Curiously, Bellow is very little read in India - I can't remember his name ever coming up in conversation with other readers. And his books are very hard to find in Indian bookshops: the books go straight from Beaumont to de Bernieres. In fact, it is easier to find a set of his works secondhand, at the bookshop on the pavement opposite Flora Fountain in Bombay, at the place where DN Road and MG Road meet. This was where a week ago I pounced upon an edition of his very hard-to-find book To Jerusalem and Back, an account of a visit to Israel that first appeared as a series of pieces in the New Yorker in the '70s. But to return to Seize the Day.
Tommy Wilhelm is a man broken by life, and he is past helping himself. He is hoping that something or somebody will save him. On the morning on which we meet him first - and the timespan of the novel does not extend beyond this day - we see him at breakfast with his father who, like him, occupies a room at the Hotel Gloriana in New York. But while his father, a retired doctor and a widower, is living at the Gloriana in comfortable retirement, Wilhelm in midlife is a refugee from his home - he is separated from his wife, who now makes constant financial demands on him for the care of their two children - and wracked both by present troubles and unhappy memories.
Wilhelm is a big, still-handsome man, though a little stooped and thickened with age, with an attitude of "large, shaky, patient dignity" - Bellow repeatedly emphasises his heavy physicality, and by implication his burdened soul, by returning to the details of his body and his posture. (An example of the deployment of a similar technique in a contemporary novel might be the references to Chanu's obesity in Monica Ali's Brick Lane - Chanu "moving sideways like a big, soft-shelled crab" or his stomach rolling "a little farther into its nest of thigh" - only here they are suggestive of Chanu's complacent outlook).
Wilhelm thinks of his life as a series of setbacks. A good part of his youth was wasted unsuccessfully trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood (His last appearance on screen, we are told, was as an extra in a scene where he had to blow the bagpipes: "Wilhelm, in a kilt, barelegged, blew and blew and blew and not a sound came out. Of course all the music was recorded.") after which he spent several years as a salesman of children's furniture before falling out with the management and resigning. He and his wife are incompatible, but she will not give him a divorce; he feels she is turning his two children against him even as she sends him bills. And his father, from whom he expects a little sympathy and understanding if not monetary assistance, is cold to him.
The only person who is willing to take time to hear Wilhelm is the mysterious psychologist Dr. Tamkin, one of many Bellovian figures full of flowery talk and bizarre ideas. Among the many bits of advice Tamkin offers Wilhelm ("I want to tell you, don't marry suffering. Some people do. They get married to it, and sleep and eat together, just as husband and wife. If they go with joy they think it's adultery.") is to practice living in the "here-and-now" and to "seize the day".
Many criticisms can be made of Bellow - his plots don't move very well, his protagonists are too much like each other, there are few sympathetic female characters in his work- but, like Dickens, he was a master of that most essential of novelistic arts, that of portraiture. Here is his vivid realisation of Tamkin - not at the moment at which he is first introduced, but midway through the book, at a moment when Tamkin happens to take his hat off before Wilhelm:
What a creature Tamkin was when he took off his hat! The indirect light showed the many complexities of his bald skull, his gull's nose, his rather handsome eyebrows, his vain mustache, his deceiver's brown eyes. His figure was stocky, rigid, short in the neck, so that the large ball of the occiput touched his collar. His bones were peculiarly formed, as though twisted twice where the ordinary human bone was turned only once, and his shoulders rose in two pagoda-like points. At mid-body he was thick. He stood pigeon-toed, a sign perhaps that he was devious or had much to hide. The skin of his hands was aging, and his nails were moonless, concave, clawlike, and they appeared loose. His eyes were as brown as beaver fur and full of strange lines. The two large brown naked balls looked thoughtful - but were they? And honest - but was Dr.Tamkin honest?And here, just for pleasure, is Dickens's famous portrait of Scrooge at the beginning of A Christmas Carol ( Scrooge might be said to have a connection with Wilhelm, in that he too must break with the past and learn to "seize the day"):
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.Seize The Day ends with a beautiful scene in which Wilhelm, having lost most of his money at the bourses, goes searching for Tamkin, stumbles by accident into a funeral procession, is led towards the dead body and, after holding back his tears at several other points during the day, breaks down here and cries his eyes out. There is no neat resolution of Wilhelm's problems, but what we feel instead is a moment of catharsis.
And as always, great writers inspire great writing from readers. Here is a selection of good pieces about Bellow: "Rereading Saul Bellow" by Philip Roth; "The High-Minded Joker" by James Wood; "Editing Saul Bellow" by his long-time editor at Viking, Elisabeth Sifton; and "Bellow's Great Accomplishment", a very perceptive, often negative, assessment of his work by Tim Marchman ("Saul Bellow is a great writer, but I do not think he has written great books. It's difficult, thinking it through, to name one novel of his that is as good as its best passages, or worthy of its best ideas.What we take instead from Mr. Bellow are characters, precise observations, and particular settings of life that together amount to a style of consciousness."). Ramona Koval has a very good interview with Bellow here - you'll have to scroll down the page a little before Bellow begins.
More on Bellow next month, with a piece on the new issue of a journal he edited with Keith Botsford, News From The Republic of Letters.