Wednesday, April 20, 2005


The Fitzgerald Affair Part Deux, etc.

On the heels of my earlier post about the Fitzgerald Affair of 1998, I heard from two other members of that particular NBCC jury. They had one minor quibble with my version of events--they both recalled that Roth had faded early in the balloting, leaving DeLillo and Fitzgerald to duke it out for the prize--but agreed that The Blue Flower had been a real contender from the start, not just an exasperated compromise. So I'll stick by what I said earlier.

Meanwhile, I heard from Margo Hammond as well. Was she misquoted? I asked. No, she said, and added: "The 'now that she's dead' comment was meant to say that I wouldn't want a writer who is alive to hear all the gory details about the award she got--not because she was unworthy of the award, just because I would imagine any author would like to believe (however improbable that it is) that her/his award had unanimous support." Tact is a fine thing, of course. But I doubt that Penelope Fitzgerald--not exactly a naif about human veniality--would have been too disturbed to learn that a handful of NBCC board members were lukewarm about her novel. (She celebrated the prize, as I recall, by taking a day off from ironing.) And Margo's original comment still strikes me as slur on a great novelist, even if she didn't mean it that way.

On other fronts: I couldn't get to sleep until 4:00 AM last night, so I decided to follow up Nabokov's correspondence with Volume Two of Brian Boyd's fabulous biography (The American Years). It's an astonishing, intimidating work, which includes the most cogent defense I've ever seen of VN's crotchety Eugene Onegin translation. It also softens, or in fact banishes, the image of Nabokov as an imperious curmudgeon, running his hapless characters thorough the bastinado and flicking off Freud, Doestoyevsky, Sartre, Mann, Henry James, and Saul Bellow like so many pieces of lint.

He despised Bellow, I would assume, because he mistook him for a Novelist of Ideas (ideas here being code for sociological pieties.) But Nabokov got that one wrong. Has anyone ever written prose more maniacally, magnetically attuned to the nuts and bolts of physical reality? There's a great piece in the current New Yorker--which (sigh) I also read last night--an abortive interview that Philip Roth did with Bellow during the late 1990s. When Bellow discusses his Augie March breakthrough, he makes the connection between the physical and metaphysical wonderfully explicit: "Language, thought, belief were connected somehow with noses, eyes, brows, mouths, hair--legs, hands, feet had their counterpart in language. The voice--the voices--were not invented. And whether they knew it or not all human creatures had voices and ears and vocabularies--sometimes parsimonious, sometimes limitless and overflowing. In this way the words and the phenomena were interrelated. And this was what it meant to be a writer."

Towards the end of the night, by which time I had one of those behind-the-right-eyeball headaches, I picked up the Dorling-Kindersley pocket guide to insects. Not a good move. The color photos of mating damselflies and praying mantises were enough to give me nightmares. Luckily I don't remember my dreams.

I've never had a problem with Nabokov's disdain for Bellow -- to me, it always seemed perfectly understandable, and not because he thought of Bellow as a novelist of ideas. It's quite possible -- and in my case, unavoidable -- to dislike Bellow simply because of his windy prose. When I read Augie March I kept thinking of early Thomas Wolfe; the sentences were often just embarrassingly bad, and those clumsy locutions -- "slice of life-cake" soars to mind -- nearly made me gag. He emoted all the way through it, stopping now and again to babble some half-digested philosophy. And he couldn't stop writing the fucking thing; it's a book written with no sense of direction or purpose, and it just sails blithely past every conceivable stopping point. It's undisciplined and baggy and dull. Remember that scene at the end where Augie is stuck out in the ocean on a boat? That's the lasting image I have of the book; Bellow himself seemed to be at sea, paddling out as far as he could and never real sure how to get back to shore without inventing one. In perspective, I think it's possible to see Augie as a somewhat unique picaro, burning up with uniquely American energy, and the book may even be something prescient, in the way it looks back at Dos Passos and forward to Kerouac. I can see it as an important book of its time, in other words. But the idea of Bellow as some sort of prose master simply baffles me. It may be something I'll never understand.

Nabokov's opinions are unique to him; much as a man might admire him and even wish to emulate him, it's impossible to share all of his tastes. But it makes perfect sense to me that an artist as precise about words as Nabokov -- and who so relished the genius of Joyce and Kafka -- wouldn't have cared for Bellow.
Augie March is anything but a meticulous book--it's got more than its share of windy, reader-resistant passages--and to that extent I understand Rodney Welch's disdain for it. But unlike Welch, and unlike Nabokov, I see the stamp of genius on thousands of phrases and sentences. That puts me in a forgiving mood: I don't even mind the loose-and-baggy construction, as long as Bellow keeps delivering the goods. As for Nabokov, I admire him just as much as Welch does, while recognizing his own peculiar flaws: a tendency to preen (which reaches its annoying zenith in Ada) and to stubbornly mount his philosophical hobbyhorse (ditto). He's still a great, great writer. But so, to my mind, is Bellow, and that fact that these two gentlemen wouldn't shake hands on a dare won't prevent me from worshipping them both.
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