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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Saul Bellow, RIP

Saul Bellow was one of the two best fiction writers of the past 60 years -- and I mean no insult by that. He died yesterday at the age of 89.
Bellow once asked, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?" and he was roundly castigated for elitism and racism. Shame, really. I would guess that one reason Bellow is not recognized -- and will not be recognized -- for his literary near-genius is that made such politically incorrect comments, and often. He won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction only after winning the Nobel Prize for literature which as the essayist Joseph Epstein noted must have been like drinking a cold cup of coffee. Still, he seems to have been punished by the Pulitzer committee for not holding the right views.
The New York Times obit certainly takes a dig at Bellow for his impolitic views but perhaps they have scores to settle; in 1990, Bellow noted in an essay, "We have no use for most of the information given by the New York Times," and added that the Sunday edition is impossible to read. Could the Times be that petty or were his politics that odious to them? Honesty, Bellow remarked in 1992, cannot be tolerated ("You can lie and be rewarded, you can fake and be elected president, but telling people what is obviously true will not be tolerated") so the elite who direct/control literary opinion would never truly warm to Bellow's writing. (Of Bellow's inciteful insight, my favourite was from a series of essays he penned for Newsday during the Six-Day War in which he noted that:

"A negligible percentage of the oil royalties of Kuwait would have paid for the rehabilitation of the Palestinian Arabs. So would have the billions spent on two campaigns in the Sinai. So would the Suez Canal tolls."

Bellow once wrote about a California professor who had said that the average New York Times contained more information than any contemporary of Shakespeare would have acquired in a lifetime, but that he, Bellow, "suspect[ed] that an educated Elizabethan was less confused by what he knew." Bellow seldom seemed confused although he enjoyed exploring paradox and would often not come down one side or another. This seems strange for a man (a writer, for heaven's sake) with strong opinions. But such apparent ambivalence in his books were a result of him exploring in general ways the themes encapsulated in this truth from a 1960 Bellow essay:

"The enormous increases in population seem to have dwarfed the individual. So have modern physics and astronomy. But we may be somewhere between false greatness and false insignificance. At least we can stop misrepresenting ourselves to ourselves and realize that the only thing we can be in this world is human. We are temporarily miracle-sodden and feeling faint."

To the degree that you find this statement true, or at least an accurate reflection of life in the late-mid 20th Century, you will enjoy his books. Although he gave up serious writing in recent years (Ravelstein was mediocre), those who did enjoy his books will miss him greatly.

(Cross-posted at Sobering Thoughts)

Posted by Paul Tuns on April 5, 2005 in Books | Permalink


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Yup. As Alexander Pope wrote, in his "Essay on Man": "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of Mankind is Man. Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state, A being darkly wise, and rudely great: With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side, With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride, He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest, In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast; In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer, Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err, Alike in ignorance, his reason such, Whether he thinks too little, or too much: Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd; Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd; Created half to rise, and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; Sole judge of Truth, in endless error hurl'd: The glory, jest and riddle of the world!"

Posted by: Tony | 2005-04-05 10:52:24 PM

Well done, Paul. Great stuff!

Posted by: Kathy Shaidle | 2005-04-06 8:53:26 AM

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