Monday, May 02, 2005


Some final Bellowing

By now the late, great Saul Bellow has been so extensively eulogized that there's not much left to say--certainly not by the likes of me. That won't stop me from smuggling in a couple of footnotes. First: a historical curiosity. When I read an uncorrected proof of Ravelstein back in early 2000, I was startled to come across this description of the protagonist's boyfriend: "Nikki was perfectly straight--straight, by nature, a handsome, smooth-skinned, black-haired, Oriental, graceful, boyish man." Now, Nikki was anything but straight. Could Bellow possibly be unaware of the contemporary sense of that word? You could argue that his lexicon was a little old-fashioned, that he sometimes trafficked in spiffy bits of 1940s slang (at one point the narrator refers to his youth as "my dude days.") But no, that doesn't explain it. Bellow never stopped his uncanny surveillance of the American idiom, and as for being out of touch with pop culture, hell, we're talking about a novel with a cameo appearance by Michael Jackson. Strange, no? When the finished book showed up, that sentence had been changed to: "Nikki was perfectly direct--direct, by nature...." Either some kind soul at Viking said something to the author, or he made the fix himself. I like to think it was the latter--that Bellow's magnificent ear heard the bum note and adjusted it--but in any case, I'm glad he got that (ahem) straight.

Also, a note of puzzlement about Ian McEwan's valedictory op-ed piece in the New York Times of April 7. I admire McEwan, and as for his idolatrous take on Bellow, I second that emotion. But I continue to be perplexed by his favorite specimen of Bellovian prose, which he has not only memorized as a private mantra but used as an epigraph to Saturday. "Well, for instance," it begins, "what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization." And so on and so forth, for another nine sentences, most of them similarly blunt and hortatory. I have to say this is not first-rate Bellow. It sounds like a party plank. It reveals Bellow's sweet tooth for the sort of sociological analysis that almost scuttles Mr. Sammler's Planet. So what the hell, I'll haul out two of my own favorites. The first is from Ravelstein, and certainly serves as an artistic credo:
In my trade you have to make allowances, taking all sorts of ambiguities into account--to avoid hard-edged judgments. All this refraining may resemble naïveté. But it isn't quite that. In art you become familiar with due process. You can't simply write people off or send them to hell.
The other one, from the second paragraph of Augie March, is more compact, but it still represents a major trade secret, whether you're a Bellovian maximalist or Borgesian minimalist or anything in between: "Everyone knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining." Amen.

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