Novels, 1944-1953 by Saul Bellow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
DANGLING MAN (****)
In the old days, when we had a flat of our own, I read constantly. I was forever buying new books, faster, admittedly, than I could read them. But as long as they surrounded me they stood as guarantors of an extended life, far more precious and necessary than the one I was forced to lead daily. (4)
I have begun to notice that the more active the rest of the world becomes, the more slowly I move, and that my solitude increases in the same proportion as its racket and frenzy. (6)
There were human lives organized around these ways and houses, and that they, the houses, say, were the analogue, that what men created they also were, through some transcendent means, I could not bring myself to concede. There must be a difference, a quality that eluded me, somehow, a difference between things and persons and even between acts and persons. Otherwise the people who lived here were actually a reflection of the things they lived among. I had always striven to avoid blaming them. Was that not in effect behind my daily reading of the paper? In their businesses and politics, their taverns, movies, assaults, divorces, murders, I tried continually to find clear signs of their common humanity. (15)
“I don’t think I want to try to make an officer of myself.”
“Well, I don’t see why not,” said Amos. “Why not?”
“As i see it, the whole war’s a misfortune. I don’t want to raise myself through it.”
“But there have to be officers. Do you want to sit back and let some cluck do what you can do a thousand times better?”
“I’m used to that,” I said, shrugging. “That’s the case in many departments of life already. The Army’s no exception.” (44)
But what such a life as this incurs is the derangement of days, the leveling of occasions. I can’t answer for Iva, but for me it is certainly true that days have lost their distinctiveness. There were formerly baking days, washing days, days that began events and days that ended them. But now they are undistinguished, all equal, and it is difficult to tell Tuesday from Saturday. (57)
Yet we are, as a people, greatly concerned with perishability; an empire of iceboxes. And pet cats are flown hundreds of miles to be saved by rare serums; and country neighbors in Arkansas keep a month’s vigil night and day to save the life of a man stricken at ninety. (59)
Is it because he is an artist? I believe it is. Those acts of the imagination save him. But what about me? I have no talent for that sort of thing. My talent, if I have one at all, is for being a citizen, or what is today called, most apologetically, a good man. Is there some sort of personal effort I can substitute for the imagination?
That, I am unable to answer. (65)
I am no longer to be held accountable for myself. I am grateful for that. I am in other hands, relieved of self-determination, freedom canceled.
Hurray for regular hours!
And for the supervision of the spirit! (140)
The Fall by Albert Camus / Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky / Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (without crime).
Note: the meaning of ‘A basso’ (page 58) is ‘down with’; besides, the correct spelling is ‘abbasso’.
THE VICTIM (****)
By autumn they were engaged, and Leventhal’s success amazed him. He felt that the harshness of his life had disfigured him, and that this disfigurement would be apparent to a girl like Mary and would repel her. He was not entirely sure of her, and, in fact, something terrible did happen a month after the engagement. Mary confessed that she found herself unable to break off an old attachment to another man, a married man. (155)
(The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky).
He kept the bathroom light burning all night. Somewhat ashamed of himself, he had yesterday closed the bathroom door before getting into bed, but he had left the light on. This was absurd, this feeling that he was threatened by something while he slept. (162)
(Ancestral sin or guilt.)
When they reached the lower hall, Allbee stopped and said, “You try to put all the blame on me, but you know it’s true that you’re to blame. You and you only. For everything. You ruined me. Ruined! Because that’s what I am, ruined! You’re the one that’s responsible. … “ (205)
“If you don’t mind, Asa, there’s one thing I have to point out that you haven’t learned. We’re not children. We’re men of the world. It’s almost a sin to be so innocent. Get next to yourself, boy, will you? You want the whole world to like you. There’re bound to be some people who don’t think well of you. As I do, for instance. Why, isn’t enough for you that some do? Why can’t you accept the fact that others never will? (213)
“Now I (=Allbee) that luck … there really is such a thing as luck and those who do and don’t have it. In the long run, I don’t know who’s better off. It must make things very unreal to have luck all the time. But it’s a blessing, in some things, and especially if it gives you the chance to make a choice. That doesn’t come very often, does it? For most people? No, it doesn’t. It’s hard to accept that, but we have to accept it. We don’t choose much. We don’t choose to be born, for example, and unless we commit suicide we don’t choose the time to die, either. But having a few choices in between makes you seem less of an accident to yourself. It makes you feel your life is necessary. (298)
Allbee bent forward and laid his hand on the arm of Leventhal’s chair, and for a short space the two men looked at each other and Leventhal felt himself singularly drawn with a kind of affection. It oppressed him, it was repellent. He did not know what to make of it. Still he welcomed it, too.
(Master-slave dialectic / Hegel)
Dear Saul, I know, Dostoevsky was your buddy.
THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH
All the influences were lined up waiting for me. …
At this time, and later too, I had a very weak sense of consequences, and the old lady never succeeded in opening much of a way into my imagination with her warnings and predictions of what was preparing for me - work certificates, stockyards, shovel labor, penitentiary rockpiles, bread and water, and lifelong ignorance and degradation. She invoked all these, hotter and hotter, …
I want you to be a mensch. (430)
Well, now, who can really expect the daily facts to go, toil or prisons to go, oatmeal and laundry tickets and all the rest, and insist that all moments be raised to the greatest importance, demand that everyone breathe the pointy, star-furnished air at its highest difficulty, abolish all brick, vaultlike rooms, all dreariness, and live like prophets or gods? Why, everybody knows this triumphant life can only be periodic. So there’s a schism about it, some saying only this triumphant life is real and others that only the daily facts are. For me there was no debate, and I made speed into the former. (605)
I said, “I’m in the book business, as Simon told you.” I thought the old man must be able to pierce by strength of suspicion my crookery, all the oddity of Owens’ house and my friend there. What a book business could signify to him but starving Pentateuch peddlers with beards full of Polish lice and feet wrapped in sacking, I couldn’t fathom. (636)
During the chauffeurs’ and hikers’ strike he had squad cars to protect his two trucks from strikers who were dumping coal in the streets. I had to wait for his calls in the police station to tell the cops when a load was setting out from the yard, my first lawful sitting in such a place, moving from dark to lighter inside the great social protoplasm. (645)
I didn’t yet know what view I had of all this. It still wasn’t clear to me whether I would be for or against it. But then how does anybody form a decision to be against and persist against? When does he choose and when is he choose instead? This one hears voices; that one is a saint, a chieftain, an orator, a Horatius, a kamikazi; one says Ich kann nicht anders - so help me God! And why is it I who cannot do otherwise? Is there a secret assignment from mankind to some unfortunate person who can’t refuse? As if the great majority turned away from a thing it couldn’t permanently forsake and so named some person to remain faithful to it? With great difficulty somebody becomes exemplary, anyhow. (656)
You do all you can to humanize and familiarize the world, and suddenly it becomes more strange than ever. The living are not what they were, the dead die again and again, and at last for good.
I see this now. (710)
Everyone tries to create a world he can live in, and what he can’t use he often can’t see. But the real world is already created, and if your fabrication doesn’t correspond, then even if you feel noble and insist on there being something better than what people call reality, that better something needn’t try to exceed what, in its actuality, since we know it so little, may be very surprising. If a happy state of things, surprising; if miserable or tragic, no worse than we invent. (816)
Me, love’s servant? I wasn’t at all! And suddenly my heart felt ugly, I was sick of myself. I thought that my aim of being simple was just a fraud, that I wasn’t a bit goodhearted or affectionate, and I began to wish that Mexico from beyond the walls would come in and kill me and that I would be thrown in the bone dust and twisted, spiky crosses of the cemetery, for the insects and lizards. (841)
So on some of the golden afternoons by the dive where I sat on a bench in neglected pants and dirty shirt and three days of bristles, I had the inclination to start out and say, “O you creatures still above the ground, what are you up to! Even happiness and beauty is like a movie.” Many times I felt tears. Or again I’d be angry and want to holler. But while no other creature is reprimanded for its noise, for yelling, roaring, screaming, cawing, or braying, there is supposed to be more delicate relief for the human species. (852)
I had Padilla’s slogan of “Easy or not at all.” (881)
I’ll give you an example. I read about King Arthur’s Round Table when I was a kid, but what am I ever going to do about it? My heart was touched by sacrifice and pure attempts, so what should I do? Or take the Gospels. How are you supposed to put them to use? Why, they’re not utilizable! And then you go and pile on top of that more advice and information. Anything that just adds information that you can’t use is plain dangerous. Anyway, there’s too much of everything of this kind, that’s come home to me, too much history and culture to keep track off, too many details, too much news, too much example, too much influence, too many guys who tell you to be as they are, and all this hugeness, abundance, turbulence, Niagara Falls torrent. Which who is supposed to interpret? Me? I haven’t got that much head to master it all. I get carried away. It doesn’t give my feelings enough of a chance if I have to store up and become like an encyclopedia. Why, just as a question of time spent in getting prepared for life, look! a man could spend forty, fifty, sixty years like that inside the walls of his own being. And all great experience would only take place within those walls. And all achievements would stay within the walls of his being. And all high conversation would take place within those walls. And all glamour too. And even hate, monstrousness, enviousness, murder, would be inside them. This would be only a terrible, hideous dream about existing. It’s better to dig ditches and hit other guys with your shovel than die in the walls.” (902-3)
Dear Saul, I say: YES!
“You will understand, Mr. Mintouchian, if I tell you that I have always tried to become what I am. But it’s a frightening thing. Because what if what I am by nature isn’t good enough?” I was close to tears as I said it to him. “I suppose I better, anyway, give in and be it. I will never force the hand of fate to create a better Augie March, nor change the time to an age of gold.” (937)
Why did I always have to fall among theoreticians! (956)
I felt settled and easy, my chest free and my fingers comfortable and open. And now here’s the thing. It takes a time like this for you to find out how sore your heart has been, and moreover, all the while you thought you were going around idle terribly hard work was taking place. Hard, hard work, excavation and digging, mining, moling through tunnels, heaving, pushing, moving rock, working, working, working, working, working, panting, hauling, hoisting. And none of this work is seen from the outside. It’s internally done. It happens because you are powerless and unable to get anywhere, to obtain justice or have requital, and therefore in yourself you labor, you wage and combat, settle scores, remember insults, fight, reply, blab, denounce, triumph, outwit, overcome, vindicate, cry, persist, absolve, die and rise again. All by yourself! Where is everybody? Inside your breast and skin, the entire cast. (979)
Brother! You never are through, you just think you are! (980)
I don’t know who this saint was who woke up, lifted his face, opened his mouth, and reported on his secret dream that blessedness covers the whole Creation but covers it thicker in some places than in others. Whoever he was, it’s my great weakness to respond to such dreams. This is the amor fati, that’s what it is, or mysterious adoration of what occurs. (983)
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