4/08/2005|||111298395482333246||||||
BELLOW

Sorry to be late catching up with his passing. The Times' obituary includes this slightly rueful self-assessment:

“European observers sometimes classify me as a hybrid curiosity, neither fully American nor satisfactorily European, stuffed with references to the philosophers, the historians, and poets I had consumed higgedly-piggedly in my Midwestern lair. I am of course, an autodidact, as modern writers always are.”

Fans of Norman Podhoretz will recall that he caused a stir as a young man by declaring that "The Adventures of Augie March" wasn't the masterpiece many had claimed ("...Bellow seems to be twisting and torturing the language in an almost hysterical effort to get all the juices out of it."). His son, John, is a lot less ambivalent in his tribute in the New York Post. He recalls attending a seminar conducted by Bellow and the ultra-intellectual Allan Bloom (who was later to be memorialized in "Ravelstein"). Bloom had asked the students to plough through Rousseau's novel "Julie, ou, La nouvelle Héloïse" , one of those books much more talked about than read - for very good reason:

Bloom insisted that the book was a work of great and towering beauty that offered the most profound depiction of romantic passion the world had ever seen.
Though Rousseau's novel had been one of the most famous books of its time, there hadn't been an English version of it published in more than 100 years, and so we were forced to read Xeroxes of a Victorian translation that numbered well over 2,000 pages in all. This was hard-going for us students.

We all thought it was awful — drippy and hysterical, stunningly overwrought and endlessly repetitive. But, of course, this was Rousseau, and who were we to criticize Rousseau to Bloom, who had already forgotten more about the philosopher than we would ever learn?

Bellow would have none of it. Like us, he had come to it fresh. Unlike us, he did not find Bloom's ardent devotion intimidating. And over the course of 10 weeks, he systematically picked the book apart, failing by failing, until at last even Bloom was compelled to acknowledge its failings as literature and to accept the fact that it had deserved to fall into obscurity. Bellow had taught Bloom something, which was no small feat, I assure you.

"Ravelstein" is, in all honesty, the only Bellow book I've ever really enjoyed. Martin Amis, the literary world's leading Bellowphile, has called it, "A masterpiece with no analogues. The world has never heard this prose before." He and critic James Wood discuss Bellow's work in this archive interview. Amis's father, Kingsley was, of course, a lot less enthusiastic about the grand old man of Chicago. Sounds as if Rick Brookhiser feels much the same way:

I went on a Bellow kick some years ago, and read several novels in quick succession... I began because Bellow's voice is rude (in both senses of the word) but compelling; and the wealth of easy reference--Nietzsche on one page, con men on the next--seemed delightful.

I stopped because several characteristic traits wore me out. The misogyny too much. All women are either glorious tumbles or hideous harridans. The glorious tumble of one novel--modeled, one felt, on the newest wife--becomes the hideous harridan of the next. The heroes all resembled each other too much, and seemed aspects of the author himself--chatty, troubled intellectuals.

|||Clive|||http://clivedavis.blogspot.com/2005/04/bellow-sorry-to-be-late-catching-up.html|||4/08/2005 07:11:00 pm|||||||||
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