The Answer is, “Don’t ask.”

Review of What Kind of Day Did You Have? by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow. Wikimedia commons.

hen you’ve had a bad day, when, to be more precise, your day has caused you to reevaluate your current life and looking ahead you see nothing but a dead end, when you walk in the door and normalcy feels entirely alien, the last thing you want is for somebody to proposition you. There’s the tidy précis for What Kind of Day Did You Have? An explanation is demanded, which in late Bellow means heading all the way back to the beginning of the novella to track the manner in which he extrapolates the idea. I’ll get to this, but first I want to comment on his late style.

Directly after reading this and another late work by Bellow I went back toThe Adventures of Augie March. TAAM is like the N train, rattling and shaking, tilting, horrifically squealing as it corners East from 57th Street. It’s raw, in your face, staccato, shattered, a bit over here and a bit over there — all the hallmarks of an early novel. To smooth this all out one might end up with the first pages of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. (An instructive is to compare the version of Eugenides’ first chapter in Granta with the chapter that eventually appeared in the book. I recall thinking the Granta version was better). Bellow’s mature period is like a limo, springy, plush, a smoother than smooth, luxurious, accelerating into the future with hidden force. The late works are tight, deep, and with controlled unreconcilable differences framed by a focused overall vision. The late works demonstrate an exemplary attunement to a of voice, even, and I emphasize this, even as it embodies experimentation and risk. Bellow suffers a bit these days, if known at all by readers, from the Picasso syndrome, by which I mean some critics said the late Picassos are not great Picassos, as if great artists are unable to learn after a certain point. You just want to twist their ears and tell them to go read Edward Said’s On Late Style, for starters. Edward Rothstein captures an aspect of late style superbly in his review of Said’s book,

Late style, Said suggests, expresses a sense of being out of place and time: it is a rejection of what is being offered. But listen to Beethoven or Strauss or Gould: the music is more like a discovery of place. That place is different from where one started; it may not even be what was once expected or desired. But it is there, in resignation and fulfillment, that late works take their stand, where even exile meets its end.” (1)

In late works structure is not as predetermined as we often find in early works by artists and writers, we sense the ongoing willingness, obtained by years of practice, to allow ongoing discovery in the work. Contradictions remain, and for this the work broadens, it’s not just the thunderstorm but the entire day, in its “resignation and fulfillment” to use Rothstein’s perfect phrase. Yes this is in late works by Bellow.

While Bellow started off pretty good and he had some luck, over the years he became great.

ellow spoke of WKDDYH, which I consider to be a novella just under 40,000 words, as a troublesome story. He didn’t explain why nor did he ever for that matter waste time with talk about his writing process on this book or others. Someone I once read, I forget who, once said they didn’t understand how he did his writing with constant interruptions of people at the door and on the phone. The best that people say about him is that he’s one of the great stylists, but they too never really explain what they mean.

The first thing one notices with WKDDYH is that Bellow’s a character man and because of that descriptions of place are often cursory. His method is to turn people over in the writing, frequently adding a secondary or third take on their description, often adding another thought often not in agreement with the first. I find it somewhat like taking a wire brush to a piece of tarnished metal and through the continual rebrushing in different directions, making the metal gleam. He prefers people in the midst in their internal conflicts, who look back over their shoulder, who shine in the light of reflexivity, whose daily lives involve degrees of self-awareness and self-commentary. Certainly all his characters in this novella, excepting to two silent daughters (Children should be seen not heard? The twin girls in the movie The Shining came out in 1980, but they won’t tell whether Bellow knew of them.) have a high degree of self-awareness. The characters exist in varying degrees of believability, but generally his best hold back nothing, they become fully rounded out fictional people and sadly the worst of the characters are the best in most other novels.

ictor Wulpy, is the novella’s protagonist and antagonist, he’s the subject but he’s prickly. To speak of Wulpy is to describe a mountain of a man, (why do so many large men figure into Bellow novels?). He is a critic of high renown, a man of intellect who pontificates with dogmatic certainty. Wulpy’s ego is so embedded and that he can’t bear all external indications of smarts in others. For him, demonstrations of either intelligence or ego when placed against his own exude the malodor of sociopathy. The Wulpian font is and must be the only true source. And yet, the towering critic is wounded. He has become a physically and mentally limping late modernist beacon who, having risen from the streets of Greenwich Village when a starving artist could take an 11th street loft with a skylight, is now neither the lauded bohemian artist nor the neoliberal robber baron who purchase art and hire him to speak. He exists in Limbo, with a bum knee, espousing his way or the highway.

Marx, in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, wrote that one needs a bourgeois revolution in order to best shine. Wulpy won’t ever understand that thinking. He should, due to modernism’s reliance on linear history and the proclaimed power of the avant-garde and structural revolutions. He is, to go with another Bellowian? Bellovian? Bellowesque? metaphor in the novella, the old fiddle with the famous name that needs repair. As perceptive as he may be, Wulpy lacks the ability to grasp the theories of Marx, and in his heart we sense he is a wannabe Žižek. He will never realize this, not only he predates the philosopher, but because his DNA is only strands woven of late modernism. Wulpy could never be able to handle Žižek’s leaps of thought, nor would he be able to agree with Žižek’s ontology described by Adrian Johnson as Kant-Scheller-Hegel, all mediated by Lacan (2). Wulpy’s more of a Burke-Croce-Rosenberg guy. The challenges brought by whatever’s coming after late modernism are beyond Wulpy’s imagination. So he settles further into his leather chair as his pontificating becomes less of interest to those around him. Society moves on.

The unanswered question here, is how much of Wulpy’s late modernist view is aksi Bellow’s view. WKDDYH came out in 1984 before the Slovenian philosopher was widely known and before Postmodernism became art’s emancipatory move. So, as much as Wulpy reflects the character’s reference critic Harold Rosenberg, Wulpy’s views also seem to reflect many of Bellow’s beliefs in sticking to a form of writing that I will call late modern, and not postmodern. Modernist views are hinted at by the characters. They to buy into a mentality of us versus them, or U.S. versus everyone. The American propaganda of the time continued to hold onto the fifties agenda that art done in the free world without strictures of dictatorships or communism was the greatest of all. Late modernists continued to buck the deconstructionism taking over the thoughts of those seen as the radical left of Europe. These prejudices affected mainstream art and literature pretty much up until the early 1990’s, even as many individual works, artistic, literary, and theoretical, were intentionally ignoring the norms. In retrospect the entire late modernist agenda is a bunch of whipped up rah rah jingoism. It’s unclear whether Bellow might criticize Wulpy for accepting all of this.

But, Bellow drew inspiration for Wulpy from art critic Harold Rosenberg. Rosenberg’s view in 1952 regarding painting was that the canvas was an “arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” This was in his article The American Action Painters. (3) One paragraph in particular seems it could be a partial model for this novel so I’ll quote it in full:

The tension of the private myth is the content of every painting of this vanguard. The act on the canvas springs from an attempt to resurrect the saving moment in his ‘story’ when the painter first felt himself released from Value — myth of past self recognition. Or it attempts to initiate a new moment in which the painter will realize his total personality — myth of future self-recognition.” (4)

Now I’m speaking of Katrina more than Wulpy. He’s just stuck without any chance of moving on. But Katrina, over the course of the novel, begins to recognize her eventual release. She’s made it this far up in her life, but now she recognizes her reality is in part built on myths. Getting to any possible future means she must extricate herself and the book ends when this recognition arrives with all it’s power and she, unwillingly perhaps, must save herself from herself.

hroughout the reading, I couldn’t help thinking of Wulpy less as inspired by Rosenberg than as more as caricatured blowhard. I’m thinking along the lines of Monty Woolley playing Sheridan Whiteside in the old movie of 1942, The Man Who Came to Dinner, with Whiteside’s acerbic wit, strong opinions, and inability to entertain the views of others. Thus, given my own stance toward late modernism combined with Whiteside, I saw Wulpy as an ape, to use Bellow’s word in Ravelstein, an ape on stage, in a farce made up of highly stylized performances that should have been punctuated by lots of slamming doors. I also couldn’t shake the time when after I attended a lecture by Arthur Danto we ended up on the sidewalk together. He towered over me — he was a big man. I had read his work and I held a few thoughts and questions about his talk. I asked if he might want to go get a drink and talk about the ideas. No, he didn’t think so. Thus, I was dismissed much in the way Wulpy dismisses Wrangel. No I don’t identify with Wrangel or think Danto was Wulpy, but the incident provided me yet another taste of what Bellow seems to be after, the type of person who embodied what H.G. Wells called the “monstrous egotism of artistry” that in my view flowed through about all figures of late modernism. (5)

ulpy’s foil and paramour is Katrina, referencing the real Joan Ullman, according to her (6). That’s beyond me. I don’t know anything about Bellow’s life and I like it that way. I prefer my drinks neat. Many have pursued his fiction/real life connections in very long biographies and I’ll leave such considerations to them. One might argue Katrina is taken advantage of; one might argue she’s brought it on herself. Katrina is clumsy, impulsive and dedicated. She is a perceptual student but master of no subject, not her friendships, nor her ongoing divorce, nor her children, nor currently even of her own life. At any rate, Katrina is writing the children’s story about an elephant that gets stuck on an upper floor of a department store, which now refuses to get back into the elevator. Yep there’s an elephant in the room, a big one, we get to this at the end of the novella in two ways, first when Katrina is provided an answer by Wrangle about getting the elephant out, then again at the end when Katrina recognizes her own avoidances and lack of agency. She laments, “Everyone has power over me.” The elephant in the room has been called out and a dim recognition of a future Katrina is on its way. She tests whether this future might involve Wulpy, in the airplane that’s nearly going down due to the storm. She says, “Now listen, Victor. If it’s death any minute, if we’re going to end in the water . . . I’m going to ask you to tell me something.” He won’t of course. A man of his stature stoops to neither demands nor sentimentality. Late modernism, by which he measures the universe, consists of lofty, ageless ideas and a connection to the sublime that is beyond imitation. He he won’t be swayed even by Death’s hiccup.

Saul Bellow and Dejan Stojanovic. University of Chicago. 1992. Photograph by Goran Mikic. Wikimedia Commons.

arry Wrangel is the real antagonist of the novel. He’s become a Hollywood maven. Art is easy for him. Because of this a good deal of money has come his way. He’s a problem solver and a man who can see that abstract ideas and caricature can exist quite harmoniously. For Wrangle, Modernist artists were serious even in their falsity and charades. He believes that most of the ideas of artists are trivial and that all artists are promoters in their own way, therefore it’s wrong to put too much weight on what they do and say. Those views aren’t even a starter for Wulpy who holds that “The Modern truth was severe.” For him, to label Daumier and Picasso as caricaturists is to demolish all that is true in art. Wulpy accuses Wrangle of wanting to “sneak up on real seriousness,” but what he misses is that he cannot see he’s living beyond his time, he’s living through the death of such late modernist seriousness. This idea is driven home by the elephant problem. For however long Katrina has seen Wulpy, no way out has been offered for the elephant (no way out as an obvious metaphor for her on position). Wrangel helps her figure it out in two minutes. Such is the power of a new lens. This is what postmodernism did to modernism, it first provided ways out of tired old uncrackable enigmas; next it problematized that which was normative. Wrangel, wrapped in an arctic fox coat, begins to offer similar postmodern challenges to Wulpy. I wondered whether Bellow understood the oncoming postmodern turn at this point in time. The seminal text, Andreas Huyssen’s After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, arrived later in English in 1987, three years after the novella was published. (7)

To understand Bellow’s writing in WKDDYH, it’s important to understand Bellow’s use of “you” as well as his blurring of the author’s voices with those of his characters. We’re moving right along in the reading, enjoying Katrina’s story, then suddenly there is a phrase with no attribution, it could be Katrina’s or it could be Bellow’s, and then suddenly there’s this “you,” used instead of “someone” or “one.”

Look at an impossible attempt to attribute the speakers of the first paragraph:

Dizzy with perplexities, seduced by a restless spirit, Katrina Goliger took a trip she shouldn’t have taken.” (Probably the AUTHOR.)

What was the matter with her, why was she jumping around like this?” (AUTHOR, although this could be KATRINA taking a more reflective, third person view of herself.)

A divorced suburban matron with two young kids, was she losing ground, where her looks going or her options shrinking so fast that it made her reckless?” (AUTHOR, or KATRINA.)

Looks were not her problem; she was pretty enough, dark hair, nice eyes. She had a full figure, a little on the plump side, but she handled it with some skill.” (AUTHOR or KATRINA.)

Doesn’t this remind you of that first line of Coetzee in Disgrace, “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” Coetzee though want to ensure attribution clearly. Without “to his mind” the sentence becomes less clearly attributive.

Victor Wulpy, the man in her life, liked her just as she was.” (Again, somewhat unclear).

It goes on like this for the remainder of the paragraph and we just aren’t sure who’s voice we are hearing, Bellow or Katrina. It’s right on the edge, both strange and beautiful.

Later we read, “Katrina thought: Why should we talk so intimately if there isn’t going to be any sympathy? It was sad. But on a more reasonable view you couldn’t blame Dorothea for being irritable, angry, and envious.” Here’s the “you” inserted that causes a nice stall. Who is you? Are you talking to me? Is it simply colloquial for “one?” Doubtful. Writers think through every word if they’re any good.

A near plotless novel, we meet Katrina, she flys, they wait, they fly, they wait, she flys back. There’s some bookend chitchat setting up and concluding it. This doesn’t matter, fools read novels only for plot.

atrina shifts toward that which her supposedly cynical sister has been telling her all along, her future as the other woman for a bastion of standards will lead nowhere, especially as Wulpy is looking toward whatever great event comes with or follows death while she is looking for stability, love, security, and father for her two silent daughters. Katrina’s answer sits across her dinner table in the form of a caring local police lieutenant who she is not quite ready for. At the end of the novella we watch her recognition, her revelation. This archetype of a story building to a moment of recognition or revelation is now a bit like soap in the mouth, having been showcased predominately by The New Yorker magazine over fifty or so years. The reliance upon this form causes me wonder what sorts of desperate searches for meaning their upper class readership must have to continually seek this type of desiring machine. One can’t blame the editors for tuning into the tastes of their readers. Perhaps there is a dead monotony of humdrum life, no matter what strata one lives in, causing the longing for a moment of insight or consciousness. Well, such a longing must stem from a view that underneath everything there is meaning or transcendence that revelation causes, and this is a completely late modernist ideology. We can, I think, now prove Barthes wrong in his proclamation that modernism was about a “self-conscious overturning of the conventions of bourgeois realism.” (8) I mean late modernism, or late late modernism. I’m bracketing the nether-period after about 1965 and before full on postmodernism of around 1989 as full on late modernism. WKDDYH and its characters inhabit this mindset. There are no overturning of conventions by Bellow, rather there is the exacting use of them as the stage for the event building to the moment of recognition.

Here I disagree with those who consider Bellow’s idea-stream of consciousness to be postmodern. Further, if we (should I use “you”?) grant that characteristics of modernism included characterization, allusiveness, intertextuality, realism, unification, and often polyphonic narrative we see Bellow fitting the markers in WKDDYH very well and especially as personified by Wulpy. We could Monday morning quarterback this all day, but let’s just allow Andreas Huyssen to put the final period on the discussion: “one critic’s postmodernism is another critic’s modernism.” (6)

It is true however, for all the introducing, narrating, and reflecting, Bellow never engages a metafictional stragegy and if a character gets a bit shrill with opinions, the narrator inserts a comment about how sometimes he gets carried away, as Kenneth does in More Die of Heartbreak. Bellow wants to keep it all measured, steady, and broad, in turn to allow schisms and profundities to roil around in a manner that may surely be compared to Beethoven’s late quartets.

References

(1) Rothstein, E. (July 16, 2006). Twilight of His Idols. Sunday Book Review. New York Times.

(2) Johnston, A. (2008). Zizek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity. Evanston, IL:Northwestern University Press.

(3) Rosenberg, H. (January 1, 1952). The American Action Painters. Art News.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Sccott, J. (November, 2014). Enlarge and Linger. On William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. The Paris Review.

(6) Ullman, J. (August 9, 2012). My Harold Rosenberg: Saul Bellow Fictionalized My Love Affair — Now Here’s my Version. Tablet. Retrieved online from https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/108752/my-harold-rosenberg

(7) Andreas Huyssen, (1987). After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism. London: Macmillan, 1988.

(8) Barthes, J. (1980). The Literature of Replenishment. The Atlantic Monthly.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”