Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Saul Bellow

He said this was a good question but it was obvious that he didn't mean it. He turned gloomy and his voice went flat -plink- as though there were one note of tin in his brilliant keyboard. He struck it now. "I may think I'm bringing an offering to the altar, but that's not how they see it." No, it was not a good question, for the fact that I asked it meant that I didn't know Evil, and if I didn't know Evil my admiration was worthless. He forgave me because I was a boy. But when I heard the tinny plink I realized I must learn to defend myself. He had tapped my affection and admiration, and it was flowing at a dangerous rate. This hemorrhage of eagerness would weaken me and when I was weak and defenseless I would get it in the neck. And so I figured, ah ha! he wants me to suit him perfectly, down to the ground. He'll bully me. I'd better look out.
-Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift

It was about two years ago that I bought a copy of The Adventures of Augie March at The New England Mobile Book Fair (an unbelievably cheap warehouse full of books). The way the Book Fair is set up it's virtually impossible to find specific books without in-depth assistance, so I usually just wander around randomly until I hit on something. March was one of those random hits. It was one of several books, but other than Sucker's Progress (a book about gambling on cards), I couldn't tell you what any of those other several books were now. I have them somewhere in closets or on bookshelves, but I couldn't easily identify them as from that last trip to the book fair.

Within twenty, ten, five, maybe even the first page I knew this book was destined to make the all time desert top five. It's just that good. So sensory it's like being in the Chicago streets of the early 1920's and onward, and the story ranges all over the place. It has this magical quality to it that made me think of magical realism even without any type of overtly fantastical reality. The real world is made magical. No small feat.

Now, last summer I dubbed 'The Summer of Murakami' because I went on an obssessive Marukami binge and read everything of his that's been translated except one or two collections of short stories. I went absolutely crazy on the writings of Haruki Murakami, and the plan is to do the same thing with Bellow this summer. So, this is 'The Summer of Bellow'. Which is so much easier, as my local library has just about all of Saul Bellow's work as well as several biographies and about a dozen critical analyses. The only Murakami they had was Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. A great collection of short stories to be sure, but hardly enough for a Summer Of kind of thing.

With Bellow, I really wanted to start with Humboldt's Gift. I think it's the one that won him the Nobel Prize in Literature. Not that that really means anything. The Old Man in the Sea won it for Hem, and I think that's the only Hemingway novel that I haven't read. Not that that really means anything either. I'm just saying. Also winning the Nobel probably was the proximate cause for Hem going all paranoid delusional because he couldn't work what with all the hoo-ha over the prize. And he might've been on the verge of breaking through stylistically with the Garden of Eden (on a certain level of meta-ness [not with the whole sexual kinkiness {although that was a new level of sex wierdness for Hem}]). All beside the point anyway. I just had a hunch about this book.

And Humboldt's Gift is clearly a treasure. I'm about sixty pages in, and the book is most firmly in that ecstatic enlightenment of literature category. Just an elegant joy, in words. To me at least. After Augie March, I had picked up some of Bellow's later writing from the 80's (Mr Sammler's Planet [got him the Pullitzer, I think] and More Die of Heartbreak) used for cheap, and it's all dense musings from an old Jewish man in New York and an early Russian lit professor somewhere in the Mid-west respectively, which is probably why they were readily available used for cheap. Books that Dave Eggers calls 'difficult' (lest we forget our labeling theory, Dave). Great books in there own right but no where near the sensual and emotional journey of March. Much more intellectual. It seems that Humboldt may have been the turning point in the development of this later, more intellectual style because it, so far, seems like a wonderful and near perfect mix of the sensual and the intellectual. So good.

And so many more. Herzog next, then Dangling Man (I believe his first novel), and after that, well, we'll just have to see.

Also read Shipping Out or A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Harper's magazine has all the DFW stuff they've ever printed available in PDF form over there (thanks to Infinite Summer a bunch of DFW links). It is absolutely, hilariously, deeply, thoughtfully, sincerely amazing. Such mirth and depth so playfully intertwined. Wallace is just brilliant. Just absolutely brilliant. Maybe next summer will be the Summer of Wallace.

Slow down there, Cowboy. Let's not get ahead of yrself.

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