I’m not going to lie to you. Saul Bellow’s latest book, “Collected Stories,” a volume of short stories written by the prolific prizewinner over the last fifty years, is an often unsettling and downright haunting portrait of the darkest corners of the human psyche. Instances of heartbreaking “what ifs” and poignant moments of too-late revelations pepper this brutally honest, if not fascinating, insight into one of the most complicated minds of the second half of the last century.
Many of these short stories take the reader through familiar “Bellovian” territory: the somber, industrial ghettos of Chicago; the Bohemian playground of Greenwich Village circa 1960; the universities rife with professorial politics and the Cinderella-like success stories of lower-middle class intellectuals overcoming all odds to achieve greatness. A recurrent thread throughout all the stories is the idea of assessing one’s life — assessing the choices one must make along the journey. Many of the stories are told second-hand, one character relaying the details to another. This almost cinematic contrivance, reminiscent of a flashback, saps the crackling energy out of many stories, rendering them flat while providing ample opportunity for objective analysis and decision-assessment.
Countless characters ponder the meaning of life and the purpose of their own individual existences. For example, in perhaps Bellow’s most beloved short story, “The Bellarossa Connection,” the unnamed narrator ruminates on both his and his cousin’s successes after immigrating to America. While the narrator recognizes that Fonstein, his cousin, has created a truly noble and dignified identity after escaping Nazi wartime Europe, the narrator regrets his own way of using America’s resources. He tastes the bitter reality of remorse as he explains himself as a truly integrated Jew “charged with American puerility,” an “immature … foolish intellectual gossip with nothing in his head but froth.”
This dichotomy between the old ways, established by immigrants who came over from Europe and fought tooth and nail for every drop of success, and the newer ways of this generation, who are simply born into a better life, is explored in detail throughout the collection. As he explores the battle between the old and new ways in the lives of Jewish-Americans, Bellow cements his status as a brilliant social critic with a keen, unrelenting eye for the truth that can become obscured in this melting pot known as America.
Bellow weaves all these situations and settings, all the complex emotions and personalities, all the individual characters, into an intricate web that replicates the very stuff of life. In some particularly striking stories, the prose utilized is masterful — nothing less than breathtaking. Katrina Golinger, the protagonist of “What Kind of Day Did You Have?,” wonders about “the way girls [are] indoctrinated: Don’t worry dear, love will solve your problems. Make yourself deserving, and you’ll be loved. People are crazy, but they’re not too crazy. So you won’t actually be murdered. You’ll be okay. And with this explanation from a dopey mother (and Mother really was stupid), you went into action.” Bellow’s exploration into the development of the female mind is insightful, a true joy to witness.
This novella, which could be seen as the climax of the entire collection, tells the story of intellectual tyrant and savage art critic Victor Wulpy, a character whose personality and views on life echo many of Bellow’s own. Wulpy is a man who has forged his own destiny, becoming the greatest thinker of his time, feared and respected and sought after by all. Bellow’s ambitions rescued him from the grim emptiness of Chicago and helped him earn the title of the newest, hottest author, the savior of American letters, the “greatest living wrier.” As Bellow grew older, he abandoned the literati scene and became more reclusive, speaking through his work more than anything else.
If any connection between Wulpy and Bellow exists, much can be said about the author’s state of mind in his twilight years. The narrator claims that Wulpy “longed to be dying. Dying would illuminate. There were ideas closely associated with dying which only dying could reveal. He probably felt that he had postponed too long.” One must wonder if the same is true for Bellow: why release such a volume? Most of these stories already appear in some anthology or other. It would seem that thoughts of fear and doubt toward life and what comes after death are on the author’s mind. If so, does this particular novella or this entire collection stand as a monument to all those regrets, all the choices we don’t make and all the chances gone by? Perhaps, but no matter; this collection is something to be savored by anyone looking for more from life, anyone wondering why we’re here and how to attack this thing — this multi-faceted, seemingly infinite thing called life.