Yesterday was the centenary of Saul Bellow’s birth. Although many writers extoll Bellow it may be true to say that his appeal is not so much broad as it is deep: restricted to the trade, to other writers, to various journeywomen scriveners who appreciate the craft of writing.

I won’t offer a view on Bellow; my own reading of his work is too shallow and not extensive enough. Even so I will make one, perhaps not entirely accurate observation about Bellow’s work, and that is when reading his sentences it reminds me of reading Thomas Mann and Robert Musil: authors who are steeped in literary culture, their words seem drawn from a vast stockpile of well-known referenced books, a metaphorical megillah.

Alexandre Dumas had a phrase for Flaubert which captures the essence, “un géant qui abat une forêt pour fabriquer une boîte…, la boîte est parfaite mais elle a vraiment coûté trop cher.”

As a trivial aside, Bellow and Flaubert share one other less redeeming connection. It is their medical/anatomical remarks about books by Georges Sand (Flaubert) and Mary McCarthy (Bellow). Use your favorite search engine to find the quotes.

Amongst those novelists that work the same seam as Bellow it’s evident that there is a gulf between Bellow’s world of writing and the contemporary one. Some blame the digital world and greater distraction, which erases concentration, and therefore the market, for the complex book which Bellow produced. There may be something to that argument, though it’s dangerous to look back at the past distilled through some mental process and declare it was better then.

Since Bellow’s peak forty and fifty years ago there is more of everything than there was. We live in a cornucopia of choice, apparent perhaps, but still more all the same. In such a market the mature and multifaceted work can’t compete against easy gratification. In time, however, filtering leaves what is later seen as useful.

A novelist is like a surgeon, Bellow said, and gave the reader confidence to take the anesthetic. If writing now he might have to add crack.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.


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