Saul Bellow was a terrific writer – a Nobel Prize winner, no less – and occasionally I have the urge to read all of his books, one after the other. Then I remember all the other books I have on my shelves crying out for attention, and “shelve” the idea. But this year, I did go back to Square One and purchase, and read, Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man (1944). Out of order, I can add it to Herzog (1964), Seize the Day (1956), Humbolt’s Gift (1975), Henderson the Rain King (1959) and Ravelstein (2000). There’s a bunch I’ve missed, and a few on my shelves I’ve never got to, and since I read Herzog as a teenager, a lot of water has passed under the Du Sable Bridge. I feel I ought to start again. One needs more than one life to read – and at least one, to live.
On the other hand, Joseph – the “hero” of this particular novel, has more than enough time on his hands as he ‘dangles’ between employment (he has lost his job) and recruitment into the US Army. In the diary format, Joseph reflects on his self, at times using the third person to do so – so detached does he feel. December 18, for example: ‘Joseph suffers from a feeling of strangeness, of not quite belonging to the world, of lying under a cloud and looking up at it’ (p.30). At other points, matters seem more urgent: ‘I feel I am a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn. I am going to explode and I am continually anticipating the time, with a prayerful despair crying “Boom!” but always prematurely’ (p.148). Between these two feelings – detachment, and let’s call it, potential unrealised – Joseph’s life is on hold, like Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial. He remembers a time when he was a passionate intellectual, as he enters a café where ‘you could hear discussions of socialism, psychopathology, or the fate of the European man’ (p.32). He has an affair with Kitty but ends it when he realises his double life has at its cause his ‘unwillingness to miss anything [since] a compact with one woman puts beyond reach what others might give us to enjoy’ (p.101). In his unemployed state, Joseph asserts himself among friends, relatives, and fellow boarding house residents – sometimes violently – and gradually finds himself more and more on his own.
Saul Bellow’s novels appeal to me because they are centred on troubled intellectuals, men in crisis, and connect everyday matters with the larger issues of the times in which Bellow wrote. The question of whether such characters can speak for humanity – as the Nobel Prize committee presumably decided they could – or a privileged, educated class of male – is a fair one to ask today, with other relevant voices out there to consider. So, I go back to my earlier point. I’d like to read all the Saul Bellow novels, in order, but I somehow doubt I will, since choice as well as discipline is at play. Maybe I, too, need a stint in the army, as Joseph concludes his diary (April 9): ‘Hurray for regular hours! And for the supervision of the spirit! Long live regimentation!’ (p.191).