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Saul Bellow and the Art of Surprise


I'm delving into Saul Bellow's work again and on nearly every page, he surprises me with his "appropriate incongruities," or the lining up things that don't normally belong.

Where did he come up with this stuff?

The more I read him, the more I see his deep affection for humanity, his creative playfulness and simple joy in writing. He is a great portraitist of the face, the body, the corporal form. He takes his time describing someone, letting action stay on the sidelines until he is done. In his short story, "Cousins," (from Saul Bellow Collected Stories) he writes in reference to the narrator consenting to help in a relative's court case: "I did it for Cousin Metzger's tic. For the three bands of Neapolitan ice cream. For the furious upright growth of Cousin Shana's ruddy hair, and the avid veins of her temples and in the middle of her forehead. For the strength with which her bare feet advanced as she mopped the floor and spread the pages of the Tribune over it."

Flaubert says, "There is a part of everything which is unexplored because we are accustomed to using our eyes only in association with the memory of what people before us have thought of the thing we are looking at. Even the smallest thing has something in it which is unknown." Bellow pushes beyond the familiar and digs for associations that are unexpected, surprising, funny. He'll go for a body part and link it to an unexpected adjective-"furious upright growth" of hair, "avid veins."

In Herzog, the main character, Moses Herzog, is reassessing one of his acquaintances. "Her downcast look, Moses at first took as agreement or sympathy; but he realized how wrong he was when he observed her nose. It was full of mistrust. By the way it moved he realized that she rejected everything he was saying."

He goes beyond realism, as critic James Wood notes: "this is not just how people look; they are also sculptures, pressed into by the artist's quizzical and ludic force." In the short story, "Mosby's Memoirs," a Czech is performing Schoenberg. "the muscles of his forehead rising in protest against tabula rasa-the base skull." Here, Bellow comically personifies the muscles of a character's forehead-the muscles are rebelling against the blankness of the character's bald head.

Bellow reminds me to go beyond the familiar, to push together things that don't normally belong to create condensed, compact metaphors that surprise and hopefully delight.

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I taught HERZOG years ago in

I taught HERZOG years ago in a lit seminar at USF. The students were divided on it: the power of the voice kept many enthralled, but the anti-hero protagonist, with his bursts of intellectual misanthropy, was off-putting to many. I've shied away from using the book again, though your post has me rethinking that. Bellow's recently published correspondence is on my list of to-be-read in 2011.

I haven't read deeply enough into Bellow's body of work, but everything I have read has been compelling. He is often paired alongside Philip Roth as a mid-century Jewish-American literary powerhouse, but unlike Roth, whose work hits me as shrill and thin, Bellow strikes me as offering more complexity upon each re-reading.

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Thank you for your post,

Thank you for your post, Karl.

I think Bellow really shines in his novels. I suppose with any first person narrator, you'll find a divide among readers-- those who are swept up in the voice, the mind, and those who'd rather leave the dithering out of their world. In some ways he harkens to another time--where character is god and action, thank you very much, can wait.

Roth, for me, is too much about Roth. I think Bellow has a wider lens, a bigger mind to encapsule not just physical reality, but the metaphysical too.