Monday, June 10, 2019

Saul Bellow's The Dangling Man

"I feel I am a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn. I know I am going to explode and I am continually anticipating the time, with a prayerful despair crying "Boom!" but always prematurely."
Dangling Man (1944) is Saul Bellow's first novel.  It's in the form of Joseph's diary, from December of 1942 to March of 1943. Joseph, like Bellow himself, is a Canadian citizen who has lived in Chicago since he was a child. Joseph tries to join the U.S. Army, but since he's technically a Canadian, bureaucracy intervenes, and he's not accepted. He's 'dangling.'

Joseph had quit his job on the assumption he would soon be in the army; his work was for a travel agency, not a bustling business in war time, and when he tries to get his old job back, there's nothing doing. He still expects to be in the army soon, but now it's a year since Pearl Harbor and the army still hasn't sorted out his status. Joseph is supported by his wife Iva; he's a budding intellectual, and hopes to spend the time usefully, reading and writing; instead, he does little and becomes irritable.

Underground, Dangling, Invisible. Bellow's Man is alienated from society and undergoes an existential crisis like those of Dostoevsky's or Ellison's Men, (or Turgenev's Superfluous Man, but I haven't read that one.) This novel is the least of those: well, nobody, I believe, thinks this a major Bellow novel.

Still I found it interesting. My sense, I can't tell you offhand where it comes from, is that the prose in this is considered different in kind from what would be Bellow's mature style, and certainly nothing in it has the panache of the opening of Augie March, "I am an American, Chicago-born,..." But it's not as different as all that, and Bellow sets out his program to reform American novelistic prose right from the start in these, the first words of his first novel:
"There was a time when people were in the habit of addressing themselves frequently and felt no shame at making a record of their inward transactions. But to keep a journal nowadays is considered a kind of self-indulgence, a weakness, and in poor taste. For this is an era of hardboiled-dom...Most serious matters are closed to the hardboiled. They are unpracticed in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring."
Pow. Take that, Hemingway. Right between the eyes, Hammett. It's a programmatic statement of the sort of prose that not only Joseph, but also Bellow, intends to write, and did write. I approve. Now Bellow got better at it going forward.

Rather the difference between this and the later novels is it's not Jewish. Joseph attends church, celebrates Christmas. It's understandable: anti-Semitism is still strong in English departments. Lionel Trilling only got his assistant professorship in 1939, and that, after having been told it would never happen. But it's a real loss in Bellow's case. The characters in Dangling Man feel like Jews in WASP-face, and that's not a good thing. When he decided to write honestly out of his Jewish experience, it liberated Bellow. The change between this and the later Bellows doesn't seem to me to be in the prose, but in the nature of the characters.

So it's a clear promise of what Bellow was going to become, even if he's not there yet. It's interesting for that.

But that also includes problems, like Bellow's handling of female characters. Now in general, men write better about male characters than female, and women write better about female characters than male. There are exceptions--George Eliot, possibly Tolstoy, though only in Anna Karenina, I would say--but in even great authors this can be true. Does anybody think Darcy or Knightley as real as Elizabeth or Emma? And male authors, I think, are generally worse in this regard than female authors. In Dangling Man, the female characters are all given physical descriptions, often unflattering or grotesque, while the men are described by the characteristics of their mind or actions. Here's Joseph describing his mother-in-law:
"She is a short, fair, rather maidenish woman. Her natural color, when visible, is healthy. Her eyes are large, and they wear a knowing look, but since there is nothing to be knowing about they only convey her foolishness. She powders herself thickly, and her lips are painted in the shape that has become the universal device of sensuality for all women, from the barely mature to the very old. Mrs. Almstadt, nearing fifty, is already quite wrinkled, much to her concern, and she is forever on the watch for new packs and face lotions."
A single example might be justifiable, but repeatedly? And in this novel, I found it less alarming than in others I've read, because Joseph is more ironized, more distant from Bellow himself, than Augie March, or Henderson, or (especially) Dean Corde of The Dean's December. It's a world where all we know about Hillary is her pantsuits. Maybe that's not entirely different from the world we live in now, but I keep hoping.

I read my first Bellow in high school (Herzog.) I went through a bit of a Bellow phase in my 20s, which ended with The Dean's December, and I decided I couldn't take it anymore. I came back to him, for a bit, with Ravelstein, and read or reread some more. I'm from Chicago, and Bellow is probably the most important Chicago writer, more even than Dreiser, than Brooks, than Farrell, than Algren, than Hecht, than Mamet, than Bodenheim, maybe even than Richard Wright, though hmm.... (And James T. Farrell is sadly underrated.)

Anyhoo, this post is in serious danger of becoming longer than the book itself... ;-) so I'll close off. If you're a Bellow fan, it's well worth reading, and not so different, I'd say, from his major works. But, even though it's short, don't start here. If you were looking for a short one to start with, I'd say Ravelstein, but the best for my money are Augie March, Henderson The Rain King, or Humboldt's Gift.

This qualifies for Classic From a Place You Lived for Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge, but really, embarrassingly enough, I pulled it for last fall's #1944Club, didn't read it until now, but never got around to putting it back on the shelf...


  1. Great review! I have this book. I borrowed it from a friend twenty years ago. I still need to return it! It is shockingly short for a Bellow novel.

    I am not a Bellow Fan. :D Augie March just about undid me. So many references I did not get (I read it pre-internet). I read Humbolt’s Gift last year with a friend (she teaches at a Waldorf school and was interested in his view Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy expressed in the book) which I enjoyed more, but probably only because I am a better reader now; much less inclined to get angry with an author when a book doesn’t work for me. Bellow was a brilliant man. I think the word “panache” is perfect. His sentences have wonderful energy. But he seems to want to cram every bit of his brilliance into his novels which can be exhausting for me as a reader.

    I still “have” to Henderson the Rain King because it is on the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century. Maybe next year…

    1. I don't usually mind references to things I don't get in a novel. I gloss over them in place, and think that's another book I want to read. Several of the characters in this are former communists, so there's references to Marx, whom I've never read, and a lot of references to Goethe, whom I only know a little.

      But I know a lot about Marx. Where do I know it from? Various places, but one of is certainly from reading novels whose characters are former Marxists! Invisible Man, In Dubious Battle, Darkness at Noon. And in most ways I'm more interested in the human qualities of the Marxists than in their theories anyway.

      For the longest time everything I knew about music theory came from reading Mann's Doctor Faustus. I'm sure most of it went over my head, but I got enough to make sense of the novel, and may even have learned something along the way...

    2. I typically worry that I am missing something important if I don't get a reference. I read with google open ALOT. :D

      I don't recall much about Marxism from books but for sure novels have helped me cement historical events and dates in a way that a non-fiction text does not.

    3. I do, too, nowadays. I like to read on paper, but I've got the tablet sitting right next to me normally. But a ridiculous amount of my cultural knowledge is just absorbed through osmosis and don't ask me any details...

      My parents were readers, but not intellectuals, and when I got into my late teens or early twenties, I was just happy to think there was a world where people talked about this stuff, even if I didn't understand any of it...and there was the proof, in Mann and Bellow and the rest of them.

  2. I've never read any books by Saul Bellow... so I'm glad you included which ones of his books to try first at the end of your review! :)