most capacious form available.

Bellow has always been an energetic recycler of his own experience, and The Dean’s December shows signs of the flattened, chastened, almost puritanical mood which waylays the traveller to a stricken country. ‘They set the pain level for you over here,’ as Corde remarks. The result is a top-heavy novel, with too much instruction, and not enough delight. But there are many thrilling pages here. Reading Bellow at his most inspired, you are reminded of a scene in Augie March, when Augie, down on his luck in a small Mexican town, sees Trotsky alight from his car in the cathedral square:

what it was about him that stirred me was the instant impression he gave – no matter about the old heap he rode in or the peculiarity of his retinue – of navigation by the great stars, of the highest considerations, of being fit to speak the most important human words and universal terms. When you are as reduced to a different kind of navigation from this high starry kind as I was and are only sculling on the shallow bay, crawling from one clam-rake to the next, it’s stirring to have a glimpse of deep-water greatness. And, even more than an established, an exiled greatness, because the exile was a sign to me of persistence at the highest things.