In defence of a grumpy genius
Saul Bellow was neurotic, racist, sexist – and one of the greatest novelists of all time, says Vidyan Ravinthiran
in his mind, of the racial and sexual revolutions of the Sixties. We see in Bellow’s fiction that the innate energies he once thought redemptive may actually be destructive – society is sick, and so is Moses Herzog:
The glance in the mirror makes us think of Bellow, writing himself into Herzog, and seeing his own face anew – with disappointment, perhaps. (One thinks, too, of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, and the modulations of awareness recorded in thick, glowing crusts of paint.) Bellow also leaps from his hero’s first-world problems to Dr Emmerich, a Jewish refugee, and the “frowzy doorman” with his First World War cap. How, Bellow is wondering, should a novel connect the personal with the historical?
Bellow’s parents were JewishLithuanian immigrants. He writes with pangs of vividness about modern American life (Chicago in particular, a city “blue with winter, brown with evening, crystal with frost”) while stressing the big, traumatic world-realities from which middle-class American intellectuals could effectively insulate themselves.
He didn’t follow the party line, refusing protest movements – “People became organised in camps, and while I was opposed to the war [in Vietnam], I just refused to line up with the new groups” – and didn’t join Robert Lowell’s crew in turning down an invitation to the White House.
He visited Israel and in To Jerusalem and Back depicted it sympathetically (“although unashamedly pro-Israel”, says Leader, he nevertheless registered “the suffering and injustice visited on the Palestinians”). Eventually, sadly, he coarsened into an unapologetic sexist (there’s a horrifying anecdote here about him publicly slapping a lover,