I dislike the fiction of Saul Bellow. I offer no apologies or excuses for this. I simply do. I've written an essay expanding upon my reasons for disesteeming Bellow's work (Northwest Review, Vol. 41, No. 1), so I won't recapitulate those reasons here. I bring the subject up now only becasue of J.M. Coetzee's review of Bellow's first three novels, now republished by the Library of America, in the New York Review of Books.
Coetzee's review begins as if it will be just another of the hagiographic treatments Bellow has received over the last several years--"Among American novelists of the latter half of the twentieth century, Saul Bellow stands out as one of the giants, perhaps the giant"--but his appraisal of these three books is rather more tepid. He prefers The Victim, and I guess I would agree with that assessment although I myself find it only mildly interesting, yet even here Coetzee concludes that Bellow "has not made Leventhal [the protagonist] enough of an intellectual heavyweight to dispute adequately with [the antagonist] Allbee (and with Dostoevsky behind him) the universality of the Christian model of the call to repentance."
Coetzee is correct to find Dostevsky "behind" The Victim, as well as most of Bellow's other novels. Bellow takes from Dostevsky a conception of the fiction of "ideas," and if anything makes those ideas even less interesting and more intrusive than they are in Dostevsky's novels. There's lots of anguish and philosophizing and gesturing after profundity in Bellow, and mostly (not completey) I find it all very tiresome. Other readers, of course, are free to disagree. (Obvioulsy most other readers do.)
The most revealing part of Coetzee's review, however, is his distinctly unenthusiastic estimation of The Adventures of Augie March. This is his ultimate judgment of the book:
Once it becomes clear that its hero is to lead a charmed life, Augie March begins to pay for its lack of dramatic structure and indeed of intellectual organization. The book becomes steadily less engaging as it proceeds. The scene-by-scene method of composition, each scene beginning with a tour de force of vivid word painting, begins to seem mechanical. The many pages devoted to Augie's adventures in Mexico, occupied in a harebrained scheme to train an eagle to catch iguanas, add up to precious little, despite the resources of writing lavished on them. And Augie's principal wartime escapade, torpedoed, trapped with a mad scientist in a lifeboat off the African coast, is simply comic-book stuff.
What Coetzee doesn't come right out and say is that Augie March is basically unreadable. I labored through it many years ago, but more recently I tried to re-read it and made it only halfway through. Coetzee thinks its the unearned "exuberance" of the style that bogs the novel down, but I think it's just badly written and terribly paced. The Adventures of Augie March in many ways marks the beginning of the cult of Bellow, and if now a writer as well-respected as Coetzee is willing to say it's not so good, the future of Bellow's reputation could prove to be in some doubt.
Coetzee thinks that Herzog is Bellow's most successful book (at least it's what he implies), and I would also agree with this judgment. Herzog is the sole Bellow novel that I, at any rate, would call a superior work of fiction--although even here the book is marred by Bellow's typically unpleasant portrayal of women. Form and subject mesh together seamlessly, and Bellow's style (which again I mostly find annoying) conveys both in an aesthetically satisfying way. It's finally the only Bellow novel I would gladly recommend to others as a book worth reading.
After Herzog, in my view only parts of Mr. Sammler's Planet, most of Humboldt's Gift, and a few short stories are any good at all. Everything else represents a calamitous falling-off in quality. Has anybody tried to read The Dean's December? Don't bother. At best these books represent a chronicle of Bellow's personal peeves and petty squabbles. They provide a distinctly disagreeable reading experience.
The only reference in Coetzee's review to Bellow's "greatness" is in that first sentence I've quoted. I'd like to think that even this statement is Coetzee's way of describing the current state of Bellow's reputation, but not necessarily his work as a whole. If a few of Bellow's books were to survive as minor novels I wouldn't be saddened, as long as in the long run Bellow's fiction doesn't overshadow the work of his much more accomplished colleagues, including his fellow American Jewish writers Malamud and Roth. That one hundred years from now Bellow would be seen as the "giant" post-World War II American novelist is inconceivable to me. But perhaps I'm just missing something.