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Booklog: The Victim

January 22, 2007

The Victim
Saul Bellow
Read: 1.14.07
Rating: Very Good

Later in life, Saul Bellow didn’t think much of his two earlier novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947). He choose to see them as “practice” for his break-through novel, the one he truly wanted to write: The Adventures of Augie March. In a magnificent New Yorker piece written by Philip Roth shortly after his death, Bellow is quoted as saying:

I certainly was transformed [by writing “Augie March”] and I’ll probably be the last to understand how this happened, but I am very willing to look for the cause. I had written two very correct books [“Dangling Man” and “The Victim”] and I shall try to explain what I mean by correct: I seem to have felt that I, as the child of Russian Jews, must establish my authority, my credentials, my fitness to write books in English. Somewhere in my Jewish and immigrant blood there were conspicuous traces of a doubt as to whether I had the right to practice the writer’s trade.

Bellow’s struggle with his Jewishness and his doubts is evident in The Victim, which is a novel of doubt, self-evasion, and the perils of over-consciousness. It is also a short, marvelous, “correct” piece of fiction. The majority of this booklog will be spent explaining what I mean by “over-consciousness,” which is the weakness of Asa Leventhal, the novel’s Jewish protagonist. We’ll return to Bellow’s career trajectory at the end.

Early in the second chapter, Asa Leventhal attempts to describe his deep abiding feeling that he has “gotten away with” bad decisions made early in his life:

He meant that his bad start, his mistakes, the things that might have wrecked him, had somehow combined to establish him. He had almost fallen in with that part of humanity of which he was frequently mindful (he never forgot the hotel on lower Broadway), the part that did not get away with it — the lost, the outcast, the overcome, the effaced, the ruined.

Many “self-made” men would look back on their past mistakes with pride, glad that they managed to rise above a bad start to a position of relative security. But Leventhal instead attributes this to “luck,” and is ever-aware of the tenuousness of his position and the troubles of those who were not so fortunate.

When Kirby Albee, an acquaintance who Leventhal has not seen in years, re-enters his life, this awareness comes to the forefront of Leventahl’s consciousness. Albee, one of the “overcome, feels that he has been wronged, and wants to blame Leventhal for his destitution. Many years ago, Albee recommended Leventhal for a position, and Leventhal’s interview with the boss went very poorly, as Leventhal thought he was being offended and ended his visit in a shouting match. Shortly thereafter, Albee was fired — and he thinks this was Leventhal’s fault, even insinuating that it was done purposefully to pay-back a drunken anti-Semitic slur Albee had made at a party one night. The fact that Albee’s wife left him and then died in a car accident shortly after his termination, and that both his termination and his wife’s desertion were likely a result of his being an alcoholic, complicate matters.

Leventhal is deeply unsettled by Albee and the confrontations the wronged man forces him into. Even though his reasonable assessment of the situation tells Leventhal that the fault is entirely Albee’s, he cannot brush him off, despite his attempts to rationalize. Bellow’s depiction of the relationship between Albee and Leventhal is masterful. Albee is a complete mess, and in his talks with Leventhal he shifts between insinuations, demands, and philosophic considerations about the fragility of life; Leventhal’s reactions oscillate between fury, pity, and confusion — he cannot shake the sense that he truly does owe Albee something.

Leventhal’s thoughts run in all directions, switching directions with rapid speed. The novel is full of passages were he arrives at an opinion or interpretation, then considers the opposite point of view in the next sentence or paragraph. He feels that he is unable to manage his thoughts, emotions, and actions. He considers this a serious “weakness,” and often resolves to cut it out — only to switch gears immediately, or fail miserably when acting on impulses he considers to be strong. Leventhal is caught between thoughts, and his over-consciousness leaves him unable to take control of his life: he is “carried on currents, this way and that. The currents had taken a new twist, and he was being hurried, hurried.”

The driving internal conflict in The Victim is Leventhal’s search for a “limit,” a kernel of truth or an epiphany, that will put a stop to this over-consciousness:

You couldn’t find a place in your feelings for everything, or give at every touch like a swinging door, the same for everyone, with people going in and out as they pleased. On the other hand, if you shut yourself up, not wanting to be bothered, then you were like a bear in a winter hole, or like a mirror wrapped in a piece of flannel. And like such a mirror you were in less danger of being broken, but you didn’t flash, either. But you had to flash. That was the peculiar thing. Everyone wanted to be what he was to the limit.

As Leventhal understands, the solution to the problem of over-consciousness is not to shut out thoughts and feelings, but to find a “limit.”

The “limit” in this case is analogous to the “truth” — for once the truth is discovered or realized, thoughts know where to stop. “Truth” for Leventhal isn’t quite a unifying principle or ultimate reality, but a force that corrals consciousness in the right directions and prevents it from running away. In his considerations of the situation with Albee, Leventhal years to know the real, actual truth of the matter so that he knows what to do and how. Unfortunately, for him, as it is often for all of us, discerning the truth is all too difficult. Yet Leventhal persists in his belief that the truth is a simple matter, waiting to be discovered:

Either the truth was simple or we had to accept the fact that we could not know it, and if we could not know it then there was nothing to go by. ‘There’s just so much that we can do. What the use of wearing yourself out for nothing?’ Leventhal said to himself. No, the truth must be something we understand at once, without and introduction or explanation, but so common and familiar that we don’t always realize it’s around us.

In the book’s final chapter, which acts as a sort of epilogue, the situation with Albee has been settled and Leventhal has “lost the feeling that he had, as he used to say, ‘got away with it,’ his guilty relief, and the acompanying sense of infringement.” He also seems to have given up the search for a truth that will limit his consciousness, instead recognizing that the situation with Albee “was a shuffle, all, all accidental and haphazard. And somewhere, besides, there was a wrong emphasis.” This error, this misappropriation of which both he and Albee were guilty of, “rose out of something very mysterious, namely, a conviction or illusion at the start of life, and perhaps even before, a promise had been made.”

The shift from the search for a “limit” and “truth” to a less extravagant “promise” which is inherent in life marks a maturation, both for Asa Leventhal and for Bellow. The closing pages of The Victim set the stage for the triumphalism of Augie March — and mark Bellow’s departure from the two intensely inward-glancing novels of consciousness that he wrote as a young man in the 40s. This does not by any means indicate that The Victim is a flawed novel — just that it best appreciated as a stepping stone that allowed Bellow to wrestle with, and conquer, his feelings of doubt and inferiority, and to begin his first truly great novel with the affirmation: “I am an American, Chicago born.”

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