4.09.2005

our universe, a little smaller

I've been saddened by the lack of attention paid to the death of Saul Bellow. He is certainly acknowledged as a great writer in academic and literary circles. But the current literary public - not people who read only popular fiction, but people who read more challenging work - don't seem to embrace him. His work doesn't seem to resonate with the literary hip crowd, the people reading Jonathan Lethem, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and whoever else is the literary darling of the moment. This might be down to fashion and popular trends, in which case, it's fine. Fashions come and go, but greatness endures.

I've been thinking about how Bellow was both a great thinker and a great writer. The two aren't necessarily linked. There are truly great writers - say, Cormac McCarthy - who are limited in ideas. And there are great thinkers who have a limited ability to communicate their thoughts. Writers who are also great thinkers are rare. Shakespeare would be the greatest example in the English language. Saul Bellow was also such a man.

The British writer Ian McEwan eulogized Bellow recently in the New York Times. He closes with this lovely paragraph:
Writers we admire and re-read are absorbed into the fine print of our consciousness, into the white noise of our thoughts, and in this sense, they can never die. Saul Bellow started publishing in the 1940's, and his work spreads across the century he helped to define. He also redefined the novel, broadened it, liberated it, made it warm with human sense and wit and grand purpose. Henry James once proposed an obvious but helpful truth: "the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer." We are saying farewell to a mind of unrivalled quality. He opened our universe a little more. We owe him everything.
If you're looking for a place to start, try Humboldt's Gift.

10 comments:

B. W. Ventril said...

I recently read 'Ravelstein', my first Bellow. Once I got over my aversion to Alan Bloom himself (i.e. right-wing, elitist, etc etc) and tackled this as a work of literature I was hooked. It was an odd Bellow to start with, I know. What made it even weirder is that a pre-publication version is discussed at length by Martin Amis in his memoir, 'Experience', along with Amis's friendship with Bellow. Bellow serves as a weird counterpoint to Kingsley Amis. I think at one point Amis refers to Bellow as his literary father (I may be wrong there, but something close), ironic of course as he's the son of a famous author. But for high, high praise of Bellow I really recommend 'Experience'. I haven't read any obituaries yet, except the New York Times. But he's now very much on my list of authors I need to become obsessed with.

L-girl said...

I loved Ravelstein. It's light for Bellow, but I found it so rewarding.

Ian McEwan's Op-Ed refers to something Martin Amis wrote about Bellow. I'm not familiar with it. I confess, I'm so turned off my Martin Amis that I haven't been able to read his books yet.

Bellow is worthy of your obession and will reward your obsession many times over.

L-girl said...

Also BWV, it makes me really happy to think of someone embarking on the journey of Saul Bellow. It gives me hope.

B. W. Ventril said...

Well, once I'm through my Mordechai Richler obsession! Richler is, by the way, amazing. If you want a great Canadian novel to read, I really recommend 'Solomon Gusky Was Here'. A total trip. I'm only 50 pages in, but so far it's dealt with socialist Jews in 1940s Montreal, rural South Shore Quebec in the 1970s, the high arctic in the 1850s, 1910s and 1970s and, more specifically, Jews in the high arctic, the Franklin Expedition, and connections between Inuit and Jewish culture. In short, read this book!

As for Amis, I'm a big fan but he's not for everyone. If you like British misanthrops you'd like him (vice cersa with hate him). I do think he's one of the best writers out there. I recommend 'Experience' if you like memoirs, but I also honestly think it is essential if you are obsessed with Bellow. There's stuff on Amis's hilarious visit to Saul Bellow's house with Crhistopher Hitchens (the previous, left-wing but no less assholic incarnation, that is), and chunks of it discuss parts of Bellow's life portrayed in 'Ravelstein'. There's also stuff on Amis's trip to Israel, I think with Bellow.

B. W. Ventril said...

Wow, that'll teach me not to proof-read. Gursky, not Gusky; versa not cersa; Christopher, not Crhistopher.

L-girl said...

Well, it's annoying that Blogger doesn't let us spell-check comments! (But we won't go there...) On that subject, I would have deleted one of those "obsessions" in my last sentence. I was not trying to be Gertrude Stein like by repeating the word obsessively.

L-girl said...

Anyway...

Solomon Gursky is now on my reading list. I sometimes shy away from Jewish-y novels - over-exposure as a youth - but your recommendation goes a long way.

I don't really go for memoirs unless I have a connection to the writer or one of her/his themes - but I would like to see Hitchens visiting Bellow! Maybe I'll read that part in a bookstore for starters.

I'll probably read Martin Amis eventually, because I know I should. Misanthropes are always welcome in my reading house, as long as there is hope somewhere. I know I shouldn't let an artist's public persona interfere with my experience of art. But some people make that so difficult...

redsock said...

I'm assuming "assholic" was *not* a typo.

B. W. Ventril said...

Not in relation to Christopher Hitchens, no. As for Richler and Jewishyness (of which I had very little exposure as a youth), he's really a satirist detached from anything conventional (at least in my limited reading of him). And he's a great person to read if you want a handle on how Canadian Jewish identity might differ from that of the US.

L-girl said...

I think we're all in agreement about Monsieur Hitchens, in either his lefty or neo-hawk versions.