Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Victim, by Saul Bellow

A friend, a Chinese-Malaysian man in his early 50s, caught me off-guard recently when he mentioned that his favourite author is Saul Bellow.  I respect this fellow's artistic sensibilities, so I cautiously admitted that I had read only one of Bellow's novels, Herzog, and... and... hadn't precisely loved it.  The truth: I loathed it, character, plot, prose and all, and after finishing, I planted Saul Bellow on my personal blacklist.  Listening to my friend rattling off the list of Bellow's novels that he's read and cherished, though, I reconsidered.

After all, my faithful list-writer, Anthony Burgess, included two of Bellow's works -- The Victim and Humboldt's Gift -- on his list of the 99 best novels.  The committees for the Nobel Prize, U.S. Book Prize, PEN/Malamud Award and Prix International obviously ranked Bellow as a great author.  Surely I had missed something.  I would give him another go.

I approached The Victim with a doggedly open mind, even a predisposition to admit my earlier mistake in judgement. I finished with the grudging concession that I disliked it only a smidgeon less than Herzog. Overall, my reaction to both books was very similar:  I neither enjoyed them nor admired them, and I'm still completely in the dark as to why so many others just love this man's work.  In fact, the character on the cover of the Penguin paperback edition pretty well sums up my feelings -- head in hand, wondering where I missed the boat.

I'm reasonably free-thinking when it comes to books. I may or may not agree with critics, literary prize committees, or fellow readers. I often admire books that I fail to enjoy. (Cormac McCarthy's novels come to mind here.) I ignore best-seller lists. So why am I tormenting myself for my failure to appreciate Saul Bellow's work?  Is it because I sense that to reject him amounts to anti-Semitism?  That is of course nonsense on one level -- the fact that I don't care for Paulo Coelho doesn't belie any antipathy towards Brazilians. On the other hand, in both of these novels Bellow presents me with protagonists, Moses A. Herzog and Asa Leventhal, who dare me not to roll my eyes and mutter, "Sheesh, what a putz."  They are not entertainingly bumbling, nor are they quite pathetic. If they progress from one state at the beginning of the novel to another at the end, it's small progress. Bluntly, I just find them both supremely annoying.

Equally vexing and unenlightening is Leventhal's nemesis in The Victim, Kirby Allbee.  Allbee is down on his luck -- widowed, drunk, unemployed -- and he appears to hold Leventhal responsible for his misfortune, or at least for his lack of employment, thanks to an incident in which Leventhal engaged in a raging argument with Allbee's former boss.  He now stalks Leventhal wanting... what? Compensation? Apology? Commiseration? Revenge?  Leventhal initially denies any responsibility for Allbee's circumstances, then comes to admit a bit of culpability.  Ultimately Leventhal allows his stalker into his home, having capitulated utterly to his demands, though he deeply resents every gesture he makes.  Each man feels himself equally victimised by the other. Allbee rails at Leventhal that "you people" are different and fail to understand the suffering of others.
"Because you've got to blame me, that's why," said Allbee. "You won't assume that it isn't entirely my fault. It's necessary for you to believe that I deserve what I get. It doesn't enter your mind, does it--that a man might not be able to help being hammered down? What do you say? Maybe he can't help himself? No, if a man is down, a man like me, it's his fault. If he suffers, he's being punished. There's no evil in life itself. And do you know what? It's a Jewish point of view. You'll find it all over the Bible. God doesn't make mistakes. He's the department of weights and measures. If you're okay, he's okay, too. That's what Job's friends come and say to him. But I'll tell you something. We do get it in the neck for nothing and suffer for nothing, and there's no denying that evil is as real as sunshine. Take it from me, I know what I'm talking about. To you the whole thing is that I must deserve what I get. That leaves your hands clean and it's unnecessary for you to bother yourself. Not that I'm asking you to feel sorry for me, but you sure can't understand what makes a man drink."
Leventhal does rather hold Allbee responsible for his own downfall. At least Allbee doesn't have to face a deluge of anti-Semitism every day.
You couldn't say you were master of yourself when there were so many people by whom you could be humiliated.
The two men wallow in their own private senses of humiliation until they part company after a sordid argument.  They meet again years later, and I sense that, although Allbee's material fortunes have shifted, neither man has changed; separation has simply allowed them to stop feeding each other's demons. 

To give credit where it's due, Bellow does write some gorgeous passages of description, immersing the reader in the sights, sounds and smells of 1960s New York.
He went down in the elevator amid a crowd of girls from the commercial school upstairs, largely unconscious of the pleasure that he took in their smooth arms and smooth faces. The elevator sank slowly in the musty shaft with a buzz of signals and a sparking of tiny arrowheads. On the street Leventhal bought a paper and glanced through it in the cafeteria. After lunch, he walked toward the river, passing through the sidewalk markets, between the sacks of coffee beans. The roasting odor was mixed with the smell of gas. The occasional piping of a tug or the low blurt of a steamer came through the trample and jamming of trucks, and booms bristled like the spikes of a maguey, dividing the white of the sky as the piers did that of the water.
Leventhal believes that the Gentiles who run New York's publishing interests maintain and circulate between themselves a blacklist of Jews who are bound to be trouble in the workplace, and none of his friends, also Jewish, can disabuse him of this notion.  As a reader, I have my own blacklist, but the late Mr. Bellow can rest assured that it's not racially driven. He's in very mixed company on my list. Still, I would welcome feedback from any and all readers who love this man's work and who would like to share with me what they see in it.

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