Mosby’s Memoirs & Other Stories
Mosby’s Memoirs is another checkmark in my attempt to read the entire Saul Bellow catalog, one that probably qualifies as a “deep cut.” The six stories in this collection were written between 1951 and 1968, a period spanning Bellow’s best years, which began with the publication of his breakthrough novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953). During these years, Bellow also published Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959) and Herzog (1964), which one the National Book Award (and is, coincidentally, my personal favorite). Two years after the publication of Mosby’s Memoirs, Bellow won the National Book Award again, for Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970); six years later he won the Nobel Prize.
All of this to say that, unlike the two other published short story collections, the tales in Mosby’s Memoirs were written while Bellow was at the peak of his powers. I was very much underwhelmed by the shorter works Bellow published later in life, and my hope was that this collection would be equal in quality to his best novels. I did not find this to be the case, but I did come to a number of helpful realizations about Bellow and how I approach his writing.
First, I have a tendency, with fiction in general and Bellow specifically, to zoom impatiently through setting and details (scenery, mood, points of character), hoping to reach epiphanic sentences and paragraphs where deeper aspects of philosophical meaning break through. With Bellow, this is especially the case: his descriptions are good, of course, but what truly separates him from other novelists is his intellect, erudition, and existential insight. This is why I like Herzog best, and why Augie March, even though it is clearly a masterpiece, ranks lower on my list than it probably should. I found the short stories in Mosby’s Memoirs unsatisfying for this reason; they’re heavy on detail and character, but don’t offer much in the way of deeper meaning. As a result, I’ve realized that I should refine my approach to Bellow, namely by paying more attention to his range of experience and description, which is marvelous. The short story as a form lends itself to smaller matters: creating a single finely crafted episode, slicing a few hours out of a character’s life, leading a protagonist towards a small realization about himself. The fact that Bellow (largely) succeeds in his attempts to do so is yet more evidence of his skill.
The two best stories in the book are “The Gonzaga Manuscripts” (1954) and “Mosby’s Memoirs” (1968). They are similar: both protagonists are distinctly Bellowian men-of-letters who find themselves in a Spanish speaking country (Spain and Mexico) on a literary quest. For Clarence Feiler in “Gonzaga,” the grail is a lost collection of manuscripts written by a recently deceased Spanish poet named Gonzaga. Feiler arrives in Spain with his own theories on Gonzaga and his writing, and is distressed when he finds that no one he meets is particularly interested in helping him or sharing his enthusiasm. One of the poet’s friends mocks Clarence’s rapturous attempt to find the lost poems, saying, “‘There’s plenty of poetry already, for everyone. Homer, Dante, Calerdon, Shakespeare. Have you noticed how much different it makes?'” Ultimately, “The Gonzaga Manuscripts” is a meditation on the gap between the ideal of poetry in the mind of the reader — what we think it tells us about the poet — and the actual life lived by great writers.
“Mosby’s Memoirs” is the best story in this collection. The protagonist, Willis Mosby, is an aging public intellectual who hopes to write his memoirs during an extended stay in Mexico. Mosby has the excellent idea to read biographies written by other elderly men-of-letters (Henry Adams, Bertrand Russell), and hopes that the book he’s working on will stand side by side with these. The story has a fine structure, as the narration swerves around Mosby’s thoughts, memories, and the actual memoir he’s writing. Of the stories in this collection, “Mosby’s Memoirs” comes the closest to realizing the level of philosophic and existential weight found in Bellow’s best novels. In the story’s final pages, Mosby takes a trip to an ancient, pre-Christian church, and is driven there by a rather obnoxious tour-guide, who insists on commenting on every aspect of the landscape. In classic form, Bellow inserts this plea in the middle of a paragraph of scenery description: “Inform me no further! Vex not my soul with more detail. I cannot use what I have!”