the bellovian mind


In 1961, Saul Bellow wrote to Susan Glassman, who would become his third wife: “Have you ever visited a clothing factory, heard the sewing machines rrrrhhhahhrrr with the loudness in the middle of the phrase? I feel like that myself, like the operator sliding in the cloth. Only the machinery is internal and the seams never end”. If you had to pick a single passage from Saul Bellow: Letters, so richly characteristic on every page, to capture the writer’s essence, this would be it. That roar is the key signature of his inner life, which he bestows on every one of his fictional surrogates. The first step in creating a character, for Bellow, is not to imagine what he looks like or what will happen to him, but to set moving the vibration, the agitation, the turbulence (there is no more Bellovian word than “turbulent”) that constitutes consciousness. It is audible in Joseph, from Dangling Man: “if I had as many mouths as Siva has arms and kept them going all the time, I still could not do myself justice”. In Henderson of Henderson the Rain King: “Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it it got even stronger”. In Ravelstein: “one of those large men . . . whose hands shake when there are small chores to perform. The cause was not weakness but a tremendous eager energy that shook him when it was discharged”.

more from Adam Kirsch at the TLS here.