Academy of the overrated

By Michael J. Smith on Tuesday March 6, 2012 10:46 AM

One of my mailing lists recently contained a link to an amusing piece about Saul Bellow, whom I've always loathed, as a writer and as a human being.

Bellow was much disliked among the English faculty at my inalma mater, the University of Chicago; they thought he was a useless hood ornament who had been hired partly because of his celebrity and partly because of his right-wing politics. When I arrived in the fall of 1970, my advisor had a dinner for all his new advisees and just about the first thing he told us was, "I hope none of you came here expecting to study with Saul Bellow. He doesn't exist. He's done with mirrors. And if you do get the chance, don't take it!"

One used to see Bellow on the street occasionally. He was a very diminutive guy, almost a midget, with a quite vulgar though expensive dandified way of dressing: English shirts, bright-colored ties, velvet jacket, lambswool hat that looked vaguely Afghan or Ruritanian cavalry.

He was quite frightened of black folks and students; used to look around nervously as he walked, casing the street for a Sammler's nemesis.

I once had occasion to walk along behind him and some tall gorgeous woman he was with for several blocks. It wasn't deliberate; we just happened to be going the same way. Bear in mind that I was a grad student in mediaeval literature, and looked it; nobody's idea of a thug, and the woman he was with coulda whupped my ass and ten like me. (We would have all enjoyed it, too.)

After ten minutes Bellow was sweating bullets and ready to break into a run; kept looking nervously over his shoulder at me and licking his lips like a whipped dog. It probably didn't help that I smiled at him every time.

I have a blind spot for Bellow's work; never understood what the fuss is about. Can't read the guy with any pleasure at all, though I've frog- marched myself through the oeuvre. It's a weird combination of shallowness with grandiloquence; Big Ideas, or at least, resounding abstract nouns, thrown about with freshman-seminar abandon by a person who clearly hasn't done much actual thinking at all, and an attempted Runyonesque loose-limbed breeziness of style that reeks of contrivance and the lamp, and gimps -- to my ear -- painfully down the page.

Comments (16)


"... resounding abstract nouns, thrown about with freshman-seminar abandon by a person who clearly hasn't done much actual thinking at all"

could be woody allen or for fuck sake
rabelais you're talking about here

"gimps painfully down the page "

i like that phrase very much
however its connection to augie march
seems to me
at least in part intended

compared to say norm mailer( in fiction mode )
or joe heller's one good novel
saul in auggie march throw some nice breaking stuff
ya ya a junk pitcher
but again so was R and so is A

is he sterne ?

certainly not

is he in the same league
with his exact contemporary bull burroughs ?

maybe maybe not
the difference bull's superiority is there to behold
but the difference though blatant
is not out of his league

as to saul's politics ?

a pearl maker needs its grit

nothing would please me more then to think the tides of time will
wash that squeemish runt away for ever

but like jerry lewis
i suspect ssaul is for all time
..there's to be
no such luck for us
as oblivion for him


a pearl maker needs its grit

As his biographer ruefully noted, "Success had a destabilizing effect on him...he was more comfortable with opposition. Now there was nothing to resist." Nabokov did not need to write a book to get the measure of Bellow whom he dismissed as "a miserable mediocrity".


I feel pretty much the same way about Bellow. Have read a few of his novels; can't remember much about any of them. "Henderson the Rain King" made an impression on my adolescent mind, I guess, though I now forget why. "Ravelstein" was a disaster.

I'm more of a Philip Roth man myself. And not too into the pre-adolescent, comic-books obsessed (relatively) younger writers, though Jonathan Lethem's "Fortress of Solitude" is a gem. I suspect Mr. Schumann might appreciate that novel's memorable ruminations on gentrification.

I understand Saul's spawn, Adam, has been attacked a number of times by lefties with Zabars bags. Poor schlep. Hope he's OK.



the NAB 's view

why that capricious picky old billy goat....

humbug humbert !!!


I've always loved Nabokov, and his dislike of Bellow makes me love him, if possible, even more.


the NAB
never liked sharing space with anyone
least of all literary space
why even norm was no more fierce spiteful
and in the end what saves NAB from norman's
grunting wallowing

his frock tailed blues tinted
masochistic mirth
not so very different in certain ways
saul and vlad

that i adore one and would gleefully
feed the other
to my pet eels

that is prolly just bigotry on my part

sea washed stone coast bigotry


the NAB never liked sharing space with anyone

Nabokov was a big fan of Kafka. He's also to be admired for trying to popularize Russian words such as poshlust:

Poshlust is one of these untranslatable concepts and important to Gogol’s work. Some English words in the nearby semantic space include “cheap, sham, common, smutty, pink-and-blue, high falutin’, in bad taste…inferior, sorry, trashy, scurvy, tawdry, gimcrack.” In the realm of literature, poshlust does not apply to actual trash, but to “the best sellers, the ‘stirring, profound and beautiful’ novels; it is these ‘elevated and powerful’ books.” In other words, any amount of your average, garden-variety “literary fiction.” And the real damnation of it all:

The dreadful thing about poshlust is that one finds it so difficult to explain to people why a particular book which seems chock-full of noble emotion and compassion, and can hold the reader’s attention ‘on a theme far removed from the discordant events of the day’ is far, far worse than the kind of literature which everybody admits is cheap.


NAB had excellent taste
But not inclusive taste

Goethe is on the far side of the iron door par example

Faust is poshlust

Does poshlust describe the 2004 Oscar-winner Crash? I'm trying to get a grip on this word.


'Poshlust' means, roughly, overstuffed, over-opulent, overpriced gaudy nouveau riche vulgarity. A favorite Nabokov term.

Ole Nabbie did indeed close the iron door on many people whom I would admit to Parnassus, being myself a fairly round-heeled gatekeeper, grateful to anybody who gives me any pleasure at all.

But Bellow never did, and neither did Eliot or Faulkner, other members of the Nabokov salon des refuses. So when he takes his buzzsaw to these guys, it makes me very happy.


The interesting thing to me is the Bellow/Philip Roth comparison. I loathe Bellow and love Roth; I've read everything the latter has ever written and been swept off my feet almost every time (though Sabbath's Theater was a challenge, but that may have had more to do with when I read it than anything else).

And yet Roth venerates Bellow and says he learned a lot from reading Bellow. This is the sort of thing that makes me realize there are unanswerable questions: it's like trying to get your head around the fact that JS Bach admired... Antonio Vivaldi!

I fictionalized dire Bellow in a diptych of shorts once (the "Saul and Wally" stories, with Ralph Ellison as Saul's Gilligan) and wrote:

"Saul would sit there with a book of 'great' quotations open right next to the typewriter and salt-and-pepper his manuscript with kultcha. Season it with what he called 'smarts'. Wally has seen him do it. Saul would wink and say, Whaddya think, buddyboy, a Matthew Arnold or something from Suetonious? Or maybe let's throw 'em a real curve ball and opt for a schmeck of Lao- Tze. Way back when when Saul was still in on the joke. They would argue well into the night, Wally and Saul, about teleological niceties such as the fate of consciousness after the final fact of mortality and Saul could not abide Wally's assertion that individual consciousness reverts to its place in the great Undifferentiated Essence upon the moment of death... he was adamant, vociferous, nearly hysterical in his condemnation of it and Wally finally twigged that Saul's resistance to the concept was, at root, anti-integrationist."

My swipe at Bellow's middlebrow "erudition" and middle-class racism and mid-century, anti-Commie, Cold War luck.


I always thought this was one of Hitchens' most repulsive (after his defense of W) demonstrations of the "2+2 =5" school of brainwashing an audience (plummy tone required):


My God. I had forgotten just how sick and awful Mr Sammler's Planet was; and I had no idea the late Hitchens had ever sunk *this* low. What a deeply instructive horror.


Oddly enough, Sammler may represent Bellow's best writing. For once, the pretentious little poseur was writing from the heart -- about his fear and hatred of schwartzers (and I don't mean Delmores) and their vividly-imagined membra virilia.

"(and I don't mean Delmores)"



Back at ya. I liked the image of Saul with the quotations book open next to his typewriter. Remember the Doonesbury 'quote boy!' thing -- a riff on George F Will, who had a Catholic version of Bellow's intellectual chip on the shoulder.

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