- - Wednesday, January 14, 2015


By Saul Bellow

Edited by James Wood

Library of America, $40, 900 pages

For any writer, having his oeuvre collected in volumes by Library of America is in itself an accolade, a sign of his place in the literature of his nation. Saul Bellow (1915-2005) was not short on acknowledgments of his stature as a writer, winning just about every literary prize going, including the Nobel in 1976. But this Canadian-born, Chicago-raised writer consciously dedicated himself to the forging of a uniquely American literature, notably in “The Adventures of Augie March,” and so I suspect that for him, inclusion in Library of America would have a very special personal significance, a unique source of pleasure.

For obvious and very sensible reasons, Library of America divides its authors’ works chronologically, with the result that this fourth and final Bellow volume covers his last novels, written between 1984 and 2000, just five years prior to his death shortly before his 90th birthday. Some writers keep up their high standards to the very end. Some, like Ernest Hemingway, descend into self-parody. Others, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, struggle to recapture their glory days. Very occasionally, their achievement flowers at the very end of their writing career: Philip Roth’s last novels eclipse in quality and depth his earlier ones.

But to put it bluntly, Saul Bellow’s last works, including almost all those included in this volume, are very poor stuff. Not just compared with the heights he achieved in such works as “Herzog,” “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” and “Humboldt’s Gift,” but with the qualities apparent in “Henderson the Rain King” and “Seize the Day.” Even as late as 1982, he could produce in “The Dean’s December” a virtuoso performance crammed with the insights and fully realized characters readers had come to expect of him. There was still that inventiveness and creativity, to say nothing of his fearlessness in exposing issues public and private. Triviality was not something associated with Bellow back then.

Sadly, however, except for “More Die of Heartbreak,” the first novel included here and which retains at least traces of what made Bellow remarkable, trivial is the first term that comes to mind when faced with these not just brief, but thin, last efforts. The editors have done him no favors by including two short stories “What Kind of Day Did You Have?” and “A Theft,” which Bellow wrote as such, in what is supposed to be a collection of his novels. He wrote several volumes of short stories full of ones better than this pair. Or a novella, “The Bellarosa Connection,” where the weak attempt to handle a large topic, the Holocaust, only serves to underline the decline in authorial power since the brilliant, nuanced treatment of the same subject in”Mr. Sammler’s Planet.”

The last two works, “The Actual” and “Ravelstein” are also more novella than full realized novel. “The Actual” is of a triviality in its subject matter and a thinness in its characterization, which make it hard to believe that anyone would have deemed it publishable but for the eminence of its author. “Ravelstein” is not much better, remarkable mostly for what is widely believed to be a fictional portrait of the late great Allan Bloom, who was a longtime colleague of Bellow’s at the University of Chicago as well as a close personal friend. Yet its insights into Bloom’s rare intellectual prowess are as disappointing as its evocation of the man himself. Reading it you can only imagine what Bellow in his prime could have done with such a figure. Think of how he makes the critic Delmore Schwartz leap off the pages of “Humboldt’s Gift” as the tragic failed genius Von Humboldt Fleischer.

Library of America’s dedication to republishing all of Bellow’s novels is commendable. But what about the young reader — or neophyte of any age when it comes to Bellow — who reads this latest volume as his introduction to one of the true giants of American literature? What will he think of this small beer? If he decides Bellow isn’t worth bothering about based on such trivial stuff and miss out on the great novels he wrote, that would be truly tragic for them. And although there are such dedicated Bellow fans as Martin Amis who regard every last word that flowed from his pen as good to the last drop, bringing the contents of this volume out anew exposes him to unkind and unfair attention. Consider the hatchet job that no less an eminence than Edmund Wilson did on W. Somerset Maugham by ignoring his great novels and even greater short stories and concentrating on his admittedly embarrassingly bad penultimate novel, “Then and Now.” One shudders to think what a latter-day Wilson could do with this pale, limp collection.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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