December 2, 2010

IN FAIRNESS...:

The long, unhappy life of Saul Bellow (Joseph Epstein, December 2010, New Criterion)

Despite all the prizes and critical praise, one comes up against the possibility that Saul Bellow wasn’t truly a novelist. He could do extraordinary, even marvelous, things: draw a wondrous cityscape; describe a face at the MRI level of detail; capture the comedy in self-presentations; soar in great lyrical, and even more in intellectual and metaphysical, flights. The problem was that he couldn’t quite seem to land the plane. His endings never quite fit, which is to say, work. He couldn’t do the first, essential thing that novelists with vastly less talent than he know in their bones how to do, which is to construct convincing plots.

Highly intelligent people without an interest in the lives of intellectuals and artists—and intellectuals and artists were always his main subjects—can’t read Saul Bellow, even though these artists and intellectuals puff away, Nestor-like, on the meaning of the universe, the dissolution of the soul, the death of art, and other such elevated topics. (Bellow once told me that when he published a novel “50,000 people buy it in hardcover, 5,000 read it, and 500 care.”) In the end, of course, his subject was almost always himself: “By now,” he wrote to Cynthia Ozick in 1987, “I have only the cranky idiom of my books—the letters-in-general of an occult personality, a desperately odd somebody who has, as a last resort, invented a technique of self-representation.” Perhaps he wasn’t a novelist at all but a high-octane riffer, a philosophical schmoozer, an unsurpassed intellectual kibbitzer, one of the great monologists of the age. But he was no storyteller. Which explains why one doesn’t have much taste for rereading him and why, there is good reason to believe, future generations are likely to have even less taste for reading him in the first place.


...Joyce and Proust were no better.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Posted by Orrin Judd at December 2, 2010 6:34 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus
« YOU DON'T REACH OUT TO CHRISTIANS BY VISITING THE CHRISTIAN IDENTITY HQ: | Main | MOVE OVER, WE'LL DRIVE: »