I never found Saul Bellow's books gripping but his choice of characters and plots make me read his books. "The Victim" starts off in a rather mundane manner with a typical middle-class youngish man in a not too exciting job and family relations more or less a mess. But the manner in which Bellow describes each facet of his life and puts them under the scanner is simply superb. The main character is Asa Levanthal who works in a publishing firm.
"A man brought up on hardships should have known better than to cut himself adrift". This comes after Levanthal overcomes his early struggles to enter the civil service. When in the civil service, he finds life improving, enjoys the company of friends and meets Mary and becomes engaged to her. Its almost as if Levanthal takes this change from granted but fails to appreciate this new life. Maybe he just assumes that things will continue that way and good times are not something to constantly fight for. On hearing about Mary's closeness to her ex-lover he leaves Baltimore and the civil service.
He looks for a job in the newspaper/publishing trade in New York. Its as if he assumes there are jobs just waiting for him and the new life will be as good as the old one. But jobs were scarce even for those with experience in publishing and for a newcomer life was hard. He however makes up with Mary and they get married. Using his old contact Harkavy and his new found friend Williston, he finds a temporary position. With a season's experience and good references, he finds the position with a publishing firm. This was the beginning of a stable period that is more or less the beginning of the story. In the book thereafter, Harkavy appears constantly as Levanthal's friend and confidant while Williston is his benefactor.
Back when he was struggling for a job, there was an acquaintance of Williston named Kirby Allbee who worked in a publishing firm run by a man named Rudiger. On a party at Williston's house, the drunk Allbee insults the Jewish ancestry of Harkavy. However, Allbee offers to recommend Levanthal to his boss Rudiger and fixes up an interview. In the interview, Rudiger who is by nature ill-tempered and nasty attacks Levanthal. Despite the fact that he was appearing for an interview, Levanthal gives Rudiger a piece of his mind and leaves. On narrating the interview to Harkavy, Levanthal feels Allbee deliberately fed him to Rudiger as an additional anti-Semitic insult and they agree that standing up to Rudiger was the right thing to do. Rudiger fies Allbee soon after and it so happens that Allbee and Williston think that Levanthal deliberately insulted Rudiger to get back at Allbee for his insult on Jews.
One fine evening with Levanthal's wife away, he takes a walk in a park and meets Allbee. Allbee seems in bad shape and he accuses Levanthal for his misfortunes - losing his job with Rudiger, his wife leaving him and then subsequently dying. Levanthal retorts that Allbee probably got fired for drunkenness and was only to blame for his current state. But Allbee keeps following Levanthal with accusations and appeals while Levanthal continues to reject the accusations. However, they prey on his mind and he narrates the incident to Harkavy. Harkavy confesses that the had discussed the mattter with Williston soon after Allbee's firing and Williston too was of the opinion that Allbee was fired because of Levanthal's behavior. This comes as a shock to Levanthal who regards Williston as his primary benefactor and decided to set the record straight with Williston. It has been years since they kept in touch and so getting back to Williston is no easy task.
Levanthal finally meets up with Williston at the latter's house after several weeks of procrastination. They discuss the matter and Williston points out that what Levanthal did was indeed wrong with Rudiger at the interview. Levanthal protests that all he did was stand up to Rudiger and how was he to simply swallow the insults. Williston points out that he heard negative reports about Levanthal's behavior at interviews from numerous people and not just Rudiger and the interview with Rudiger was merely the vent about to explode. Levanthal comes close to accusing Williston of protecting a Jew-baiter. Finally with no particular conclusion, he leaves Williston's house.
Allbee keeps following Levanthal around and even comes to the latter's apartment. Allbee's conversations disgust Levanthal as references to "you people" to indicate Jews brings out a deeply rooted anti-Semitism. Levanthal just can't imagine how Allbee couldn't have set the interview up with Rudiger to add an addition insult even if it was subconsciously. Eventually, Allbee turns up at Levanthal's house asking to be allowed to stay there since he has been kicked out his lodging and his belongings confiscated by the landlord to make up for unpaid rent. Levanthal allows him to stay and finds him to be drunk the next day even though he claims to be broke he still has kept money aside for drinking. Allbee claims to have finished the last bit of money from his wife's insurance by drinking in her memory - an idea that both revolts and appals Levanthal. Levanthal's apartment gets filthier by the day with Allbee staying there.
Levanthal finds an excuse to leave his house on a party invitation from Harkavy. Levanthal ends up drinking too much and spends the night in Harkavy's apartment waking up the next morning with a hangover to find the everyone except for Harkavy having left. Levanthal had asked Harkavy for an introduction to one of the latter's friends on behalf of Allbee. Both know the introduction will not get Allbee a job but Levanthal seems to be clutching at straws to get Allbee out of his house before his wife Mary returns.
"I think he believes its all a Jewish setup ... Jews have influence over Jews".
Levanthal utters this to explain why Allbee wants this introduction. Harkavy is outraged to hear this from Levanthal both of them being Jews. Harkavy can't believe Levanthal wants anything to do with a man like Allbee. Levanthal too realizes that he far too entangled to have even taken in the nonsense about Jewish influence. Levanthal makes excuses about his mind being elsewhere with other problems in the family but both of them know that Levanthal was too weak with his own bad behavior in the past to even accept from the likes of Allbee anti-Semitic propaganda. Levanthal decides to get back to his apartment and turn Allbee out without that introduction. Levanthal returns to his apartment to find Allbee with a woman he picked up from the streets. Furious he throws Allbee out and cleans up the apartment.
The book finally ends in a confused manner as I find many of Saul Bellow's books ending. Along the sidelines, there is a parallel story about Levanthal's nephew dying while just being an infant. Levanthal worries about his sister in-laws becoming insane just like his own mother and begs his brother to take her away. Levanthal's brother finally meets him in the end to inform his that they are leaving New York to which Levanthal is immensely happy.
But Saul Bellow's building an entire book out of an incident to reveal the vast human prejudices that lie is simply incredible. The anger that Levanthal feels when Allbee continues to slip anti-Semitic remarks but still allows Allbee into his house shows that to some extent deep down Levanthal felt Allbee got what he deserved with Rudiger. Even if Levanthal hadn't planned out the interview with Rudiger to get Allbee fired, he may have felt a secret happiness at that time for getting back at Allbee for his Jew insults. This only develops later into a guilt that accepts the anti-Semitic propaganda of Jews being thick as thieves. Harkavy who is an outside spectator to the incident between Levanthal and Allbee can only feel anguish for what Levanthal believes and the persistent appeals by Levanthal to forget the disgusting phrase "Jews have influence over Jews" don't seem to have much effect. It would be interesting to think how the future relationship between Levanthal and Harkavy would have worked out.
Would be very relevant in the Indian context too with all our social differences. Maybe we need to ponder about our true feelings. What would we do when we find out about each other's hidden feelings? Do we continue as before burying them again or do we seek to purge them out? Probably the former. Modern times demand political correctness so it hardly matters what most people truly feel about the social differences between us. But what happens when these differences find their way to the surface - particularly between two people from the same social fabric as Harkavy and Levanthal?