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Dangling Man


Saul Bellow


London:  Penguin Modern Classics, 2007. 191 p. Paperback reissue

(First edition: New York:The Vanguard Press, 1944). £10.99.

ISBN: 0141188774; 9780141188775


Reviewed by Armand Terrien

École normale supérieure, Paris


            Dangling Man, Saul Bellow's first novel, tells the story in the first person of Joseph, a Canadian citizen and resident of Chicago, Illinois, who spends the winter of 1942 idling as he waits for his number to be called up to join the war effort under the American flag.

            The story is told in the form of a journal, covering the dates from December 15, 1942 to the moment the narrator and diarist is called for duty, April 9, 1943. While there are at least a few journal entries for each week of this period of time, with no major chronological gap, some can be just a few words long while others, not necessarily more significant ones, can run for a dozen pages or more. While the story mostly runs in chronological order, some trivial impressions lead the diarist to recount some past episode of his existence, and launch into long metaphysical discussions about his present almost vegetative state. Indeed, while Joseph once held a fairly respectable position with the Inter-American Travel Bureau, a job which at least gave him the respect of his peers and his wife, if not that of his brother, he gave it up when he enlisted, trusting that his number would soon be called. Joseph thus embarks on a paradoxical endeavour: while others start a diary to document an adventure, or at least a series of events they consider worthy of note, he deliberately seizes the opportunity to document his idleness as a pretext to address ‘himself’, a practice he notes, which has fallen out of fashion with the modern American man. Bellow's choice of literary genre, is thus deliberately, and from the very beginning of the novel, envisioned as going against the times.

            And so is the hero: inactive that Joseph is, though he would argue that he was forced into inactivity by some administrative mix-up or delay caused by the fact that he is a Canadian trying to fight under the United States' banner, he is endlessly confronted to a gallery of active characters, all more or less directly engaged in a war effort he is currently prevented from taking part in. His wife, Iva, now supports the household—they have moved into a boarding house, from an apartment, following their loss of income. His brother, Amos, is a business man who never loses an opportunity to flaunt his own business flair, and would like to support Joseph and Iva, if only to affirm the ascendant he wishes he had on his younger, less successful brother. His hyperactive and pestering niece, Etta, pursues him all the way into a deserted room in which he has taken refuge after he has excused himself from his brother's dinner table to try and find some peace in an empty room. Faced with all this adversity, Joseph sometimes snaps into bouts of violence. His spanking Etta after she has hunted him down and stopped his record is but one such incident, which he records with some perplexity but no shame or remorse. Only a few weeks before, he embarrassed himself in front of a restaurant full of strangers. Having met an old acquaintance that came to offer him a position as a research assistant, he salutes a man who once was affiliated with the same political group in college. When the man deliberately ignores him, Joseph throws a fit, insults the man, his friend and everyone around before storming out of the restaurant. While his account of the incident distinctly conveys his friend's concern over his mental well-being, he does not seem too concerned about it.

            When recounting past or present events—how, when on a visit to friends with Iva, he embarrassed himself and they had to leave early and cut ties with that particular group of friends, or how he shouted at Iva over a book he wouldn't help her find on the bookshelves because he knew all too well he had lent it to his mistress, Joseph does acknowledge that his former self, ‘the old Joseph’ would not have acted that way. He also does trace back his change in character to the day he gave up his position at the Inter-American Travel Bureau. However, the effect this change has on him, or rather the realisation that this change is taking place within him, does not seem to worry Joseph all that much: he is content with consigning 'symptoms' that he is not as even-tempered as he was only a year before, without wondering what those might be symptoms of.

            When embarking on philosophical musings, the diarist, and not far behind him the young novelist, acknowledges the influence of the French philosophers, implicitly at first and then explicitly (Diderot). Two entries, February 3 and March 16, the only ones to which titles are ascribed, are ‘Hours with the Spirit of Alternative’, philosophical dialogues of a schizophrenic mind, which have Joseph conversing on the nature of human beliefs with another self, called ' “But on the Other Hand” or 'Tu As Raison Aussi' ”. These dialogues, along with one instance of Freudian dream interpretation, come across as somewhat less effective means to convey the narrator's feeling of being a misfit, left dangling, lost and unnoticed in the sound and fury of a great city and a great war.

            J.M. Coetzee's short introduction to the Penguin Modern Classic edition of Dangling Man describes the novel as ‘long on reflection, short on action’, and likens Joseph to Roquentin, in Sartre's Nausea and the young poet of Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, ascribing to the novel the flaws one can safely discern when describing in hindsight the early works of a great author. Along those flaws, he could have chosen to emphasise the promises offered by the book: utterly classic in that it does not shy from using and acknowledging a rich literary and philosophical heritage, utterly modern in that it elects to describe the most unusual modern man, a man whose story, unlike that of Fitzgerald's Anthony Patch, it is no longer interesting to memorialise the day he is called to join his fellow human beings and report for duty.






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