Thursday, October 05, 2006

Saul Bellow and The Republic of Letters

Every writer has a private map of literature, a vision of what the best books are. He considers some books overpraised, and others unjustly neglected. He feels the pressure of literature upon his life, and believes that other people should feel some of that same charge, and if they don't he must show them how. He would like to dredge out the best of the old, and sift the best of the new. In short, every writer would like to to run a literary magazine.

The Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, who passed away last year, founded four literary magazines at different points of his life with his friend Keith Botsford. The last of these periodicals, published more or less biannually from 1999 onwards, is News from The Republic of Letters, featuring fiction, essays serious and lighthearted, reminiscences, excerpts from diaries, poetry, and literary criticism.

The latest issue of TRoL contains, alongside the usual mix, three essays in memory of Bellow, including one by the writer Herbert Gold. Gold first met Bellow in Paris in 1949; he was a young writer spending some time in Europe, and Bellow the same, only some years older, and with two published novels to his credit. At the time Bellow was writing The Adventures of Augie March (his own account of those years can be found in an essay here); and as the rumor had gotten around "that he was destined to be America's new great novelist" he already possessed a devoted circle of admirers, to whom he was given to complaining at length about his many woes, especially marital. Gold presents a scene of the writer holding court:

Usually these family quarrels, hot tongue and cold shoulder, had to do with boredom (his) and jealousy (his wife's). He cultivated the admiration of pretty young women; he received it. He liked to recall how, when his first story was published in a national magazine, Harper's Bazaar, along with a photo, he received a telephone call from MGM pictures. Did they want to make a movie of his story?

He beamed; high wattage. There was an ironic glint in his large dark eyes. His smile delighted. No, they wanted to offer him a screen-test.

When he glanced around his circle of admirers on the terrace of Le Rouquet at the corner of rue des Saintes-Pères and the Boulevard Saint-Germain, we all responded with an echo of his own joyous amusement, just as if we were receiving the tale for the first time. Sometimes there was at least one person present for whom it was new.
It is a very fine and sharp account, alive to good and bad both - Gold describes memorably Bellow's self-regard and need for attention ("He required an audience as devoted as the audience he gave himself"); the particular achievement of his work ("Saul's prose style married classical elegance to Mark Twain and the pungency of street speech; Yiddish played stickball with Henry James….He could spritz like a lower east side comedian and then lament like the prophets….His gifts enabled him to edge abruptly into scenes of vivid desire and grief, as in the last paragraphs of the great story Seize the Day"); his tendency to write up his antagonists in real life as characters in his novels ("I know three people who wrote novels intended as revenge for what he had written about them"); and his extreme touchiness when it came to the reception of his books ("Receiving hundreds of clippings, he was still the man who could be thrown into a raging flunk by that bad review in the Deseret News of Salt Lake City).

In a post on Seize The Day some weeks ago I linked to a number of essays on Bellow, and here are a number of excellent essays by him: "Hidden Within Technology's Kingdom, a Republic of Letters", a piece about the founding of TroL; "To Be Poor Meant Also To Be Free", an account of the hustle and bustle of the Chicago of the nineteen-twenties; "Strangely Independent of Place", about the writing of Augie March; and "My Paris", an account from the eighties about returning to the city he once lived in.

A piece by Botsford I like very much is this essay on WG Sebald from an old issue of TRoL ("...when I, so rarely, find myself with a writer whose every turn of phrase and every thought is so clearly going to be interesting, I become self-denying. I will not just read it; I will savor it. Really good writers command that they be read at almost the pace at which they write—otherwise you will miss something" - that is absolutely correct.) And Herbert Gold has an essay on the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg here.

And the website of The Little Magazine, to my mind the best literary magazine in India, can be found here. Here is a selection of pieces from it: "The idea of India in the era of globalisation" by Sunil Khilnani, "The Hundred Watt Bulb" by Saadat Hasan Manto, "India Through Its Calendars" by Amartya Sen, "The Closed Door" by the Bengali writer Ashapurna Debi, "Babur, the man behind the mosque" by Amitav Ghosh, "Angoori", a story by the Punjabi writer Amrita Pritam, "Ten Dilemmas of Nuclear Deterrence" by Achin Vanaik, and "Bon Appetit", a poem by Arun Kolatkar.


Anonymous said...

That essay on Sebald was very good. thanks. I have been reading him on and off for the last one year now and I really wanted to know what readers more well informed and more intelligent than me thought of him. I thought I had read everything about him on the net.

I recently read another excellent essay on him by susan sontag ("a mind in mourning") which was also very good.

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

glad i chanced upon your blogsite - got introduced to tlm. thanks.

yes. u r right. every write has his views about what the best writing is. they dont accept that nothing is cannonical. they cant digest the concept of open endedness of a work of art and the variety of the recepients at the reader counter.

Brazenhead said...

Thank you so much for this blog. I found you through another blog and will come back as often as I can. It is always a pleasure to read a reader. And it helps me to cheat too, by going directly to the books others have had time to enjoy. You also remind me of another person who writes the same style of blog, but in French.

Chandrahas said...

Kochuthresiamma PJ - I think you are construing my words more negatively than I intended.

"They don't accept...can't digest..." - you seem to suggest that writers are somehow short-sighted or intolerant in their views, when my sense is that they usually have sharper views, stronger likes and dislikes, than the general reader.

I would like to hear you make a case for how "nothing is canonical", if you believe that to be so. Equally, while I don't deny that each work of art elicits different responses from individuals, the "open-endedness" of the work of art you speak of is not infinite, and it is possible to distinguish good interpretations from bad ones.

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

chandrahas, nothing negative about my observation.i believe that what causes a writer to be read and get noticed is his horse vision - his conviction that he has hit the nail on the head, and his felicity of expression which enables him to get his blinkered vision across effectively. a person with a comprehensive vision of life remains on the second rung, unless of course, he is some one like shakespeare who is the rarest of phenomena.
i stick to my guns. every work is open ended. how else do you explain a writer who is a rage in his time sinks into oblivion in the next and the next - - . or how ceratin writers who remain nonentities for generations resurface in another age where they even become cannonical?
what is cannonical for one age can be insignificant to another. what is cannonical to one group can be insignificant to another contempory group.
connonicity is a high brow, snobbish concept,a tool of hegemony

Chandrahas said...

Ah, I see.