Monday, April 11, 2005
Often described as a writers' writer, Saul Bellow has been praised across the press since his death last week. Of particular interest, I thought were pieces by Christopher Hitchens in The Observer and James Wood in The Guardian.People disagreed about Bellow's final stature, but no one really disagreed with the quality of the prose. Most writers are called "beautiful" at one time or another, as most flowers are called pretty, but there are never very many really great prose writers alive. Bellow was one, to my mind the greatest of American prose stylists in the 20th century - and thus one of the greatest in American fiction. It was a prose for all seasons; it seemed to do more of what one wanted from prose than any other competitor. It was intensely lyrical and musical, its rhythms a pressing mingle of Yiddish, American, English, and Hebrew (after Lawrence, Bellow was the most biblical of modern writers in English); but it was also grounded in speech, and seemed incapable of preciousness (unlike, say, the lovely but often pampered lustres of an Updike); it was witty, metaphysical, sensuous, playful. Above all, Bellow saw the world anew. When he looked, say, at icicles hanging from a hospital roof, he saw them resembling the teeth of a large fish, and then saw the "clear drops burning at their tips". Burning! When he described a younger man helping an old man across a street, he noted the "big but light elbow" of the old man. Big but light! There indeed was a writer attending to the world, attending to the body, missing nothing.