Just when you think that you understand Bellow, this book comes along. This is a new version with an interesting 17 page introduction by Martin Amis. It is based on a talk that he gave at a Bellow conference in Haifa, Israel.
I am a Bellow fan, read all of his novels, and wrote an Amazon guide: "A Guide to Reading Bellow." The present book is excellent. If I had to recommend just one, it would be "Herzog." but saying that, the present book is a surprise, like a breath of fresh air. Some of his novels have a warmth and charm, and have a certain tongue in cheek approach in describing the trials and tribulations of the narrator. The humour is mixed in with the meaning of our short lives, and the future of our souls. Bellow thought that the development of realism was the major event of modern literature. That includes how we view subjects such as sex, life and death, etc. Having said that, we see two changes here. One is that in most Bellow novels the men dominate the women, or they are equal. Yes, the women often divorce our hero in other works, but here the men are like putty in the hands of the women. The story is about their attempts to get married, each to quite a different type of woman. Also, instead of one narrator, the present narrator, Kenneth, is so close to his uncle Benn that it seems like the story about two people not one. There lives are interconnected by close communication.
In case you are new to Bellow, his novels reflect his life, his writings, and his five marriages during his five active decades of writing. He hit his peak as a writer around the time of "Augie March" in 1953 and continued through to the Pulitzer novel "Humbolt's Gift" in 1973. He wrote from the early 1940s through to 2000. His novels are written in a narrative form, and the main character is a Jewish male - usually a writer but not always - and he is living in either in New York or Chicago. Bellow wrote approximately 13 novels and a number of other works.
Bellow's style progressed over the five decades. The early novels "Dangling Man" and "The Victim" were written in the 1940s, 20 years before his peak. Some compare his style in "Dangling Man" with Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground." Having read both I would say that "Notes" is brilliant while "Dangling Man" is at best average and sometimes a bit slow, but the prose is excellent. Changes could be seen in his second book "The Victim" in 1947. The first half is slow, but then the pace intensifies in the second half. This increase in tempo and lightness carries on in his next book "The Adventures of Augie March" - his breakthrough book in 1953 that won a National Book Prize. He changes his style in "Henderson the Rain LKing" in 1959, and then returns to the New York-Chicago theme after "Henderson." Bellow hits a new high with "Herzog" in 1964, and that book sets the tone for a number of novels that follow. The present books follows later and came out in 1987.
In interviews, and from reading the early works, Bellow said that it was difficult to make the transition to becoming "uninhibited" in his writings. That transition ended in 1953 with "Augie March" and it was refined with "Herzog." After that, there is a certain sameness to the novels. We see a bit of a break in the present novel. I will not give away the plot, but it is about two professors in the mid-west, uncle and nephew, probably in Indianapolis, not Chicago this time. There is a bit of laziness evident: he seems to use a number of quotations. But the plot is interesting, and he seems to take delight in exploring and reversing the role of man versus women. They women either ignore or try to manipulate the men, and at least one woman, Matilda, far out-classes our heroes (or as in Bellow novels, anti-heroes).
This is an interesting and unusual novel, and for myself, yes, Bellow is perhaps less brilliant, but this is still good stuff.