Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Dangling novels: why Saul Bellow's opinions are beside the point

Ellis Sharp begins a note on the late Saul Bellow by admitting that he prefers Norman Mailer. Despite their differences, they had things in common, he says. This pricked my interest as I’ve not read Mailer beyond the first embarrassing pages of Ancient Evenings, and wondered what they were. But it seems they similarities of political development.

Sharp despises Bellow’s political opinions in later life. So do I. But these have little to do with the novels. Do we talk about Dostoevsky’s novels only in relation to the fact that he was a virulent anti-Semite and anti-Catholic and also hated Muslims and Turks? No, of course not. These are more or less forgotten. It’s still shocking of course, as are Bellow’s opinions as revealed in To Jerusalem and Back, but they are in marked contrast to the experience of reading the novels; his and Dostoevsky's.

What makes Dostoevsky a great novelist, and what make Bellow a great novelist too, is that he placed various antagonistic attitudes and opinions in relation to each other, that is in dialogue with each other. Bakhtin brought this out rather a long while ago.

The critics can go on about the energy of Bellow’s prose, its biblical cadences, and the great, piercing comedy of it all, but what makes Bellow great does not require such things, just as energy, beauty and comedy doesn’t guarantee it (fans of Martin Amis please note).

It is a mark of the limitations of current popular literary criticism that the obituaries speak only of such confections, wrongheaded ancestry and extra-literary politics.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Stephen

    Hello. I have enjoyed reading your blog, and just wanted to comment on this post. You say,

    It is a mark of the limitations of current popular literary criticism that the obituaries speak only of such confections, wrongheaded ancestry and extra-literary politics

    I agree with you, and am glad you make this argument. It is important to keep this in mind, or else literature will become an adjunct to other issues, and the novel, and literature in general is relegated, made of secondary importance, becomes a zero sum morality game.

    However, I do believe that Bellow's prejudices were of a much lesser order than Dostoevsky's, who believed in and promoted the blood libel, that Jews murdered Christian children in order to drink their blood during Passover.

    In an essay written in 1955 called ‘The French as Dostoevsky Saw Them’, Bellow writes,

    Some of Dostoevsky’s strictures repelled me by their harshness. He is disagreeable as only a great radical can be. Recalling how evasive he had been when the czar’s soldiers killed Polish patriots, I disliked his Slavophile notions, And then, too, a Jewish reader can seldom forget Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism.

    The essay is a nuanced reading of Dostoevsky’s life and work, and apart from this, there is no mention of the hatred and bigotry that existed inside the Russian writer that would have been dispensed on Bellow himself as the son of Russian Jews. He acknowledges it, then moves on, does not dwell on it, and engages deeply with the work itself. In the final paragraph, in reference to The Brothers Karamazov, he writes:

    To answer artistically is to do full justice, to respect propositions and harmonies with which journalists and polemicists do not have to bother their heads. In the novel, Dostoevsky cannot permit himself to yield to cruel, intemperate, and arbitrary judgments. The writer’s convictions, perhaps fanatically held, must be tamed by truth.

    The degree to which you challenge your own beliefs and expose them to destruction is a test of your worth as a novelist.


    I think that final sentence should be thought on by certain people, those who wish the writer’s art, and life, to be hygienic, bleached, untroubled and correct. They misunderstand what the novel achieves, and what the true writer strives for: to examine the dirt and mud of the soul.

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