The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

The transformation of the novelist who published Dangling Man in 1944 and The Victim in 1947 into the novelist who published The Adventures of Augie March in ‘53 is revolutionary. Bellow overthrows everything: compositional choices grounded in narrative principles of harmony and order, a novelistic ethos indebted to Kafka’s The Trial and Dostoyevsky’s The Double and The Eternal Husband, as well as a moral perspective that can hardly be said to derive from delight in the flash, color, and plenty of existence. In Augie March, a very grand, assertive, freewheeling conception of both the novel and the world the novel represents breaks loose from all sorts of self-imposed strictures, the beginner’s principles of composition are subverted, and, like the character of five Properties in Augie March, the writer is himself “hipped on superabundance.” The pervasive threat that organized the outlook of the hero and the action of the novel in The Victim and Dangling Man disappears, and the bottled-up aggression that was The Victim’s Asa Leventhal and the obstructed will that was Joseph in Dangling Man emerge as voracious appetite. There is the narcissistic enthusiasm for life in all its hybrid forms propelling Augie March, and there is an inexhaustible passion for a teemingness of dazzling specifics driving Saul Bellow.

The scale dramatically enlarges: the world inflates, and those inhabiting it, monumental, overwhelming, ambitious, energetic people, do not easily, in Augie’s words, get “stamped out in the life struggle.” The intricate landscape of physical being and the power-seeking of influential personalities make “character” in all its manifestations—particularly its ability indelibly to imprint its presence—less an aspect of the novel than its preoccupation.

Think of Einhorn at the whorehouse, Thea with the eagle, Dingbat and his fighter, Simon coarsely splendid at the Magnuses and violent at the lumberyard. From Chicago to Mexico and the mid-Atlantic and back, it’s all Brobdingnag to Augie, observed, however, not by a caustic, angry Swift but by a word-painting Hieronymus Bosch, an American Bosch, an unsermonizing and optimistic Bosch, who detects even in the eeliest slipperiness of his creatures, in their most colossal finagling and conspiring and deceit, what is humanly enrapturing. The intrigues of mankind no longer incite paranoid fear in the Bellow hero but light him up. That the richly rendered surface is manifold with contradiction and ambiguity ceases to be a source of consternation; instead, the “mixed character” of everything is bracing. Manifoldness is fun.

Engorged sentences had existed before in American fiction—notably in Melville and Faulkner—but not quite like those in Augie March, which strike me as more than liberty- taking; when mere liberty-taking is driving a writer, it can easily lead to the empty flamboyance of some of Augie March’s imitators. I read Bellow’s liberty-taking prose as the syntactical demonstration of Augie’s large, robust ego, that attentive ego roving and evolving, always in motion, alternately mastered by the force of others and escaping from it. There are sentences in the book whose effervescence, whose undercurrent of buoyancy leave one with the sense of so much going on, a theatrical, exhibitionistic, ardent prose tangle that lets in the dynamism of living without driving mentalness out. This voice no longer encountering resistance is permeated by mind while connected also to the mysteries of feeling. It’s a voice unbridled and intelligent both, going at full force and yet always sharp enough to sensibly size things up.

Chapter XVI of Augie March is about the attempt, by Thea Fenchel, Augie’s headstrong beloved, to train her eagle, Caligula, to attack and capture the large lizards crawling around the mountains outside Acatla, in central Mexico, to make that “menace falling fast from the sky” fit into her scheme of things. It’s a chapter of prodigious strength, sixteen bold pages about a distinctly human happening whose mythic aura (and comedy too) is comparable to the great scenes in Faulkner—in The Bear, in Spotted Horses, in As I Lay Dying, throughout The Wild Palms—where human resolve pits itself against natural wildness. The combat between Caligula and Thea (for the eagle’s body and soul), the wonderfully precise passages describing the eagle soaring off to satisfy his beautiful fiendish trainer and miserably failing her, crystallize a notion about the will to power and dominance that is central to nearly every one of Augie’s adventures. “To tell the truth,” Augie says near the end of the book, “I’m good and tired of all these big personalities, destiny molders, and heavy-water brains, Machiavellis and wizard evildoers, big-wheels and imposers-upon, absolutists.”

On the book’s memorable first page, in the second sentence, Augie quotes Heraclitus: a man’s character is his fate. But doesn’t The Adventures of Augie March suggest exactly the opposite, that a man’s fate (at least this man’s, this Chicago-born Augie’s) is the impinging character of others

Bellow once told me that “somewhere in my Jewish and immigrant blood there were conspicuous traces of doubt as to whether I had the right to practice the writer’s trade.” He suggested that, at least in part, this doubt permeated his blood because “our own Wasp establishment, represented mainly by Harvard-trained professors,” considered a son of immigrant Jews unfit to write books in English. These guys infuriated him.
It may well have been the precious gift of an appropriate fury that launched him into beginning his third book not with the words “I am a Jew, the son of immigrants” but, rather, by warranting that son of immigrant Jews who is Augie March to break the ice with the Harvard-trained professors (as well as everyone else) by flatly decreeing, with out apology or hyphenation, “I am an American, Chicago born.”
Opening Augie March with those six words demonstrates the same sort of assertive gusto that the musical sons of immigrant Jews—Irving Berlin, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein—brought to America’s radios, theaters, and concert halls by staking their claim to America (as subject, as inspiration, as audience) in songs like “God Bless America,” “This Is the Army, Mr. Jones,” “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “Manhattan,” and “0l’ Man River”; in musical plays like Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Porgy and Bess, On the Town, Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, and Of Thee I Sing; in ballet music like Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and Billy the Kid. Back in the teens, when the immigration was still going on, back in the twenties, the thirties, the forties, even into the fifties, none of these American-raised boys whose parents or grandparents had spoken Yiddish had the slightest interest in writing shtetl kitsch such as came along in the sixties with Fiddler on the Roof. Having themselves been freed by their families’ emigration from the pious orthodoxy and the social authoritarianism that were such a great source of shtetl claustrophobia, why would they want to? In secular, democratic, unclaustrophobic America, Augie will, as he says, “go at things as I have taught myself, free-style.”
This assertion of unequivocal, unquellable citizenship in free-style America (and the five-hundred-odd-page book that followed) was precisely the bold stroke required to abolish anyone’s doubts about the American writing credentials of an immigrant son like Saul Bellow. Augie, at the very end of his book, exuberantly cries out, “Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand.” Going where his pedigreed betters wouldn’t have believed he had any right to go with the American language, Bellow was indeed Columbus for people like me, the grandchildren of immigrants, who set out as American writers after him.

Seize the Day (1956)

Three years after The Adventures of Augie March appeared, Bellow published Seize the Day, a short novel that is the fictional antithesis of Augie March. In form spare and compact and tightly organized, it is a sorrow-filled book, set in a hotel for the aged on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a book populated largely by people old, sick, and dying, while AugieMarch is a vast, sprawling, loquacious book, spilling over with everything, including authorial high spirits, and set wherever life’s fullness can be rapturously perceived. Seize the Day depicts the culmination, in a single day, of the breakdown of a man who is the opposite of Augie March in every important way. Where Augie is the opportunity seizer, a fatherless slum kid eminently adoptable, Tommy Wilhelm is the mistake maker with a prosperous old father who is very much present but who wants nothing to do with him and his problems. Inasmuch as Tommy’s father is characterized in the book, it is through his relentless distaste for his son. Tommy is brutally disowned, eminently unadoptable, largely because he is bereft of the lavish endowment of self-belief, verve, and vibrant adventurousness that is Augie’s charm. Where Augie’s is an ego triumphantly buoyed up and swept along by the strong currents of life, Tommy’s is an ego quashed beneath its burden— Tommy is “assigned to be the carrier of a load which was his own self, his characteristic self.” The ego roar amplified by Augie March’s prose exuberance Augie joyously articulates on the book’s final page: “Look at me, going everywhere!” Look at me—the vigorous, child’s demand for attention, the cry of exhibitionistic confidence.

The cry resounding through Seize the Day is Help me. In vain Tommy utters, Help me, help me, I’m getting nowhere, and not only to his own father, Dr. Adler, but to all the false, rogue fathers who succeed Dr. Adler and to whom Tommy foolishly entrusts his hope, his money, or both. Augie is adopted left and right, people rush to support him and dress him, to educate and transform him. Augie’s need is to accumulate vivid and flamboyant patron-admirers while Tommy’s pathos is to amass mistakes: “Maybe the making of mistakes expressed the very purpose of his life and the essence of his being here.” Tommy, at forty-four, searches desperately for a parent, any parent, to rescue him from imminent destruction, while Augie is already a larkily independent escape artist at twenty-two.

Speaking of his own past, Bellow once said, “It has been a lifelong pattern with me to come back to strength from a position of extreme weakness.” Does his history of oscillation from the abyss to the peak and back again find a literary analogue in the dialectical relationship of these two consecutive books of the 1950s? Was the claustrophobic chronicle of failure that is Seize the Day undertaken as a grim corrective to the fervor informing its irrepressible predecessor, as the antidote to Augie March’s manic openness? By writing Seize the Day, Bellow seems to have been harking back (if not deliberately, perhaps just reflexively) to the ethos of The Victim, to a dour pre-Augie world where the hero under scrutiny is threatened by enemies, overwhelmed by uncertainty, stalled by confusion, held in check by grievance.

Henderson the Rain King (1959)

Only six years after Augie, and there he is again, breaking loose. But whereas with Augie he jettisons the conventions of his first two, “proper” books, with Henderson the Rain King he delivers himself from Augie, a book in no way proper. The exotic locale, the volcanic hero, the comic calamity that is his life, the inner turmoil of perpetual yearning, the magical craving quest, the mythical (Reichian?) regeneration through the great wet gush of the blocked-up stuff—all brand-new.

To yoke together two mighty dissimilar endeavors: Bellow’s Africa operates for Henderson as Kafka’s castle village does for K., affording the perfect unknown testing ground for the alien hero to actualize the deepest, most ineradicable of his needs—to burst his “spirit’s sleep,” if he can, through the intensity of useful labor. “I want,” that objectless, elemental cri de coeur, could as easily have been K.’s as Eugene Henderson’s. There all similarity ends, to be sure. Unlike the Kafkean man endlessly obstructed from achieving his desire, Henderson is the undirected human force whose raging insistence miraculously does get through. K. is an initial, with the biographylessness—and the pathos—that that implies, while Henderson’s biography weighs a ton. A boozer, a giant, a Gentile, a middle-aged multimillionaire in a state of continual emotional upheaval, Henderson is hemmed in by the disorderly chaos of “my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my soul!” Because of all his deformities and mistakes, Henderson, in his own thinking, is as much a disease as he is a man. He takes leave of home (rather like the author who is imagining him) for a continent peopled by tribal blacks who turn out to be his very cure. Africa as medicine. Henderson the Remedy Maker.

Brilliantly funny, all new, a second enormous emancipation, a book that wants to be serious and unserious at the same time (and is), a book that invites an academic reading while ridiculing such a reading and sending it up, a stunt of a book, but a sincere stunt—a screwball book, but not without great screwball authority.

Herzog (1964)

The character of Moses Herzog, that labyrinth of contradiction and self-division—the wild man and the earnest person with a “Biblical sense of personal experience” and an innocence as phenomenal as his sophistication, intense yet passive, reflective yet impulsive, sane yet insane, emotional, complicated, an expert on pain vibrant with feeling and yet disarmingly simple, a clown in his vengeance and rage, a fool in whom hatred breeds comedy, a sage and knowing scholar in a treacherous world, yet still adrift in the great pool of childhood love, trust, and excitement in things (and hopelessly attached to this condition), an aging lover of enormous vanity and narcissism with a lovingly harsh attitude toward himself, whirling in the wash cycle of a rather generous self-awareness while at the same time aesthetically attracted to anyone vivid, overpoweringly drawn to bullies and bosses, to theatrical know-it-alls, lured by their seeming certainty and by the raw authority of their unambiguity, feeding on their intensity until he’s all but crushed by it—this Herzog is Bellow’s grandest creation, American literature’s Leopold Bloom, except with a difference: in Ulysses, the encyclopedic mind of the author is transmuted into the linguistic flesh of the novel, and Joyce never cedes to Bloom his own great erudition, intellect, and breadth of rhetoric, whereas in Herzog Bellow endows his hero with all of that, not only with a state of mind and a cast of mind but with a mind that is a mind.

It’s a mind rich and wide-ranging but turbulent with troubles, bursting, swarming with grievance and indignation, a bewildered mind that, in the first sentence of the book, openly, with good reason, questions its equilibrium, and not in highbrowese but in the classic vernacular formulation: “If I am out of my mind . . . ” This mind, so forceful, so tenacious, overstocked with the best that has been thought and said, a mind elegantly turning out the most informed generalizations about a lot of the world and its history, happens also to suspect its most fundamental power, the very capacity for comprehension.

The axis on which the book’s adulterous drama turns, the scene that sends Herzog racing off to Chicago to pick up a loaded pistol to kill Madeleine and Gersbach and instead initiates his final undoing, takes place in a New York courtroom, where Herzog, loitering while waiting for his lawyer to show up, comes upon the nightmare-parody version of his own suffering. It is the trial of a hapless, degraded mother who, with her degenerate lover, has murdered her own little child. So overcome with horror is Herzog at what he sees and hears that he is prompted to cry out to himself, “I fail to understand!”—familiar-enough everyday words, but for Herzog a humbling, pain-ridden, reverberating admission that dramatically connects the intricate wickerwork of his mental existence to the tormenting grid of error and disappointment that is his personal life. Since for Herzog understanding is an impediment to instinctive force, it is when understanding fails him that he reaches for a gun (the very one with which his own father once clumsily threatened to kill him)—though, in the end, being Herzog, he cannot fire it. Being Herzog (and his angry father’s angry son), he finds firing the pistol “nothing but a thought.”

But if Herzog fails to understand, who does understand, and what is all this thinking for? Why all this uninhibited reflection in Bellow’s books in the first place? I don’t mean the uninhibited reflection of characters like Tamkin in Seize the Day, or even King Dahfu in Henderson, who seem to dish out their spoof wisdom as much for Bellow to have the fun of inventing it as to create a second realm of confusion in the minds of heroes already plenty confused on their own. I’m referring, rather, to the nearly impossible undertaking that marks Bellow’s work as strongly as it does the novels of Robert Musil and Thomas Mann: the struggle not only to infuse fiction with mind but to make mentalness itself central to the hero’s dilemma—to think, in books like Herzog, about the problem of thinking.

Now, Bellow’s special appeal, and not just to me, is that in his characteristically American way he has managed brilliantly to close the gap between Thomas Mann and Damon Runyon, but that doesn’t minimize the scope of what, beginning with Augie March, he so ambitiously set out to do: to bring into play (into free play) the intellectual faculties that, in writers like Mann, Musil, and him, are no less engaged by the spectacle of life than by the mind’s imaginative component, to make rumination congruent with what is represented, to hoist the author’s thinking up from the depths to the narrative’s surface without sinking the narrative’s mimetic power, without the book’s superficially meditating on itself, without making a transparently ideological claim on the reader, and without imparting wisdom, as do Tamkin and King Dahfu, flatly unproblematized.

Herzog is Bellow’s first protracted expedition as a writer into the immense domain of sex. Herzog’s women are of the greatest importance to him, exciting his vanity, arousing his carnality, channeling his love, drawing his curiosity, and, by registering his cleverness, charm, and good looks, feeding in the man the joys of a boy—in their adoration is his validation. With every insult they hurl and every epithet they coin, with each fetching turn of the head, comforting touch of the hand, angry twist of the mouth, his women fascinate Herzog with that human otherness that so overpowers him in both sexes. But it is the women especially—until the final pages, that is, when Herzog turns away from his Berkshires retreat even well-meaning Ramona and the generous pleasures of the seraglio that are her specialty, when he at long last emancipates himself from the care of another woman, even this most gentle fondler of them all, and, so as to repair himself, undertakes what is for him the heroic project of living alone, shedding the women and, shedding with them, of all things, the explaining, the justifying, the thinking, divesting himself, if only temporarily, of the all-encompassing and habitual sources of his pleasure and misery—it is the women especially who bring out the portraitist in Herzog, a multitalented painter who can be as lavish in describing the generous mistress as Renoir; as tender in presenting the adorable daughter as Degas; as compassionate, as respectful of age, as knowledgeable of hardship in picturing the ancient stepmother—or his own dear mother in her slavish immigrant misery—as Rembrandt; as devilish, finally, as Daumier in depicting the adulterous wife who discerns, in Herzog’s loving and scheming best friend, Valentine Gersbach, her crudely theatrical equal.

In all of literature, I know of no more emotionally susceptible male, of no man who brings a greater focus or intensity to his engagement with women than this Herzog, who collects them both as an adoring suitor and as a husband—a cuckolded husband getting a royal screwing who, in the grandeur of his jealous rage and in the naiveté of his blind uxoriousness, is a kind of comic-strip amalgam of General Othello and Charles Bovary. Anyone wishing to have some fun in retelling Madame Bovary from Charles’s perspective, or Anna Karenina from Karenin’s, will find in Herzog the perfect how-to book. (Not that one easily envisions Karenin, à la Herzog with Gersbach, handing over to Vronsky Anna’s diaphragm.)

Herzog lays claim to being a richer novel even than Augie March because Bellow’s taking on board, for the first time, the full sexual cargo allows for a brand of suffering to penetrate his fictional world that was largely precluded from Augie and Henderson. It turns out that even more is unlocked in the Bellow hero by suffering than by euphoria. How much more credible, how much more important he becomes when the male wound, in its festering enormity, ravages the euphoric appetite for “the rich life-cake,” and the vulnerability to humiliation, betrayal, melancholy, fatigue, loss, paranoia, obsession, and despair is revealed to be so sweeping that neither an Augie’s relentless optimism nor a Henderson’s mythical giantism can stave off any longer the truth about pain. Once Bellow grafts onto Henderson’s intensity—and onto Augie March’s taste for grandiose types and dramatic encounters—Tommy Wilhelm’s condition of helplessness, he puts the whole Bellovian symphony in play, with its lushly comical orchestration of misery.

In Herzog, there is no sustained chronological action— there’s barely any action—that takes place outside Herzog’s brain. It isn’t that, as a storyteller, Bellow apes Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury or Virginia Woolf in The Waves. The long, shifting, fragmented interior monologue of Herzog seems to have more in common with Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” where the disjointed perception is dictated by the mental state of the central character rather than by an author’s impatience with traditional means of narration. What makes Gogol’s madman mad, however, and Bellow’s sane, is that Gogol’s madman, incapable of overhearing himself, is unfortified by the spontaneous current of irony and parody that ripples through Herzog’s every thought— even when Herzog is most bewildered—and that is inseparable from his take on himself and his disaster, however excruciating his pain.

In the Gogol story, the madman obtains a bundle of letters written by a dog, the pet belonging to the young woman of whom he is hopelessly (insanely) enamored. Feverishly, he sits down to read every word the brilliant dog has written, searching for any reference to himself. In Herzog, Bellow goes Gogol one better: the brilliant dog who writes the letters is Herzog. Letters to his dead mother, to his living mistress, to his first wife, to President Eisenhower, to Chicago’s police commissioner, to Adlai Steven- son, to Nietzsche (“My dear sir, May I ask a question from the floor?”), to Teilhard de Chardin (“Dear Father . . . Is the carbon molecule lined with thought?”), to Heidegger (“Dear Doktor Professor . . . I should like to know what you mean by the expression ‘the fall into the quotidian.’ When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?”), to the credit department of Marshall Field & Co. (“I am no longer responsible for the debts of Madeleine P. Herzog”), even, in the end, a letter to God (“How my mind has struggled to make coherent sense. I have not been too good at it. But have desired to do your unknowable will, taking it, and you, without symbols. Everything of intensest significance. Especially if divested of me”).

This book of a thousand delights offers no greater delight than those letters, and no better key with which to both unlock Herzog’s remarkable intelligence and enter into the depths of his turmoil over the wreckage of his life. The letters are his intensity demonstrated; they provide the stage for his intellectual theater, the one-man show where he is least likely to act the role of the fool.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970)

“Is our species crazy?” A Swiftian question. A Swiftian note as well in the laconic Sammlerian reply: “Plenty of evidence.”

Reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet, I am reminded of Gulliver’s Travels: by the overwhelming estrangement of the hero from the New York of the 1960s; by the rebuke he, with his history, embodies to the human status of those whose “sexual madness” he must witness; by his Gulliverian obsession with human physicality, human biology, the almost mythic distaste evoked in him by the body, its appearance, its functions, its urges, its pleasures, its secretions and smells. Then there’s the preoccupation with the radical vincibility of one’s physical being. As a frail, displaced refugee of the Holocaust horror, as one who escaped miraculously from the Nazi slaughter, who rose, with but one eye, from a pile of Jewish bodies left for dead by a German extermination squad, Mr. Sammler registers that most disorienting of blows to civic confidence—the disappearance, in a great city, of Security, of safety, and, with that, the burgeoning among the vulnerable of fear-ridden, alienating paranoia.

For it is fear as well as disgust that vitiates Sammler’s faith in the species and threatens his tolerance even for those closest to him—fear of “the soul . . . in this vehemence . . . the extremism and fanaticism of human nature.” Having moved beyond the Crusoe-adventurousness of ebullient Augie and Henderson to delineate, as dark farce, the marital betrayal of the uncomprehending genius Herzog, Bellow next opens out his contemplative imagination to one of the greatest betrayals of all, at least as perceived by the refugee-victim Sammler in his Swiftian revulsion with the sixties: the betrayal by the crazy species of the civilized ideal.

Herzog, during his most searing moment of suffering, admits to himself, “I fail to understand!” But, despite old Sammler’s Oxonian reserve and cultivated detachment, at the climax of his adventure—with license, disorder, and lawlessness within the network of his vividly eccentric family and beyond them, in New York’s streets, subways, buses, shops, and college classrooms—the admission that is wrung from him (and that, for me, stands as the motto of this book) is far more shattering: “I am horrified!”

The triumph of Mr. Sammler’s Planet is the invention of Sammler, with the credentials that accrue to him through his European education—his history of suffering history, and his Nazi-blinded eye—as “the registrar of madness.” The juxtaposition of the personal plight of the protagonist with the particulars of the social forces he encounters, the resounding, ironic rightness of that juxtaposition, accounts for the impact here, as it does in every memorable fiction.

Sammler, sharply set apart by his condition of defenseless dignity, strikes me as the perfect instrument to receive anything in society at all bizarre or menacing, the historical victim abundantly qualified by experience to tellingly provide a harsh, hardened twentieth-century perspective on “mankind in a revolutionary condition.”

I wonder which came first in the book’s development, the madness or the registrar, Sammler or the sixties.

Humboldt’s Gift (1975)

Humboldt’s Gift is far and away the screwiest of the euphoric going-every-which-way out-and-out comic novels, the books that materialize at the very tip-top of the Bellovian mood swing, the merry music of the egosphere that is Augie March, Henderson, and Humboldt and that Bellow emits more or less periodically, between his burrowings through the dark down-in-the-dumps novels, such as The Victim, Seize the Day, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, and The Dean’s December, where the bewildering pain issuing from the heroes’ wounds is not taken lightly either by them or by Bellow. (Herzog strikes me as supreme among Bellow’s novels for its magical integration of this characteristic divergence. If one wished to play literary chef and turn Humboldt’s Gift into Herzog, the simple recipe might go as follows: first, cut away and set aside Humboldt; next, extract from Humboldt his mad suffering and bind it to Citrine’s reflective brilliance; last, toss in Gersbach—and there’s your book. It’s Gersbach’s betrayal that stirs up in Herzog the murderous paranoia that is excited in Humboldt by, among others, Citrine!)

Humboldt is the screwiest, by which I also mean the most brazen of the comedies, loopier and more carnivalesque than the others, Bellow’s only joyously open libidinous book and, rightly, the most recklessly crossbred fusion of disparate strains, and for a paradoxically compelling reason: Citrine’s terror. Of what? Of mortality, of having to meet (regardless of his success and his great eminence) Humboldt’s fate. Underlying the book’s buoyant engagement with the scrambling, gorging, thieving, hating, and destroying of Charlie Citrine’s on-the-make world, underlying everything, including the centrifugal manner of the book’s telling—and exposed directly enough in Citrine’s eagerness to metabolize the extinction-defying challenge of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy—is his terror of dying. What’s disorienting Citrine happens also to be what’s blowing narrative decorum to kingdom come: the panicky dread of oblivion, the old-fashioned garden-variety Everyman horror of death.

“How sad,” says Citrine, “about all this human nonsense which keeps us from the large truth.” But the human nonsense is what he loves and loves to recount and what delights him most about being alive. Again: “When . . . would I rise . . . above all . . . the wastefully and randomly human . . . to enter higher worlds?” Higher worlds? Where would Citrine be—where would Bellow be—without the randomly human driving the superdrama of the lower world, the elemental superdrama that is the worldly desire for fame (as exhibited by Von Humboldt Fleisher, the luckless, mentally unsound counterpart of fortunate, sane Citrine—Humboldt, who wishes both to be spiritual and to make it big, and whose nightmare failure is the flip-side travesty of Citrine’s success), for money (Humboldt, Thaxter, Denise, plus Renata’s mother the Señora, plus Citrine’s brother Julius, plus more or less everyone else), for revenge (Denise, Cantabile), for esteem (Humboldt, Cantabile, Thaxter, Citrine), for the hottest of hot sex (Citrine, Renata, et al.), not to mention that worldliest of worldly desires, Citrine’s own, the hellbent lusting after life eternal?

Why does Citrine wish so feverishly never to leave here if not for this laugh-a-minute immersion in the violence and the turbulence of the clownish greediness that he disparagingly calls “the moronic inferno”? “Some people,” he says, “are so actual that they beat down my critical powers.” And beat down any desire to exchange even the connection to their viciousness for the serenity of the everlasting. Where but the moronic inferno could his “complicated subjectivity” have so much to take in? Out in some vaporous Zip Codeless noplace, nostalgically swapping moronic-inferno stories with the shade of Rudolf Steiner?

And isn’t it something like the same moronic inferno that Charlie Citrine excitedly memorializes as it rages in the streets, courtrooms, bedrooms, restaurants, sweat baths, and office buildings of Chicago that so sickens Artur Sammler in its diabolic 1996os-Marthaftan incarnation? Humboldt’s Gift seems like the enlivening tonic Bellow brewed to recover from the sorrowful grieving and moral suffering of Mr. Sammler’s Planet. It’s Bellow’s cheerful version of Ecclesiastes: all is vanity and isn’t it something!

What’s He in Chicago For?

Humboldt on Citrine (my edition page 2):“After making this dough why does he bury himself in the sticks? What’s he in Chicago for?”

Citrine on himself (page 63): “My mind was in one of its Chicago states. How should I describe this phenomenon?”

Citrine on being a Chicagoan (page 95): “I could feel the need to laugh rising, mounting, always a sign that my weakness for the sensational, my American, Chicagoan (as well as personal) craving for high stimuli, for incongruities and extremes, was aroused.”

And (further along on page 95): “Such information about corruption, if you had grown up in Chicago, was easy to accept. It even satisfied a certain need. It harmonized with one’s Chicago view of society.”

On the other hand, there’s Citrine’s being out of place in Chicago (page 225): “In Chicago my personal aims were bunk, my outlook a foreign ideology.” And (page 251): “It was now apparent to me that I was neither of Chicago nor sufficiently beyond it, and that Chicago’s material and daily interests and phenomena were neither actual and vivid enough nor symbolically clear enough to me.”

Keeping in mind these remarks—and there are many more like them throughout Humboldt’s Gift—look back to the 1940s and observe that Bellow started off as a writer without Chicago’s organizing his idea of himself the way it does Charlie Citrine’s. Yes, a few Chicago streets are occasionally sketched in as the backdrop to Dangling Man, but, aside from darkening the pervasive atmosphere of gloom, Chicago seems a place that is almost foreign to the hero; certainly it is alien to him. Dangling Man is not a book about a man in a city; it’s about a mind in a room. Not until the third book, Augie March, did Bellow fully apprehend Chicago as that valuable hunk of literary property, that tangible, engrossing American place that was his to claim as commandingly as Sicily was monopolized by Verga, London by Dickens, and the Mississippi River by Mark Twain. It’s with a comparable tentativeness or wariness that Faulkner (the other of America’s two greatest twentieth-century novelist-regionalists) came to imaginative ownership of Lafayette County, Mississippi. Faulkner situated his first book, Soldier’s Pay (1926),in Georgia, his second, Mosquitoes (1927), in New Orleans, and it was only with the masterly burst of Sartoris, The Sound and the Fury, and As I Lay Dying, in 1929—30,that he found—as did Bellow after taking his first, impromptu geographical steps—the location to engender those human struggles which, in turn, would fire up his intensity and provoke that impassioned response to a place and its history which at times propels Faulkner’s sentences to the brink of unintelligibility and even beyond.

I wonder if at the outset Bellow shied away from seizing Chicago as his because he didn’t want to be known as a Chicago writer, any more, perhaps, than he wanted to be known as a Jewish writer. Yes, you’re from Chicago, and of course you’re a Jew—but how these things are going to figure in your work, or if they should figure at all, isn’t easy to puzzle out right off. Besides, you have other ambitions, inspired by your European masters, by Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Proust, Kafka, and such ambitions don’t include writing about the neighbors gabbing on the back porch … Does this line of thought in any way resemble Bellow’s before he finally laid claim to the immediate locale?

Of course, after Augie it was some ten years before, in Herzog, Bellow took on Chicago in a big way again. Ever since then, the distinctly “Chicago view” has been of recurring interest to him, especially when the city provides, as in Humboldt, a contrast of comically illuminating proportions between “the open life which is elementary, easy for every one to read, and characteristic of this place, Chicago, Illinois” and the reflective bent of the preoccupied hero. This combat, vigorously explored, is at the heart of Humboldt, as it is of Bellow’s next novel, The Dean’s December (1982). Here, however, the exploration is not comic but rancorous. The mood darkens, the depravity deepens, and under the pressure of violent racial antagonisms, Chicago, Illinois, becomes demoniacal: “On his own turf … he found a wilderness wilder than the Guiana bush … desolation … endless square miles of ruin… wounds, lesions, cancers, destructive fury, death… the terrible wildness and dread in this huge place.”

The book’s very point is that this huge place is Bellow’s no longer. Nor is it Augie’s, Herzog’s, or Citrine’s. By the time he comes to write The Dean’s December, some thirty years after Augie March, his hero, Dean Corde, has become the city’s Sammler.

What is he in Chicago for? This Chicagoan in pain no longer knows. Bellow is banished.