Saturday, August 06, 2005

The implications: James Wood on Saul Bellow

My bank balance has taken a serious hit with the renewal of my subscription to the TLS. However, this week's edition has eased the pain with James Wood's informative (and not too long) piece on Saul Bellow's prose; his 'Biblical English'. Wood also shows how Bellow was influenced by many English writers, and remarks how many contemporary English writers were to the fore in paying tribute when Bellow died: Amis, McEwan, Hitchens.

There is a negative side to reading about Bellow though. How can we begin to write ourselves in face of such world-renewing, world-creating prose? The same for the amateur critic too: Wood has absorbed so much diverse reading material, and is able to regurgitate it so usefully, that one feels equally impoverished in comparison.

Yet, for all the pleasure in, and admiration for, Bellow’s prose and Wood’s contribution to that pleasure and admiration, I ask: And? And? OK, I think to myself, Bellow was influenced by the King James Bible, and by DH Lawrence more than we might previously have acknowledged, but what then; what are the implications of such knowledge?

Waggish has posted a response to another recent TLS article that projects beyond its limits and answers my question. It would be helpful if the "useful, new abstraction" referred to here became a touchstone of literary discussion in the blogosphere.

As Mr Waggish points out, I cited the exact same extract of the exact same article that he does a couple of weeks ago (albeit rather less profoundly). Also coincidentally, when Bellow died in April, I cited the same author’s essay introducing The Portable Saul Bellow. Here’s the relevant extract:

Bellow has been described as a great realist; a follower of Dreiser and the American 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 [Bellow’s] voice, of avoiding its implications by placing it safely in a literary or historical context.

Avoiding the implications of Bellow's voice is also something very English.

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