Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bellow and "Monstrosity"

I'm really glad to see a reprint of one of Bellow's novels getting a review in the LA Times, and, what's more, a fairly meaty review, not just a notice. But while I appreciate the effort, I have to dissent from the results. I think the review repeats a very grave error when considering Bellow's work, one which I think deprives the reader of a richer experience with Bellow, making reading him even more of an intellectual (and sometimes emotional) struggle than doing so already is.

Let me say first that I mean struggle in a good way—Bellow is my favorite author because I have to become so much just to keep up with him, I have to go out and read a lot more to stay with him intellectually (consider this belated realization, which made a striking passage in Herzog richer), but most of all, I have to stop myself from ignoring so much about Bellow that I don't like, from trying to write those things off or minimize their importance. I have to remind myself constantly that Bellow isn't a salvage project, that I'm not really doing him or me any good trying to turn him into a better person by focusing on how good a writer he is and calling the rest peripheral considerations.

The reviewer, Richard Rayner, relates that "[t]he critics Brent Staples and A.O. Scott once conducted an online debate in Slate, the theme of which was: Is Saul Bellow a monster? In the years since Bellow's death in 2005, the appropriateness, or relevance, of this question has receded. Does it really matter whether Bellow was a mean guy or not? What remains is the luminousness of the writing." The subhead puts the point more piquantly: "Was Bellow a nice person? Why should it matter next to a funny, luminous story like this one?"

Rayner suggests that the discussion of Bellow's faults has been limited to what Staples calls Bellow's "cannibalism"—"the extent to which Bellow uses people--including five wives, his childhood friends, and his academic colleagues--as 'material' for his novels," and which Scott refers to as vampirism. This is not quite true. Alfred Kazin, among others, deplored Bellow's misogyny in his novels and Staples, both in the discussion with Scott and elsewhere (in the Times, I think), lashed out at Bellow for his racist portrayals of black men, particularly in Mr. Sammler's Planet. Then there's Bellow's famous line dismissing non-Western cultures ''Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?'' which was a really asinine question for a former anthropology major to ask (Bellow's degree was in anthropology and sociology at Northwestern).

The common move here would be to shift the question from "should these things be ignored?" to "can these things be ignored?" and then to go about proving the importance of these distasteful aspects of Bellow's persona to larger issues, themes or structures within his work. And this is, in fact, true—these aspects are integral in a variety of ways. Bellow's expressions of misogyny often force him into digressions from the plot (or, looked at another way, allow digressions from the plot), a tendency which we can see from the very simple fact that the less feminine presence a book has (Seize the Day, Henderson the Rain King, The Victim), the tighter its plot, while in the books with greater feminine presence (Herzog, More Die of Heartbreak, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Ravelstein), the plots are more scattered and fragmented. There are other examples and rationales I can give for why these issues are crucial to understanding Bellow, not just in terms of ideology, but in terms of structure and aesthetic effect, but I'm hoping to write something more serious than a blog post about that topic at some point, so you'll have to wait for the sequel.

Even if we assume, however, that Bellow's nastiness can't be ignored, many people would see that as an academic judgment, a scholarly matter. I'd like to suggest that even those things which readers (including me) find pleasurable about Bellow—his humor and his lyrical descriptions of people and things—are often aggressive and occasionally mean, frequently pugilistic and occasionally repugnant. Read the one-liners Rayner pulls out of Humboldt's Gift, or the description he cites of Cantabile. These aren't genial quips or neutral depictions—they're highly charged, quite personally-directed, bellicose little word-clusters. This is Bellow, and one of the challenges of reading him is not about separating the funny invective from the mean invective, but coming to terms with Bellow as a whole person, or at least as a whole writer.

For what it's worth, I think Bellow is a fairly special case. I don't mean to make a general project of trying to understand every writer with intermittently odious aspects, or to suggest such a project. I think there's a lot we can understand by understanding Bellow, and he obviously still has massive influence over a host of writers, so we haven't stopped hearing from him. I love studying Bellow as much as I love reading Bellow, so I'm glad to know there's still a lot of work and reading to be done.

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