‘There Is Simply Too Much to Think About,’ Saul Bellow’s Nonfiction

Martin Amis in The New York Times:

Bellow“The flies wait hungrily in the air,” writes Saul Bellow (in a description of Shawneetown in southern Illinois), “sheets of flies that make a noise like the tearing of tissue paper.” Go and tear some tissue paper in two, ­slowly: It sounds just like the sullen purr of bristling vermin. But how, you wonder, did Bellow know what torn tissue paper sounded like in the first place? And then you wonder what this minutely vigilant detail is doing in Holiday magazine (in 1957), rather than in the work in progress, “Henderson the Rain King” (1959). It or something even better probably is in “Henderson.” For Bellow’s fictional and nonfictional voices intertwine and cross-pollinate. This is from a film review of 1962: “There she is, stout and old, a sinking, squarish frame of bones.” Two decades later the image would effloresce in the story/novella “Cousins”: “I remembered Riva as a full-­figured, dark-haired, plump, straight-legged woman. Now all the geometry of her figure had changed. She had come down in the knees like the jack of a car, to a diamond posture.”

In 1958 a Gore Vidal play was adapted into the famous western “The Left Handed Gun” (which starred his friend Paul Newman); and it has often been said that when writers of fiction turn to discursive prose “they write left-handed.” In other words, think pieces, reportage, travelogues, lectures and memoirs are in some sense strained, inauthentic, ventriloquial. In Vidal’s case, literary opinion appears to be arranging a curious destiny. It is in the essays (or in those written ­before Sept. 11, 2001) that he feels right-handed. His historical novels, firmly tethered to reality, have their place. But the products of Vidal’s untrammeled fancy — for instance “Myra Breckinridge” and “Myron” — feel strictly southpaw. Bellow, by contrast, is congenitally ambidextrous.

More here.