“75 at 75,” a special project from the 92nd Street Y in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary, invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response. Here, Norman Rush reflects on Saul Bellow, who read from Humboldt’s Gift and Henderson the Rain King on October 10, 1988.
92Y will celebrate Bellow’s centenary tomorrow evening. Martin Amis, Janis Bellow, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nicole Krauss, Zachary Leader, and Ian McEwan will read from The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, “Something to Remember Me By,” Humboldt’s Gift, and The Dean’s December.
I hadn’t heard Saul Bellow read from his works until recently, when I was given this recording. A surprise for me was that there was no surprise in Bellow, the man, reading. He was exactly the quick, rueful, ironical, winsome, laid-back, Olympian-but-fighting-it character the alter egos who had starred so prominently in his novels had prepared me to expect. His casual responses in the Q & A were in the same vein, and also a pleasure.
Saul Bellow, throughout his career, got away with something big, in my opinion. Across the span of his best novels, he found ways to participate in the discourse which has been at the heart of the great novels since Darwin. That is, the discourse about how one should live, how one should apprehend the world. Resourceful, he deployed the picaresque, adventure stories, opéra bouffe, tales of domestic disorder and betrayal, travelogues—an array of different armatures to support the intellectual portraiture he was producing from book to book. And he was the man to do it! He had been, in terms of credal allegiances or attachments, everything. One of his earliest publications was in the anarchist periodical Retort. Later, he was a Trotskyist. For a time, he was a follower of Wilhelm Reich. Ultimately, he was a hard-shell neocon and an anthroposophist. Perhaps no American author has managed so brilliantly as Bellow to communicate the nuances, the dialectics, of this all-important discourse about the meaning of the world and ways of living in it. Of course, it’s the discourse more than the conclusions that count. And the digressions, the hesitations, the intellectual false dawns, the desperate thrusts at truth, are rich and will live.
On this recording, Bellow reads from Henderson the Rain King, whose main character it’s been said he most closely identified with and whose story is a parable of looking for wisdom in really unlikely places—in Henderson’s case, the folk-belief systems of traditional Africa. It’s hard to resist the feeling that this is a self-conscious metaphor for Bellow’s own project or quest.
But it is in his reading from Humboldt’s Gift, which precedes the reading from Henderson the Rain King, that he perfectly captures and epitomizes the discontents of his intelligent heroes—at not getting it right. In not finding ways to embody their passions for justice and beauty in forms solid enough to obstruct the flow of the world toward cheapness and deceit. The author’s raconteurial late style reaches its peaks, I think, in the huge, sprawling, self-indulgent character studies in Humboldt’s Gift and later, finally, in Ravelstein. Bellow’s gift is to have located Humboldt’s effort and failure securely within the context of the human comedy writ large. What an achievement!
Norman Rush’s latest novel is Subtle Bodies.