Saturday, April 09, 2005

Bellow's tone of voice

I'm too preoccupied with other things to write anything about Bellow. (It also seems the BBC was otherwise engaged too when it put together an obituary, as the picture it uses of an elderly Bellow is in fact an actor playing the part of Artur Sammler in Martin Amis' rather awful documentary about the writer). Instead, here are the opening two paragraphs of Gabriel Josipovici's introduction to the Viking Portable Bellow.

When we think of Saul Bellow’s work, we think of a certain tone of voice, a tone of voice that combines the utmost formality with the utmost desperation. We think of Mr Willis Mosby, diplomat and memoir writer, struggling for breath in the Mexican tomb and saying simply, "I must get out. Ladies, I find it very hard to breathe." Or of Herzog, one-time academic and historian of ideas, sitting alone with his thoughts in his crumbling country house and saying into the silence, "If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me." But "think" is the wrong word here. Such phrases are not called up consciously into the mind; they surge into our throats, begging to be spoken, to be released by us into the outside world. And to give way to this impulse (submit to this discipline) is to experience a peculiar pleasure.

Bellow has been described as a great realist; a follower of Dreiser and the urban naturalist tradition; a great fantasist, especially in Henderson the Rain King; and as the last of the Yiddish storytellers. But these are ways of shrugging off the demands of that voice, of avoiding its implications by placing it safely in a literary or historical context. Bellow is too important a writer to have this done to him. His style, that tone of voice, emerges as an answer to his most pressing preoccupations, and what we need to do is to see how the two intertwine and reinforce each other, and how they are discovered and made manifest.


  1. Anonymous7:59 am

    have you seen my MA dissertation on Bellow? it is located at:

  2. Anonymous8:05 am

    ps. geocities is filtered in Iran.

  3. Thanks for that Yazdanpour. There's a BBC radio interview in which Bellow is asked about the dialogic imagination and whether it applies to his own work. He said the only Bahktin he knew of was for cuts and bruises.



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