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As part of the Continuum Literature and Life Series, Robert Kiernan's book is meant to be an introduction to Saul Bellow's work. It seeks to give an account of Bellow's life and the place of his work within a literary tradition. At the same time, I suspect, Robert Kiernan himself seeks to make an original contribution to our understanding of Bellow's fiction. He writes with authority, offering a substantial amount of fresh insight into Bellow's characters and scenes.
In the final product, these two purposes get in one another's way. Kiernan offers an introductory chapter on Bellow's life and career and then works through the novels and short story collections, missing only the play, The Last Analysis, and Bellow's personal study of the Israeli-Arab conflict, To Jerusalem and Back. For each volume, Kiernan looks briefly at its critical reception, gives an introductory summary of the plot, and then plunges into a somewhat lyrical if illuminating analysis of the text. The strength of this approach lies in Kiernan's analysis of the texture of Bellow's fiction, as he pays close attention to Bellow's language, point of view, and characterization. He often offers an impressive amount of detailed evidence. In The Victim, for example, he makes the most thorough case I have seen for Leventhal and Allbee as alter egos, noting that Leventhal serves Allbee in this capacity every bit as much as Allbee serves Leventhal. Kiernan is also good on the parallel between Tommy Wilhelm and Dr. Tamkin in "Seize the Day." He has a good eye for not only image and diction but also those many implied comparisons and contrasts that bind a fiction together.
Quite often Kiernan provides an excellent insight into a particular character. He observes that Herzog substitutes a blaze of language for emotional contact, for example, as Herzog's letters might suggest. He also notices the intensity and lack of assimilation with which Herzog sees the particular. He convincingly argues that Henderson's idealism, taken seriously by most critics of Henderson the Rain King, really does not bear scrutiny. And he offers a detailed examination of the complexity lying behind the energetic affirmation in The Adventures of Augie March. In the story "The Silver Dish," moreover, Kiernan rightly notices that the father is definitively physical—a point that he convinces me is the hidden key to that story.
The weaknesses of Kiernan's approach lie in the intensity with which he looks at each work. His book is not really an introduction to Bellow's work in that it does not pull back from the canon to give context or background. Kiernan touches on the critical reception of the books but often misses the issues with which Bellow scholars currently wrestle. He says little about Bellow's Jewish background, for example, or about the social criticism that often fuels Bellow's fiction. He also gives short shrift to Bellow's overriding concern with the transcendent. Although he mentions such elements in passing, one would know little from this book about Bellow's striking allegiance to realism in a postmodern age or [End Page 759] the debate about the relative quality of Bellow's later fiction, which, as Kiernan notes in passing, includes preposterous plots and relentlessly theorizing characters.
The result of such omissions is a reading of the novels that sometimes strikes me as wrongheaded. In "The Silver Dish," for example, Kiernan barely mentions the fact that the young protagonist has left his Jewish background to become a Christian—and that the father intends to force him back to his cultural roots. In Henderson The Rain King, Kiernan is good on the novel as a burlesque of the quest novel but neglects Henderson's very real need for a cure for his rage, not to mention Bellow's highly serious exploration of the relationship of good and evil to the structure of matter. And in Herzog Kiernan misses...