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9.4.05

Remembering Saul Bellow

As you probably already know, Saul Bellow died on Tuesday. Mel Gussow and Charles McGrath wrote a great obituary, Saul Bellow, Who Breathed Life Into American Novel, Dies at 89 (New York Times, April 6). Mark Sarvas at The Elegant Variation put together a great set of links to obits and appreciations of Bellow, and he has made a "big announcement," which turns out to be a cool project called the the litblog co-op.

Was there anyone who didn't lionize Bellow? (I suppose we might yet hear something contrarian from Armavirumque.) As it turns out, Terry Teachout at About Last Night turned down an invitation to write a piece on Saul Bellow. Why? Terry says:

Bellow never really interested me, not as a writer and not as a man. I didn't find him at all sympathetic, yet he didn't irritate me enough to cause the accretion of a strong negative opinion. He simply wasn't on my screen (except when he took a shot at me in the New York Times, but that's another story).

Might it have been a generational thing? Among the New York intellectuals, Bellow was a fixed star, a literary giant about whom you had to have an opinion, be it good or bad. I don't think that's true today, and I wonder how well his work will be remembered ten years from now, or even five. My guess—and it's nothing more than that—is that he'll be seen as a period piece. That doesn't exactly add up to an appreciation, does it?
My mother always said, "If you can't say something nice..." However, it's not fair of Terry to tease us like that: can anyone out there provide some specific information about the "shot" Bellow took at Teachout in the New York Times? Inquiring minds. Just about everyone in the litblog scene had something to say (or links to link) about Bellow:The Literary Saloon linked to several of the tributes in the French press, to which I would add the nice piece (Ame qui vive, April 7) by Philippe Lançon for Libération (my translation):
What is more real than death? For Saul Bellow, anyway. He thought about it a lot. He made us laugh and laughed himself about it. Word by word, he crossed through it, with his tortured, intelligent, immature, torn-apart characters, full of derision and contradictions, all those fictional egos dancing in place in the wash of the world, quickly and well. "Death," he wrote, "is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything." And to live and love. The American writer, winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1976, the author of Herzog and Ravelstein, finally encountered death on Tuesday at the age of 89.
Available from Amazon:
Available at Amazon
Saul Bellow, Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories
When I heard that he had died, I remembered reading his books, but I remembered best the last book of his that I had read, the collection of stories Him with His Foot in His Mouth. My dad gave me this book, which he had read and enjoyed, because the protagonist of the title story is a musicologist and, he told me, it had made him finally realize that musicology, which I had just chosen to study at that time, was a real profession. I, in turn, enjoyed the book (and the title story, in particular), because the hero is a cantankerous crank who cannot resist the temptation to make supercilious, cutting comments. (Hmm, I wonder why that appeals to me...) Indeed, the story begins in the form of a letter to a former university librarian, whom Dr. Shawmut is afraid he insulted many years earlier.
Now, Miss Rose, you have come out of the library for a breath of air and are leaning, arms crossed, and resting your head against a Greek column. To give himself more height, Walish wear his hair thick. You couldn't cram a hat over it. But I have on a baseball cap. Then, Miss Rose, you say, smiling at me, "Oh, Dr. Shawmut, in that cap you look like an archaeologist." Before I can stop myself, I answer, "And you look like something I just dug up."

Awful!
Although he is about to be extradited back to the United States from Canada, for another misjudgment unrelated to this past insult, Dr. Shawmut somehow manages to come across—without Bellow actually writing this—as completely unremorseful while he feigns remorse. Another favorite passage takes place "at a formal university dinner, [where] I was sitting beside an old woman who gave millions of dollars to opera companies and orchestras," from whom he is supposed to be soliciting a donation:
Old Pergamon had left his wife a prodigious fortune. So much money was almost a sacred attribute. And also I had conducted sacred music, so it was sacred against sacred. Mrs. Pergamon talked money to me, she didn't mention the Stabat Mater or my interpretation of it. It's true that in the U.S., money leads all other topics by about a thousand to one, but this was one occasion when the music should not have been omitted. [...]

She mentioned the sums spent on electronic composers, computer music, which I detest, and I was boiling all the while that I bent a look of perfect courtesy from Kiev on her. I had seen her limousine in the street with campus cops on guard, supplementing the city police. The diamonds on her bosom lay like the Finger Lakes among their hills. I am obliged to say that the money conversation had curious effects on me. It reached very deep places. My late brother, whose whole life was devoted to money, had been my mother's favorite. He remains her favorite still, and she is in her nineties. Presently I heard Mrs. Pergamon say that she planned to write her memoirs. Then I asked—and the question is what Nietzsche called a Fatum—"Will you use a typewriter or an adding machine?"
Mrs. Pergamon's reaction is beautifully described, too. I have to say that what I love most about Bellow's books is their humor, and God knows we will miss that.

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