Saul Bellow, 1915-2005

News of the latest in the recent flood of notable passings reached me late last night: Saul Bellow is dead at 89. There’s something that rings very end-of-an-era to me about his death, and this despite my just flat not liking his work at all.

Not liking it, however, did not prevent me from praising it when I had to. Some years ago, when a certain bookselling site was first getting off the ground, back in the day when the site’s editors were still asked to produce or commission substantive reviews (though uniformly positive ones — bad books, or at least bad books that were not written by living legends, were simply not reviewed at all), I wrote on Ravelstein. I’m stunned to discover today that the review is still on the site.

What I was unable to say in that review, however, was how thoroughly unpleasant I found the novel, or how clearly out-of-the-past Bellow seemed, so of a piece with the measured rebellion of the 1950s, a rebellion that slid comfortably and easily into reaction, as to be nearly incomprehensible today. Bellow famously got himself in trouble in his later years by responding to questions of multiculturalism by asking “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” His baffled response to the ensuing furor — in which he expressed surprise at the critical opinion “that I was at best insensitive and at worst an elitist, a chauvinist, a reactionary and a racist — in a word, a monster” — shows, for me, the extent to which he never fully recovered from the immediate post-war moment, never really made it into the late twentieth century.

A few years ago, I heard Martin Amis speak at the Huntington, and in the course of his talk, Amis claimed that the British novel was the core of serious work in contemporary fiction at that moment, insisting that the American novel was effectively dead, because Bellow and Roth were no longer producing. Never mind, of course, that Ravelstein had just come out, as had The Human Stain. What was fascinating in this for me was Amis’s hard-core assumption that the American novel was Bellow and Roth, that there was nothing else but these two men. That nothing mattered to the American novel except the middle-class, misogynist, Jewish-American novel.

So, the end of an era: not the end of the novel in the U.S., but perhaps the end of the domination of the field by a force that honestly hasn’t mattered to it in years. Perhaps a final closure of the “post-war” period, and a move, at last, into the twenty-first century.

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