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Saul Bellow: Dangling Man

Bellow’s first novel was surprisingly successful for a first novel by an unknown writer. It did cover themes which were to become more important after the war, namely existential angst, solipsism, struggling against the system, the role of the intellectual and a frankly misogynistic approach to life. This story concerns Joseph, like Bellow a Canadian who wanted to join the US military (in this case, the navy) and is caught up in the bureaucracy, waiting for his clearance. While waiting – in his New York apartment – he reads the great books and starts thinking about writing, just as Bellow did. The novel is his diary of his thoughts and actions during this waiting period. He clearly is not a very nice man. He takes advantage of his wife (living off her earnings but he has an affair), arguing with all and sundry, looking down on his neighbours and generally being unpleasant. Even his Great Books experience does not lead to any great intellectual insight. In short, he ends up trapped, like all the rest of us and, indeed, he ends up naked in the line for the navy medical exam, with his only hope that the violence of war might lead to something. Bellow leaves us with a pretty good first novel but one with virtually no hope or way out of the intellectual prison we might be in.

Publishing history

First published 1944 by Vanguard