Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Victim by Saul Bellow

I had never read any Saul Bellow books before, but I picked this one up from a large 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list, which is one of the many sources from which I pick books. They tend to be quite different from my usual science fiction fare, and that's partly why I like them. It's good not to get too settled into one genre.

So with this one, I moved away from my genre fiction, and more recent works, back into mid-20th century literary fiction. I knew very little going in, only that Bellow was a Jewish author, and I feel like I might have heard that he wasn't particularly good at writing rounded female characters. Now, having read all of one of his works, I can say that in this particular book, women are so far to the side that it's not like they're being treated badly, but that they're barely present. Even when they are. The Victim is so firmly rooted in male experience it has little space for women.

It wasn't particularly offensive, but that when the women characters were around, there wasn't a whole lot to them, with the possible exception of the sister-in-law. She has more to do in the novel, but it's mostly to be irrational about the care of her sick son and accusatory after his death. She's there to be Emotion with a capital E.

The main character is Leventhal, a Jewish man in New York City, employed for several years now after a long stint of unemployment, still feeling uncertain of his place and status. The book was published in 1947, so also written with the uncertainty of WWII and the Holocaust. During his time unemployed, he became frustrated and even belligerent over the treatment he received from employers, which may or may not have been tinged with antisemitism. (This feels like a recurring theme - some things Leventhal experiences are undoubtedly antisemitic, but others are far more nebulous, and it feels like he spends a lot of time biting his own tail trying to figure out if a certain action belongs in one category or the other.)

At one point during this search, he became aggressive with the man who was interviewing him. Shortly afterwards, the man who'd gotten him the interview, Klein, was fired, probably because he wasn't any hot shit at his job anyways, but Klein fired holds Leventhal solely responsible for the wreck his life became after he lost his job, his wife left him, and then was killed in a car accident. He has taken to drinking, and comes to Leventhal with his accusations and an offer to let Leventhal make it right.

Leventhal rejects the assertion, but not entirely. He lets Klein bother him, and even stay with him while his wife is away visiting her mother, and wow, does the guy who holds him responsible lack every kind of boundaries, and there were plenty of red flags that should have had Leventhal changing the locks and possibly calling the police. Maybe levels at which your warning bells should be going off are different for men, but yikes!

In the meantime, Leventhal has to negotiate the sickness and death of his nephew, who dies before his brother can make it back to his son's side. That this pales in comparison to the issue with Klein is, I think, deliberate, and unsettling.

His social life is full of people who make random comments about you people and how everything is controlled by Jews that is blatant, but then there are moments where you doubt his reactions, because he's assuming he's the centre of other people's lives the same way he is the centre of his own. It's complicated and well done.

The question that came to my mind after the end was who the titular victim was. Leventhal, hard done by and doing hard by himself? The man who depicted himself as Leventhal's helpless victim? I kept coming back to Leventhal's brother, who makes no such claims, but is the one dealing with devastating events without crying out.

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