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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Lamentation Ahead

Posted by Sean McCann on 04/06/05 at 04:57 AM

Don’t get me wrong.  Saul Bellow was a great writer.  But the near obeisance he managed to generate among his admirers always rubbed me wrong and makes me now feel all snarky, in this most inappropriate of moments--when we can expect much high-minded grieving among the literary journalists who apotheosized him.

A few years ago, when James Atlas’s earnest biography and Bellow’s last novel Ravelstein came out, that reverence was all too obviously on display.  Atlas got drubbed all out of proportion to the minor weaknesses of his book.  And Ravelstein got touted beyond plausibility.  (Only the merciless Michiko Kakutani, if I remember right, had the nerve to say that it wasn’t a very impressive book.) If ever literary journalism looked like an insular boys club, it was then.

The good thing about Ravelstein to my mind (apart from its sort of interesting depiction of Allan Bloom and apart from the way, as weak books will do, it showed Bllow’s shtick much more transparently than his better stuff).  Was that it showed some of the places Atlas was probably right.  The Bellow stand-in in that book is something of a poser, tormented by his sense of intellectual inadequacy and all too ready to worship at the feet of someone who looks smart.  It was a reminder of how much of the bubbling great Bellow depended on characters who were desperate hustlers, fakes, show-offs, and greedily desirous, self-involved sons-of-bitches.  That made for some great prose and some great stories.  But reverence doesn’t suit it well.


Bellow: often a great writer of sentences; sometimes a less than great writer of whole books, especially later on in his life.

By on 04/06/05 at 08:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A little author-worship here and there never killed anyone, don’t you think? And thus far, it doesn’t seem like there’s been all that much coverage of Bellow’s passing—just the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the Boston Globe, the London Times, and Le Monde.

Ok, scratch that. There’s been a lot of coverage.

Still, I’m willing to go the lamentation and excessive praise route when the author was someone like Bellow: inventive, always serious, and committed to the craft. One can argue with this or that, but there’s no question in my mind that he made a contribution.

Also, in our business, over-praise is part of the game. Ever had to do a formal introduction for a well-known speaker? Obsequiousness is expected.
One might also think about letters of recommendation. Or book-blurbs, though I’ve never written one of the latter myself.

By Amardeep Singh on 04/06/05 at 12:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

God, I love academics. You do realize, of course, that an entire library full of the self-important, “gee-I’m-so-clever” vomit that you pass off as informed literary opinion isn’t worth one tenth of the crappiest sentence that the great Saul Bellow ever wrote, don’t you?

Does this comment qualify as “snarky”?

By on 04/06/05 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Atlas got drubbed all out of proportion to the minor weaknesses of his book.”

Those ‘weaknesses’ were prurience and inadequate literary analysis. Hardly ‘minor’ I’d say.

And as a ‘literary organ’ perhaps it would have been more appropriate to post on why Bellow was a ‘great’ writer, and then, if you need to be snarky, explain to the uninitiated (like me) WTF this greatness has got to do with his admirers.

By Steve of This Space on 04/06/05 at 03:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d say it was more petulant than “snarky,” personally, but I’m sure that an edited collection can be put together to discuss the relevant interpretive issues

At least Sammler recognized the beauty of Stapledon’s Cosmopolis project. Unlike those ODNB editors.

By Jonathan on 04/06/05 at 03:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to clarify, I was referring to Darius’s comment, not the original post.

By Jonathan on 04/06/05 at 03:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m with Steve on the Atlas.  “Earnest” is peculiar word for it, since Atlas never lets mere fact interfere with its theories about Bellow’s psyche.  (I loved Atlas’s bio of Delmore Schwartz, but his Bellow was disappointing.)

“Poser tormented by his sense of intellectual inadequacy” - that’s wasn’t new with Ravelstein.  It’s a dimension of almost of all of Bellow’s fictional alter egos, who approach big ideas with equal portions of enthusiasm and profound self-doubt—in other words, the way of most people outside the academy do, if they do.  For those who like Bellow, this one of the things that’s great about him, not what’s wrong with him. 

Looking at Orthofer’s ever useful Complete Review, I see that there were a few dissenters on Ravelstein other than Kakutani: 

But Sean’s right in remembering that most were favorable.

I have problems too with some of the Bellow-worship.  I know why Augie’s important—I’d call it an “unstyle” rather than a style— but in places that unstyle becomes unreadable.  Herzog and Humboldt are the best, I think, because the words finally catch up to his imagination, which tended to sprint off ahead. 

But there’s something to like in all the books, even Sammler and Dean, which most Bellow-haters focus on.  That dark Bellow cuts the sometimes cloying sweetness of Augie, etc.  There’s something to be said for a great writer you can also hate.  (Naipaul has been cooperative in this respect too.)

I don’t have the same complaints about the late stuff that others have.  At a certain point with a writer like Bellow—or, today, Naipaul, Coetzee, etc.—you start reading the books for what they contribute to your understanding of the whole corpus, rather on whether they “work” or “don’t work.” At least I do.

Hey Jonathan, as you recall Sammler labeled Cosmopolis “kindhearted, ingenious” but also “stupid.”;-)

By Sam on 04/06/05 at 04:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to clarify, I was referring to Darius’s comment, not the original post.

It’s Dares, not Darius, numbskull. You’ve never read the Destructionis Troiae? Odd, that. I thought this was a blog for literary scholars.

By on 04/06/05 at 04:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Most peculiar.

I thought that “Phrygia” was the genus name of the blowfish, and the rest just fell together.

By Jonathan on 04/06/05 at 05:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Steve, if you’re not that familiar with Bellow, I’d recommend “Seize the Day” and “The Adventures of Augie March.” He actually came in for quite a bit of criticism throughout his career, not only for stylistic and technical issues, the philosophical and intellectual pretensions of the work, and his emphasis on the more prosaic and sometimes seamier aspects of American (or human, as it were existence), but also because of the increasingly evident misogynistic and, particularly in “Sammler,” racist subcurrents in his work.  But then doesn’t every great writer get slammed at some point--and for some, it’s on ongoing battle, even after death.  Look at Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Eliot, I.B. Singer, Faulkner, Hemingway, Roth, Morrison, etc. Sometimes the criticisms are quite valid--Pound’s masculinist fantasies need to be discussed and critiqued--but then one has to go back to the work itself.  What do you gain from it?  What is it doing?  What is its place in the world (of letters, of the arts, of ideas, in general)?  Whether someone shatters his statue or not, the work very likely will stand up on its own down the road.  “Ravelstein,” despite its function as a vehicle for Schadenfreude, however, is putrid.

By on 04/06/05 at 07:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Clarification: Dares, some of your earlier comments were snarky. In this thread you are pure troll.

I am deeply apologetic that your aesthetic sensibilities, when rubbed against our lack thereof, have brought this unsavory side of your character to light. No doubt our vomit induced yours. So it might seem unfair that you are to suffer for what is not your fault. But the fact is: trolls get deleted if they keep it up. (Just a thought. Tottle off for a spot of refined Horace blogging, much better than we could ever manage, in a space all your own - if you can’t mind your manners here.)

By John Holbo on 04/06/05 at 07:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Vomit?  Ouch. 

Here’s what I said, in an admittedly snarky and offhand post: Bellow was a great writer who was misserved by the reverence of some of his admirerers.  And his greatness, in fact, had a lot to do with some of the qualities to which poor Atlas drew attention--striving, nastiness, sheer egocentric desire.  I quite agree with Sam that those qualities were always on display and a big part of what made Bellow great.  Ravelstein just shows it without the vitality and invention that made earlier books impressive. 

I do disagree with Steve of this Space, though.  Inadequate literary analysis is, well, inadequate.  A weakness, but not the worst of sins.  It doesn’t call for a charivari, which is what Atlas got.  And, prurience?  My guess is that it would be hard to write a useful biography of Bellow that wouldn’t seem prurient to his admirers.  That was what was so unsavory about the whole phenomenon.  Atlas got pummeled, and he got pummled, I think, for temerity as much as for any weaknesses of his book. 

Gotta disagree with Amardeep, too.  I think a little author-worship can be quite a bad thing.  I didn’t think Atlas deserved the nasty treatment he got, and there appears to be at least some agreement that “Ravelstein” got a pass it didn’t merit.  When the book was published I talked with an acquaintance who reviewed it quite favorably for one of the most prominent possible venues in literary journalism.  This is a very eminent and widely respected critic.  I asked: do you really think “Ravelstein” is a good book?  The answer was, “No, but I think it’s . . . interesting.”

I don’t want to say I was shocked, but, well, it’s a disappointment.  Sure, you want to be generous.  But a serious critic has a duty to the public to be serious.

Does it matter in any serious way?  Maybe not.  But I’m inclined to think log-rolling, obsequiosness, and exaggeration are as bad for the non-academic world as they are for the academic one.  And in Bellow’s case, I wonder whether reverence wasn’t in fact consequential.  The weak side of Bellow for my money isn’t the nasty one of Sammler, or the dark naturalist of Seize the Day or anything like that.  It’s the portentous, faux intellectual, and self-regarding Bellow.  Reverence might bring that out in a person.

By on 04/06/05 at 09:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, just to clarify my clarification. Dares is being a troll and Sean’s post was perfectly fine. (I liked it, although it is a slight thing.) I was only granting Dares imputation of Sean’s vomitousness in a reductio spirit. I like Sean. Dares, on the other hand, needs to calm down.

By John Holbo on 04/06/05 at 09:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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