Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Saul Bellow is Dead

Tributes came in from Bellow's contemporaries in that post-war set of writers yesterday.

"The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists - William Faulkner and Saul Bellow," Philip Roth said. "Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the 20th century."

Utter rubbish, really, from Philip Roth, who is a great writer, and surely, someone who could be expected to be more careful with his words.

Saul Bellow's novels are interminably dull accounts of Jewish academics or Jewish explorers or Jewish whatever. You can read the whole of Henderson the Rain King or Herzog and never really enjoy yourself. I remember one terrible joke, about an MD saying he "couldn't be specific" about a sexually transmitted disease (ha ha, non-specific urethritis it is, then) and some bad puns about Chapman's Homer. Admittedly, Herzog has some funny moments with his petty letter-writing, but it is undermined by constant harking on about how everyone has a proud Jewish nose. Please, please, please! can we have a story and not The Nose Report. I don't want to hear about everyone's damn nose.

Rest in peace, Saul, but please, please, don't write any novels wherever you've gotten to. And don't listen to Roth, you're not one of America's two most important 20th century novelists. Are you really better than Hemingway or Nelson Algren, more of a mythographer than William Burroughs, more lyrical than Henry Miller, more visionary than Thomas Pynchon - even John Fante could seriously claim to have made more impact than you.

The only major writer as BAD as you is John Updike, and he'll be along soon enough. Oh, and Saul, remember, you're nothing to do with Melville, Twain (there are no flaming jokes in your writing, for heaven's sake), or Hawthorne (hmmm, closer, you're both humorless and boring), you were Saul Bellow, that funny-looking guy who couldn't stop writing and going on about noses.

I bet the first thing you'll do when you see Moses is tell him what a great big beautiful nose he has.

For anyone who thinks I'm being too harsh here, I do have a problem with eulogising over the dead, praising them to the skies. If Saul Bellow was a great friend and companion, if he always picked up the tab, if he was always ready to lend a hand, say that instead, tell us what a great man he was. But don't try to tell intelligent people that Saul Bellow was one of the two most important American writers of the 20th century, because he simply wasn't.

Voltaire said it best for me,

"To the living, one owe's respect. To the dead, one owes only the truth."

(p.s. Nabokov, if you count him as an American writer, is also someone who offers more, so much more, than Saul Bellow)


Blogger anan said...

Nabokov? American?
(sound of body hitting floor)
'Lolita' was such a cynical attempt to capture an American audience that i move it be struck from the roster of his works for perpetuity!

Or maybe i'm still stuck with my proud nose in the flypages of the Aurelian!

3:25 AM  
Blogger kingfelix said...

hmmmm, i've never heard anyone venture that opinion of Lolita, that it was simply to acquire an audience in the US. on what is this assertion based?

3:38 AM  
Blogger HF said...

The comparisons are truly ludicrous. They also imply that (literary) history is kind of cyclical with only a limited number of "roles" to be played by different people in each century. Imagine!

3:43 AM  
Blogger kingfelix said...

heiko, you're right about the cyclical roles. it reminds me of those bizarre books on the Spear of Destiny that contend that various Nazis knew themselves to be reincarnations of black magicians from previous centuries, and Winston Churchill was the reincarnation of some good guy come to bash them.

I told Hannah to take note of how ludicrous these claims were, and if i died this week, she was to tell everyone that I was the tallest man in America (approximately 4 metres tall) - it would be as valid a claim.

3:50 AM  
Blogger anan said...

you mean... you're not?

re. Nabokov, once my very favourite writer in the whole of five time zones, i seem to recall him 'fessing this up to some Russian interviwer. Course, i did read this about a decade ago, so my retention of which magazine it appeared in may be slightly fuzzy.

Besides which, it's bloody obvious; especially when you compare Lolita to his previous works.

4:18 AM  
Blogger kingfelix said...

well, if it's true, does it matter? i don't bother with Lolita anyway. Despair, Bend Sinister, King Queen Knave, Ada, and Speak, Memory, are more than enough to keep me delighted.

i take the approach of my friend Leo when it comes to Nabokov, and have taken care not to read All of his stuff, and to instead spin it out across the course of my life, so there's always another book to look forward to!

4:59 AM  
Blogger L said...

I could never really get into Bellow either....

5:36 PM  
Blogger kingfelix said...

L, maybe the problem is your nose. is it small? and lacking in pride?

5:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bellow is actually a good read the second time around.

But Henry Miller, Hemingway good writers?

6:51 PM  
Blogger kingfelix said...

i don't remember saying Miller of Hemingway are good writers, i find Hemingway incredibly tedious.

With Henry Miller, i like the flights of fancy and the sex, and he writes good stuff about being poor and a kid. Black Spring has some good stuff, and he also made me aware of George Dibbern.

6:56 PM  

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