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Saul Bellow: Dangling Man

Try as I might, I’ve never connected with Saul Bellow’s prose. My first attempt was The Actual, his penultimate work, and his shortest. A few pages in and I was lost. Then, The Adventures Of Augie March, the novel that signalled his worth as a writer: after reading the opening page repeatedly, I knew I couldn’t continue through the whole book doing so, and abandoned it.

There’s something about Bellow, though, that makes me persist. It’s probably the perception of him as one of the best American writers, what with other writers citing him as their favourite. By not reading him, I’m surely missing out; in reading him, I’m more than likely missing the point. In order to grapple with the beast it seemed a logical idea to dismiss his better known novels as an introduction and to head back to the start, to Dangling Man (1944), under the impression that his earliest work may offer a way in to his style before it solidifies him as that great American writer.

Dangling Man is the journal of Joseph, a young man who resigned his job at a travel bureau seven months before, expecting to be drafted into the army, instead finding himself ‘dangling’ due to complications that he describes as “a sort of bureaucratic comedy trimmed out in red tape.” Rather than get a job for now – “As a 1A I could not get a suitable one, anyhow” – he opts for staying at home, living off his wife’s wage, rarely venturing out, and with little company other than his own thoughts, all jotted down.

In loneliness and bureaucracy, there are echoes of Kafka’s The Trial, and a Joseph caught up in it all confirms the nod. Bellow, however, is not so concerned with the situation of bureaucracy, instead using it as the springboard into a mildly philosophical story about destiny.

Six hundred years ago, a man was what he was born to be. Satan and the Church, representing God, did battle over him. He, by reason of his choice, partially decided the outcome. […] But, since, the stage has been reset and human beings only walk on it and, under this revision, we have, instead, history to answer to. We were important enough then for our souls to be fought over. Now, each of us is responsible for his own salvation, which is in his greatness. And that, that greatness, is the rock or hearts are abraded on.

Admittedly, as stories go, Dangling Man is short on incident, given that Joseph rarely leaves his room, but there are a number of great set pieces as the frustration of living within one’s mind – and Joseph’s mind, given his journal’s literary references and philosophial meanderings, is highly intelligent – takes its toll and cracks appear. It may not be a metamorphosis in the mould of Gregor Samsa, but the once easy-natured man he was has found himself prone to violent outbursts.

There is nothing to do but wait, or dangle, and grow more and more dispirited. It is perfectly clear to me that I am deteriorating, storing bitterness and spite which eats like acid at my endowment of generosity and good will.

In all his wanderings – physical and mental – Joseph’s problem is destiny. Unable to live up to the lofty expections of his making and “unwilling to admit that I do not know how to use my freedom” he not only seeks, but needs solace in the Army, where he need not think for himself. At the beginning, Joseph’s choice to keep a journal, in “an era of hardboiled-dom” is a seen as contrarian to the mores of society:

Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them.

The journey from individual thinker, an outcast from society, to one willing to strangle his own self is an interesting premise. Where one would expect – perhaps because it’s clichéd – to see someone fight for their individuality, Dangling Man talks of belonging. In reading it, and understanding it to a degree, and even quite enjoying bits of it, I find that I may just see the case for belonging myself – to those that praise him, that is.

February 10, 2009

14 responses to Saul Bellow: Dangling Man

  1. Tom C said:

    Well, it doesn’t sounds like anyone’s going to make a film or it! I’ve never read Bellow, but am conscious that this is a gap in my library. Perhaps this is a good place to start

  2. Stewart said:

    Well, it doesn’t sounds like anyone’s going to make a film or it!

    I daresay it’s possible, with a bit of imagination. Cronenberg, after all, managed to to turn the internal monologue of a schizophrenic (Patrick McGrath’s Spider) into a film.

    Dangling Man may be a good place to start. The fact that I finished it, and found it easygoing, is testament to that. Usually, I’m done for after four pages max.

  3. Trevor said:

    I’ve always been intimidated by Bellow. My wife bought me Humboldt’s Gift and I haven’t started it yet, always thinking, I’ll just read this other book first. I know I need to just jump in, though. Glad to see you jumped in and it paid off!

  4. I like Bellow a lot, although I have not read this book. My favorites are probably Augie March and Humboldt’s Gift, based on the strength of the narrative and the over-arching story. For me, he does an even better job than Roth of capturing certain aspects of America, particularly in the longer works that Stewart finds daunting. I can understand that — Bellow is a writer that you do need to engage with and if that doesn’t look to be possible trudging through him is probably a waste of time. All authors are not meant for all readers.

  5. Tom C said:

    Maybe someone will turn a W G Sebald book into a film then!

    Thanks for replying

    Tom

  6. Stewart said:

    All authors are not meant for all readers.

    Oh, I daresay if his books aren’t for me now, they can be later. A couple of years ago I couldn’t follow him on a sentence by sentence level, now I can. There are others like him, notably Thomas Pynchon and Lawrence Norfolk, where I read and don’t take in anything. With time and experience, if I keep knocking, the door will open.

    My next Bellow will probably be his next one, The Victim, if only to put off The Adventures Of Augie March a while more.

  7. Mrinal Bose said:

    The only Saul Bellow novel I’ve read is Seize the Day. It’s a small but very powerful novel. I remember it resonated with me for several days after I was done with it. Bellow is really a great writer.

  8. john hilden said:

    this is my first visit here. I agree with Mrinal Bose’s comment above about Seize the Day. Definitely one of his best. Herzog is another.

  9. Stewart said:

    Hi John, glad you visited. I intend to read more Bellow at some point, although I see myself heading to The Victim first. Might as well get the apprentice works out of the way, to cement my ability to read Bellow, because the one after that, The Adventures Of Augie March, was a mystery to me, and the others after that I’ve had a skim of were just as impenetrable (The Actual). Still, Sieze The Day is a dinky volume, which goes in its favour.

  10. Kevin said:

    Happy to see this blog. After becoming interested in what I read about the author, I picked up a hardcover copy of Herzog, perhaps out of (recommended) order of reading. As stated earlier, somewhat impenetrable, especially early on, however, something(s) in Bellow’s writing will not let me stop. Without question the longest time it has ever taken me to get through a book, however, also very possibly, the best book I have read. The reading does become easier, and more rewarding, the more you trudge on.

  11. Stewart said:

    Thanks, Kevin. I can understand the reading becoming easier. I expect that eureka day will come when I can get through one of non-apprentice novels.

  12. ibellow said:

    Thanks, good job.

  13. litsf said:

    I read Bellow recently and I started with his last novel: Ravelstein. I have to say that I was not impressed. Clearly the writing is one of a master and there are here and there some good quotations. However, I found the main character unlikable and I had no understanding of why the narrator had such an admiration for him…. I might have to try other Bellow books.

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14 responses to Saul Bellow: Dangling Man

  1. Tom C said:

    Well, it doesn’t sounds like anyone’s going to make a film or it! I’ve never read Bellow, but am conscious that this is a gap in my library. Perhaps this is a good place to start

  2. Stewart said:

    Well, it doesn’t sounds like anyone’s going to make a film or it!

    I daresay it’s possible, with a bit of imagination. Cronenberg, after all, managed to to turn the internal monologue of a schizophrenic (Patrick McGrath’s Spider) into a film.

    Dangling Man may be a good place to start. The fact that I finished it, and found it easygoing, is testament to that. Usually, I’m done for after four pages max.

  3. Trevor said:

    I’ve always been intimidated by Bellow. My wife bought me Humboldt’s Gift and I haven’t started it yet, always thinking, I’ll just read this other book first. I know I need to just jump in, though. Glad to see you jumped in and it paid off!

  4. I like Bellow a lot, although I have not read this book. My favorites are probably Augie March and Humboldt’s Gift, based on the strength of the narrative and the over-arching story. For me, he does an even better job than Roth of capturing certain aspects of America, particularly in the longer works that Stewart finds daunting. I can understand that — Bellow is a writer that you do need to engage with and if that doesn’t look to be possible trudging through him is probably a waste of time. All authors are not meant for all readers.

  5. Tom C said:

    Maybe someone will turn a W G Sebald book into a film then!

    Thanks for replying

    Tom

  6. Stewart said:

    All authors are not meant for all readers.

    Oh, I daresay if his books aren’t for me now, they can be later. A couple of years ago I couldn’t follow him on a sentence by sentence level, now I can. There are others like him, notably Thomas Pynchon and Lawrence Norfolk, where I read and don’t take in anything. With time and experience, if I keep knocking, the door will open.

    My next Bellow will probably be his next one, The Victim, if only to put off The Adventures Of Augie March a while more.

  7. Mrinal Bose said:

    The only Saul Bellow novel I’ve read is Seize the Day. It’s a small but very powerful novel. I remember it resonated with me for several days after I was done with it. Bellow is really a great writer.

  8. john hilden said:

    this is my first visit here. I agree with Mrinal Bose’s comment above about Seize the Day. Definitely one of his best. Herzog is another.

  9. Stewart said:

    Hi John, glad you visited. I intend to read more Bellow at some point, although I see myself heading to The Victim first. Might as well get the apprentice works out of the way, to cement my ability to read Bellow, because the one after that, The Adventures Of Augie March, was a mystery to me, and the others after that I’ve had a skim of were just as impenetrable (The Actual). Still, Sieze The Day is a dinky volume, which goes in its favour.

  10. Kevin said:

    Happy to see this blog. After becoming interested in what I read about the author, I picked up a hardcover copy of Herzog, perhaps out of (recommended) order of reading. As stated earlier, somewhat impenetrable, especially early on, however, something(s) in Bellow’s writing will not let me stop. Without question the longest time it has ever taken me to get through a book, however, also very possibly, the best book I have read. The reading does become easier, and more rewarding, the more you trudge on.

  11. Stewart said:

    Thanks, Kevin. I can understand the reading becoming easier. I expect that eureka day will come when I can get through one of non-apprentice novels.

  12. ibellow said:

    Thanks, good job.

  13. litsf said:

    I read Bellow recently and I started with his last novel: Ravelstein. I have to say that I was not impressed. Clearly the writing is one of a master and there are here and there some good quotations. However, I found the main character unlikable and I had no understanding of why the narrator had such an admiration for him…. I might have to try other Bellow books.

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