Saul Bellow has died. Bellow was considered one of the great American living writers. And his passing, much to my surprise, left me with a sizable lump in my chest.
I first read Bellow in my early twenties. While his playfulness (the legacy of which can now be found in nearly every Dave Eggers story) of his interminable paragraphs sometimes annoyed me, I was still taken with the way Bellow still managed to cut to the fine point of human observation in unexpected ways. Take, for example, this passage from Humboldt’s Gift:
The strain was largely at the top. In the crow’s-nest from which the moern autonomous person keeps watch. But of course Cantabile was right. I was vain, and I hadn’t the age of renunciation. Whatever that is. It wasn’t entirely vanity, though. Lack of exercise made me ill. I used to hope that there would be less energy available to my neuroses as I grew older. Tolstoi thought that people got into trouble because they ate steak and drank vodka and coffee and smoked cigars. Overcharged with calories and stimulants and doing no useful labor they fell into carnality and other sins. At this point I always remembered that Hitler had been a vegetarian, so that it wasn’t necessarily the meat that was to blame. Heart-energy, more likely, or a wicked soul, maybe even karma — paynig for the evil of a past life in this one. According to Steiner, whom I was now reading heavily, the spirit learns from resistance — the material body resists and opposes it. In the process the body wears out. But I had not gotten good value for my deterioration. Seeing me with my young daughters, silly people sometimes asked if these were my grandchildren. Me! Was it possible! And I saw that I was getting that look of a badly stuffed trophy or mounted specimen that I always associated with age, and was horrified.
When I first read that paragraph (which is still flagged years later by a Post-It note), I was struck by the number of levels it operated on. Here’s a man contemplating his debilitation (largely a hypochondria used to mask the inevitability of aging) but is resorting to almost every reference and detail at his disposal to evade the issue. He’s blaming himself for not exercising enough, and then seriously grasps for straws in resorting to the questionable health principles of other men.
Finally, Bellow pinpoints the extent of his self-delusion, which involves not coming to terms with the idea of grandchildren, but finally conceding a defeat that not even he can comprehend or accept.
The way that Bellow hit upon the burdens of regret here moved me. And for that, I’ll toss down a cold one for Saul tonight, placing Augie March, Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift to the bottom of my bookpile for re-reading.
(via Dan Wickett)
[UPDATE: Mark has a nice collection of links.]