Bellow: The ‘Defiant, Irascible Mind’

Rich_1-060415_jpg_250x1375_q85Nathaniel Rich at The New York Review of Books:

Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—included in the Library of America’s final volume of Saul Bellow’s complete novels—is a eulogy in novel form for his friend Allan Bloom. But it also contains a kind of eulogy for Bellow himself. A shift in emphasis occurs about halfway through when Ravelstein, close to death, predicts that Chick (more or less Bellow’s alter ego) will soon follow him to the grave. Before long Ravelstein is dead and Chick is hospitalized for a potentially fatal case of food poisoning. Chick spends much of the latter part of the novel contemplating death and summing up his life. “I…lived to see the phenomena,” he concludes. Life may pass by in a continuous series of “pictures,” yet “in the surface of things you saw the heart of things.”*

Chick, the author of a biography, has made a career of examining the surface of things to understand the inner lives of his subjects. “Ordinary daily particulars,” he writes, “were my specialty.” The same was true of Bellow in his fiction. He was, in his own term, a world-class noticer. One of the distinctive thrills of reading Bellow is the exuberant richness of his descriptive prose—in the case of Ravelstein, for instance, we glimpse his “honeydew-melon head,” “legs paler than milk” that emerge from an ill-fitting kimono, and a laugh “like Picasso’s wounded horse in Guernica, rearing back.”

more here.