Seize the Day
A Prose for Some Seasons
Few would deny Saul Bellow is a writer who can turn a phrase, but many might wonder whether he can so consistently tell a story. When Kingsley Amis dismissed Bellow's prose as a product of an outsider trying to master the language, and arriving at the unnatural, it would seem more an example of English parochial assumption. But if someone claims that many of Bellow's later books lack narrative tension, including The Bellarosa Connectionand A Theft, maybe also novels like The Dean's December and Ravelstein, would they be more justified?
It is as though Bellow decided to put most of the energy into the prose rather than in the story. He consistently searched out a descriptive relish, and it makes sense that Joyce Carol Oates can say that Bellow is "our genius of portraiture": he seems in many of his books more concerned with how someone looks than what they do. If we choose to focus upon the early novella Seize the Day, it is to acknowledge the brilliant combination of storytelling force aligned to descriptive detail, and to wonder why it seems less apparent in the later work. Is this a sign of a writer searching out new perceptual possibilities and accepting that the story needs to be weaker as a consequence, or is it a certain type of failure rather than an experimental success: that he 'lost' the ability to tell a story as he became increasingly fascinated in doodling on the margins of character?
Seize the Day very quickly establishes Wilhelm as a man in crisis: within the first three pages we're told he is a failed actor, has an intimidating father he wants to please, and that he doesn't presently have a job. The purpose of this short novel is to explore Wilhelm's sense of failure, his determination to persuade his father Dr Adler to recognize his existence fundamentally (not only as a failure or a success), and to try and make money on the market by investing the last of his cash in a deal with a person he's not sure he can trust. The only additional important feature of the story lies in Wilhelm's relationship with his ex-wife with whom he has two kids, but her importance is already contained in the general problems Wilhelm has at the beginning. When he says near the end of the book: "Margaret, go easy on me. You ought to. I'm at the end of my rope and feel that I'm suffocating. You don't want to be responsible for a person's destruction. You've got to let up", it isn't so very different from what he says to his father early on. "Father it so happens that I'm in a bad way now. I hate to have to say it. You realize that I'd rather have good news to bring you. But it's true. And since it's true Dad - what else am I supposed to say? It's true." Wilhelm's search for human credence in the face of his social failure is there at the beginning and at the end, and during it the slim narrative thread of hope is manifest in his stock exchange dealings. Six pages into the story the narrator informs us that Wilhelm "held three orders of lard in the commodities market. He and Dr Tamkin had bought this lard together four days ago at 12.96, and the price at once began to fall and was still falling." Near the end of the novella, Wilhelm notes, "his heart, accustomed to many sorts of crisis, was now in a new panic. And, as he had dreaded, he was wiped out. It was unnecessary to ask the German manager. He could see for himself that the electronic book-keeping device must have closed him out."
Seize the Day creates suspense around Wilhelm's financial dealings, but not at all mechanically: there are no ups and downs, hopes dashed and then tentatively fulfilled. Bellow leaves the tension coursing through the book as an example of the gambler mindset running out of tether, and a man not usually given to luck. As the narrator says early on, "for the last few weeks Wilhelm had played gin almost nightly, but yesterday he had felt he couldn't afford to lose anymore. He had never won." What matters is showing Wilhelm as a figure of bad luck and desperate instincts. Whether it is investing the last of his money on the stock exchange, or asking his father or ex-wife for help, he is hopelessly weak. He is like a man entering an arm-wrestling contest knowing as he goes in that he has a defective elbow that gives him an immediate disadvantage but insists on competing anyway. At one moment his father talks of an acquaintance that has "a bone condition which is gradually breaking him up", and adds, "Very bad. I've learned to keep my sympathy for the real ailments. This Perls is more to be pitied than any man I know". Wilhelm should see that any sob-story he offers his father is unlikely to be taken very seriously, but he offers it nevertheless and makes himself even weaker.
Bellow examines however why Wilhelm hopes for credence from his father and why he hopes to get a lucky break on the financial markets. It is as though Wilhelm feels he is due this good luck, but keeps making decisions that go against an instinct that he hasn't quite developed. Early on when he talks of dropping out of college and going off to Hollywood, he hesitantly trusts an agent who is so dubious that years later the man will be jailed for fifteen years in connection with a call-girl racket. But Wilhelm had trusted him nevertheless; just as years later, during the period in which the story takes place, he will trust Dr Tamkin to invest wisely even though he doesn't quite trust him either.
Bellow's book examines the tragedy of a man ridiculous in his hopes in relation to the failure of his instincts, with the novella capturing well a figure self-absorbed yet devoid of inner resources, someone determined to become a winner but whose instincts happen to be that of a 'loser'. Bellow offers all the compassion the wife and father withhold, but the book also muses over American dreams that can so easily turn into nightmares. Wilhelm is a man who craves success but who looks for redemption for his losses - an example of bad faith or false consciousness, perhaps, but it is not Bellow's purpose to expose the character, but rather to acknowledge contradictions that exist in the culture. This is an America that wants to recognize the importance of success whilst also arguing for the importance of a theological essence. But practically what Wilhelm receives is no more than admonitions to pull himself together; to draw in his social identity and accept his public responsibilities instead of collapsing into a self-pityingly private world.
Bellow keeps the tension between the two, acknowledging Wilhelm's failings. His father seems correct in stating he married the wrong woman, and his wife appears to have a justifiable grievance since Wilhelm left her for another lady. And if Wilhelm is too proud to go back to his wife, he is also too proud to return to his earlier employment: "And he could not return to her any more than he could beg Rojax to take him back". But this isn't so much pride before a fall but after it: Wilhelm is a defeated man, with a failed marriage behind him, no job after falling out with his boss, and his earlier dreams of becoming an actor long since reduced to oneiric vapour. He is the broken man of capitalism, a cousin to Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman and Shelley Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross, where the man is hollowed out and qualitatively left empty. They are dreamers of the American dream who will push the dream over the precipice and into nightmare, as their body cannot easily handle the strain placed upon it and the mind begins to crack. We are reminded of that key line quoted earlier: "his heart, accustomed to many sorts of crisis, was in a new panic", and another one where, after speaking on the phone to his ex-wife, "Wilhelm tried to tear the apparatus from the wall. He ground his teeth and seized the black box with insane digging fingers and made a stifled cry and pulled. Then he saw an elderly lady staring through the glass door, utterly appalled by him..." Here is man careening towards a heart attack or nervous breakdown.
If one finds Seize the Day a more engaging work than later novellas The Bellarosa Connection and A Theft, it lies in Seize the Day seizing its subject, where the later books appear to be finding them. It isn't until near the end of The Bellarosa Connection that we realize the book is about the weight of regret, just as in A Theft the story doesn't become pertinent until the second half of the book when the title becomes of import. In The Bellarosa Connection it isn't that the asides are irrelevant, but that their relevance intrudes on the story's thrust. It is often useful to leave aside narrative focus for what Milan Kundera would call (in The Art of the Novel) 'meditative digression', but when doing so the purpose is to attend to a theme that the story can't quite elaborate on on its own. But in Bellow's work it often takes the form not of meditative digression but descriptive delirium, with the narrator detailing someone's size, their dress sense and their behaviour, for the undeniable pleasure of description, but the consequence is the stalling of both the story and its thematic development. In The Bellarosa Connection the story is about the central character's friendship with the Fonsteins, a couple who escaped the Holocaust courtesy of big Broadway producer Billy Rose. Throughout the book we're given descriptions of Sorella Fonstein's size. "she was sitting - at her weight I suppose one is generally more comfortably seated - and she was unaffectedly pleased to find me in Jerusalem". "I wondered how a man found his way among so many creases. But that was none of my business. They looked happy enough." "She was as stable in character as she was immense in her person". "She was so much bigger than the bride I had first met in Lakewood that I couldn't keep from speculating on her expansion. She made you look twice at a doorway. When she came to it, she filled the space like a freighter in a canal lock."
It is as if Bellow is never quite done describing Sorella, just as in A Theft he is never quite through describing another character's brilliance. "Ithiel Regler stood much higher with Clara than any of the husbands. "On a scale of ten", she liked to say to Laura, "he wasten"". "Power, danger, secrecy made him ever sexier." "No, Ithiel didn't make a big public career, he wasn't a team player, he had no talent for administration; he was too special in his thinking, and there was no chance that he would reach cabinet level." "Why, Ithiel could be the Gibbon or the Tacitus of the American Empire. He wouldn't have thought it, but she remembered to this day how he would speak about Keynes's sketches of Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson. If he wanted, he could do with Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy or Kissinger, with the Shah or de Gaulle, what Keynes had done with the Allies at Versailles." And so on.
Both novellas are seen from a particular character's perspective, and so their fascination in each instance is contained by point of view. Clara can't get Ithiel's enormity of intellect out of her head, and so Bellow doesn't let his magnitude go unremarked for more than a few pages. The first person narrator in The Bellarosa Connection keeps thinking of Sorella's enormity of size, and again keeps referencing it. But how strongly linked are these comments to the story's flow, and if this seems a conservative response to a novel's possibilities, is not the idea of the novel being an opportunity to write well no less conservative? Does Bellow's descriptive relish have an element of the literary dandy? There is no doubt in A Theft Bellow wants to link Clara's belief in Ithiel's ethical significance (Ithiel means "God is with me" in Hebrew) to her Austrian au pair Gina (who could be Ithiel's ethical equal), but the theme appears half-developed, as if the book is caught between exploring the enormity of Ithiel's talent, and the situational problem of a missing emerald that Clara reckons Gina's lover has stolen. There is of course a dramatic link between Ithiel and the missing emerald (it's a gift Clara received from Ithiel that is a hefty symbol of a love that was never sealed by marriage) but the theft seems like an afterthought more than a forethought.
Now one reason why a narrative event feels like a dramatic device is because it isn't integrated into the story but is tacked onto it: the device is optionally available. It isn't part of the dramatic hardware but a software component. Hence if we believe the theft is an afterthought more than a forethought it lies in the idea that the story could have been developed very differently because the theme is about a woman's ongoing love for a man despite marrying four times, and that Bellow required a dramatic element to bring out this love. To explore this more fully a comparison with Seize the Day should prove useful. The secondary characters here, Dr Adler, Wilhelm's ex-wife, Margaret, his dad's acquaintance, Mr Perls, Wilhelm's sister, Catherine, and Tamkin, are all integrated characters, all either part of the dramatic hardware or hard to replace elements of the software. Each character either adds to the central problem of Wilhelm's crisis, or alludes specifically to it. When Adler tells his son Catherine isn't much of a painter, it echoes back to Wilhelm's own attempts at becoming an actor. "No, Wilky. There's not a thing on those canvases. I don't believe it. It's a case of the emperor's clothes...now she's a woman of forty and too old to be encouraged in her delusions. She's no painter." Wilhelm's delusions came at a younger age, but the father's comments on Catherine are allusively relevant to him too. When his father talks of Perls' illness it points up Wilhelm's own hypochondria. Perls and Catherine aren't pertinent to the story's shape as Adler, Margaret and Tamkins, but they are thematically purposeful. It is this combination of characters shaping the story and others allusively relevant to it that makes Seize the Day such a tightly weaved work.
These are characters then that prove thematically far from irrelevent, but it is the father, the wife and Tamkins who give it structure. The father is the man from whom Wilhelm seeks approval and a bit of economic help, and the ex-wife is the woman whom he must financially appease. Tamkins is the figure who can allow him potentially to satisfy both the expectations of his father and the needs of Margaret. Tamkins is the person whom Wilhelm thinks can make a killing on the stock exchange and at the same time kill off the demons chasing him in living form: his father and his ex. Bellow sets this up with the tension of a thriller but without the mechanics of the plot device. One might wish that Wilhelm's financial dealings will come good, but we don't expect it, and we don't expect it because the exploration of character is more important than the demands of the plot. The purpose here isn't to have the reader wondering whether Wilhelm's boat will come in, but wondering when it will hit dry land. But where in A Theft Bellow refuses mechanical suspense concerning the theft and how the emerald is retrieved, the writer creates also very little human tension in the proceedings. The ring has immense symbolic value, but very little dramatic purpose, and so whether the ring is returned or not impacts hardly at all on Clara except as a minor emotional and ethical issue. When at the end of A Theft Gina and Clara talk, Gina all but acknowledges the ring is of little consequence: "And when the ring was stolen, it wasn't the ring that upset you. Lost people lose 'valuables'. You only lost this particular ring." The ring has symbolic power but remains dramatically anaemic. The suspense in Seize the Day is that of a man who will lose what little money he has, the respect of his father and the ability to help support his wife and two kids. His world would very understandably cave in. Clara's would be mildly dented. It is no more than a bump on her fender; Wilhelm's life is a right off.
This doesn't mean a writer needs to push a character's life to the point of personal disintegration for an important work. Sometimes the most trivial of events can be shaped into pressing first principles. Peter Handke's The Afternoon of a Writer is little more than that in dramatic substance, and J. M. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals are a couple of lectures given by the central character's mother, a writer horrified by cruelty towards so-called lesser species. Events aren't mobilized towards the no-exit strategy adopted by Bellow in Seize the Day, but they are novellas shaped by monumental feeling. "To himself he was a puzzle, a long-forgotten wonderment", The Afternoon of a Writer ends. Near the end of The Lives of Animals, the writer turns to her son and says, "I look into your eyes, into Norma's, into the children's and I see only kindness, human-kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill, This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why can't you. Why can't you?" Part of the books' mystery rests in the quiet depth charge of endings that haven't been justified by narrative event but instead by some inner enquiry. Handke's book explores hyper-sensitively the milieu in which the writer lives; Coetzee's the equal hyper-sensitivity of a novelist who can't quite understand why humans won't accept that what we are doing with animals is similar to what the Nazis did in the Holocaust with humans. Each book creates characters of great perceptual or ethical feeling, so that the apparent superficiality of event is met by the troubled perceptual faculties of the central, eponymous figure in The Afternoon of a Writer; novelist Elizabeth Costello in The Lives of Animals.
Clara in A Theft and the narrator in The Bellarosa Connection don't possess this perceptual frailty; thus non-events remain so because there is not a consciousness fragile enough to turn the microcosmic into the monumental. Handke and Coetzee (both in very different ways influenced by Kafka) are capable of sensitizing the world; Bellow, for all the brilliance of his descriptive faculties, remains a perceptual tough-nut, someone for whom the emotionally and psychologically delicate would segue into neurosis. While Seize the Day generates categorical events that could break a Brazil, Kafka, Handke and Coetzee often create characters with the shell of a peanut: it doesn't take much to break into the kernel. Subsequently, The Bellarosa Connection and A Theft can appear like negligible books because they neither generate grand events nor delicate characters. When Bellow opens A Theft saying, "Clara Velde, to begin with what was conspicuous about her, had short blond hair, fashionably cut, growing upon a head unusually big. In a person of inert character a head of such size might have seemed a deformity; in Clara, because she had so much personal force, it came across as ruggedly handsome", he presents her clearly as a woman of forcefulness. When the narrator in The Bellarosa Connection describes Fonstein he says; "he wasn't a poor schlep; he succeeded in business and made a fair amount of dough" the voice sounds more Chandler than Kafka. The achievement of Seize the Day lies partly in the quiet but hardly hypersensitive narration, and the objectively horrible reality of Wilhelm's life.
Yet of course, and in conclusion, many admire Bellow for his prose style. An important stylist like John Updike notices in The New Yorker "Bellow's rapid easy tumble of imagery and dialogue, with its sometimes breathtakingly fresh adjectives", while James Wood in the Guardian believes, "no one really disagreed with the quality of the prose. Most writers are called "beautiful" at one time or another, as most flowers are called pretty, but there are never very many really great prose writers alive. Bellow was one, to my mind the greatest of American prose stylists in the 20th century - and thus one of the greatest in American fiction. It was a prose for all seasons; it seemed to do more of what one wanted from prose than any other competitor". But maybe it was not quite for all seasons; that the prose in A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection is too firm for the gossamer thread of storytelling that Bellow weaves. Whether this is true more broadly of Bellow's fiction - of Herzog, The Dean's December, Ravelstein and Humboldt's Gift - is another issue, or perhaps for another essay. However, it seems fair to conclude that A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection are minor works not because of their length, but because of a mismatch of tone and content. In Seize the Day, which is a major work, the two come together to produce a novella that, in Wood's words, was nothing less than an "anguished analysis of certain excesses and danger in American spiritual life" (The Library of America Interviews), an excess where the material dream loosens the soul from its bearings. A Theft and The Bellarosa Connection finally seem to lack so first-principled a theme.
© Tony McKibbin