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A Closing of the American Kind | The Nation

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A Closing of the American Kind

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Humboldt wanted to drape the world in radiance, but he didn't have enough material.
      (
Humboldt's Gift)

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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That Ravelstein is Bloom is obvious not only on the basis of internal evidence--the gift for teaching; the bestselling book; the messy eating habits; the expensive tastes and sexual secrets; gossipy friends in high places; contempt for relativism, feminism, black power, gay pride, the social sciences and rock and roll--but also on the basis of Bellow's own remarks at a memorial service for Bloom in 1992, included in It All Adds Up (1994), which reappear here almost word for word. (Mercedes will become BMW, and Michael Wu will become Nikki, and Persian carpets, Chinese chests, Hermes porcelain and Ultimo cashmere coats will turn into Armani suits, Vuitton luggage, Lalique crystal and Cuban cigars, but the chain-smoking, the Chicago Bulls and Plato's Symposium remain the same.) That Chick is Saul is equally obvious from the novels, the marriages and the gnarly grain of the prose, plus what we know from the news about Bellow's near death from food poisoning in 1994. Chick even paraphrases a passage in an earlier Bellow novel, More Die of Heartbreak, on how he imagines death: "I said that the pictures would stop." Of course, while everybody who ever met him at the University of Chicago knew Bloom to be a gay diva, there's no closet quite like the Committee on Social Thought, and so at the memorial they chose to blame his death on liver failure instead of AIDS.

OK, Abe is Allan, Chick is Saul and we are told in the April Lingua Franca that Rakhmiel Kogon is Edward Shills and Radu Grielescu is Mircea Eliade. I am already wise to Vela, the Romanian-born "chaos" physicist who dumps Chick, because I met her before in The Dean's December, when she was a Romanian-born astronomer named Minna. Thanks be, she will exit in time to make room for Chick's new wife, Rosamund, about whom there's reason to worry, because if she really was a student of Bloom's, she should be feeling attenuated, if not invisible, since he is said to have looked right through even the brightest of his female students to likelier candidates for his coterie. This still leaves mysterious the secret identities of Battle, the Sanskrit-speaking ex-paratrooper who looks like "the Quaker on the oatmeal box," and of Morris Herbst, who's written a book on Goethe's Elective Affinities in spite of his weakness for dice and cards. One supposes we must wait for the infinitely receding James Atlas tell-all bio.

Or maybe not. While sometimes interesting, this piggish snuffling after factoid truffles is usually distracting, approximately as helpful as being told that García Márquez patterned the six chapters of The Autumn of the Patriarch on Bartok's six string quartets and Virginia Woolf's The Waves, and invariably reductive in the cranky manner of Ruth Miller's Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination (1991), in which she insists that all the novels are autobiographical, cookie-cut to an identical pattern: a family that's a pain. (They may love him, but they don't understand him; he's a spiritual orphan.) Alter egos who are the same compulsively talkative, intellectually alienated, wisecracking, soul-stricken and culture-freaked manic-depressive (Russian-Jewish Chicago street-smarties even when, like Henderson or Corde, they're not supposed to be). And women who do him wrong: "frumps," says Miller, "predators, trollops, cheats, mousies, doxies, harridans, emasculators, manipulators, betrayers, or rigid unyielding martinets, paranoids, dollies, or chumps." (Herzog wonders, "Will I ever understand what women want?... They eat green salad and drink human blood.")

But this is to read each novel as though it were a grudge--a settling of private scores on the reader's time. If you want to know who is (or isn't) Isaac Rosenfeld, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Dwight Macdonald, John Berryman or R.P. Blackmur--if it matters to you that Joe Alsop is taken in vain in The Dean's December--then Miller's where to go. She even interviewed Owen Barfield on anthroposophy. She will explain away Henderson the Rain King as a parodic acting-out, in Africa, of the Reichian analysis Bellow submitted to in the mid-fifties, while keeping an orgone box like an aspidistra in his Queens apartment. And explain away Herzog as the story of ex-wife Sondra and a perfidious Jack Ludwig. And explain away Humboldt's Gift as Saul's revenge on crazy Delmore Schwartz, who had accused him of selling out.

All this says zilch about what Bellow does to everything he notices, the glad coatings he gives to a terrible world, his Jackson Pollock trickles and streaks and spatters, the ciphers he finds, like Mr. Sammler, in straws and spiders, those magic acts of levitating language by which unhappy childhoods, scorched-earth marriages, erotic disasters, intellectual debacles or debauches, a plenitude of feeling, a hunger for transcendence, the death of a friend, the murder of a people or the decline of the West, are transmuted into agencies of sublime awareness. That style--snaky and hot, wrote Cynthia Ozick, "pumping street-smarts into literary blood-vessels," a "profane and holy comedy of dazzling, beating, multiform profusion"; barbed, breezy, disheveled and surreal; salt-savoring and brain-fevered; the brilliant twitchy patter and the Great Books patois of colloquial and mandarin, sentimental and neo-baroque, Talmudic mutter and gangster slang; deep chords and stop-action; the long irony, the low laugh, the short fuse and a three-cushion bank shot into a side pocket where the anguish they speak is Yiddish--such a style miracle-whips.

Moses Herzog will cry out against "the canned sauerkraut of Spengler's Prussian socialism, the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness," and "a merely aesthetic critique of modern history! After the wars and mass killings! You are too intelligent for this. You inherited rich blood. Your father peddled apples." And while we are told in Humboldt that "a heart can be fixed like a shoe. Resoled. Even new uppers," that's not what it feels like after we've heard Sorella in The Bellarosa Connection explain "the slapstick side" of the death camps:

Being a French teacher, she was familiar with Jarry and Ubu Roi, Pataphysics, Absurdism, Dada, Surrealism. Some camps were run in a burlesque style that forced you to make these connections. Prisoners were sent naked into a swamp and had to croak and hop like frogs. Children were hanged while starved, freezing slave laborers lined up on parade in front of the gallows and a prison band played Viennese light opera waltzes.

Some apples this father peddles.

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