Mr. Bellow’s Planet: Amis, McEwan Snatch Saul’s Herring Soul

One opened The New York Times expectantly, two days after Saul Bellow’s death, ready for the Op-Ed tributes that seemed as certain to appear as The Times itself: Surely one or more of American literature’s surviving phallocrats, a Mailer or a Roth or an Updike, would contribute a brief but feeling essay, hastily composed yet sharply observed, glittering with wit and fond (or double-edged) remembrance of the tart-tongued, pint-sized titan, that pluperfectly penetrating colossus of our native literary landscape. Maybe The Times would roll out some antique survivor from the old Partisan Review crowd; surely there would be four or five hundred words by Bellow’s biographer, James Atlas, or conceivably a feeling homage by a younger American novelist whose life had been changed by reading Henderson the Rain King. One could imagine it all, down to the small, boxlike dimensions of the essays, placed (of course) respectfully high on the page.

Instead, we got Ian McEwan.

The English novelist’s 1,200-word eulogy was graceful, cogent and astonishingly fully formed, bearing no whiff of the lamp, no sign of haste or clotted emotion: It read, if the unforgivable may be suggested, as though (like major New York Times obituaries) it had been written months or years in advance, and carefully whittled and polished till not a trace of the sweat of composition remained. “It will be some time,” Mr. McEwan wrote, “before we have the full measure of Saul Bellow’s achievement, and there is no reason we should not start with a small thing, a phrase or sentence that has become part of our mental furniture, and a part of life’s pleasures.”

For that small thing, Ian McEwan chose “a certain dog, barking forlornly in Bucharest during the long night of the Soviet domination of Romania. It is overheard by an American visitor, Dean Corde, the typically dreamy Bellovian hero of The Dean’s December, who imagines these sounds as a protest against the narrowness of canine understanding, and a plea: ‘For God’s sake, open the universe a little more!’ We approve of that observation because we are, in a sense, that dog, and Saul Bellow, our master, heard us and obliged.”

Well! This is neat, and euphonious, and appropriately humble-one thinks of Nipper, the old white-and-black RCA Victor mascot, his head cocked expectantly as he listens to His Master’s Voice ….

One also thinks of Uriah Heep.

A glance at Ian McEwan’s cool and masterful mug, with hooded eyes squinting knowingly through circular spectacles, is enough to tell you that this guy-the author of nine highly acclaimed novels; winner of the Whitbread and the Booker; a literary god in one of the few countries that still appears to take books, and the eminences who produce them, seriously-doesn’t think of himself as anyone’s pooch.

Still, the literary world being what it is, Bellow’s Nobel trumps Mr. McEwan’s Booker and Whitbread, and proper respect-if not obeisance-must be observed. (In his new novel, Saturday, Mr. McEwan not only has an epigraph from Herzog, he lifts a damaged-Mercedes-vengeful-thug plot device right out of Humboldt’s Gift.) And every working novelist feels like a dog from time to time, and anyone with any feeling for literature appreciates the existence of masters.

The literary world being what it is, one understands the lack of immediate tributes from the great American phallocrats. (On a replayed NPR interview last week, Bellow told Terry Gross that Norman Mailer, with his cult of celebrity and politics, was one of the main reasons he left New York to return to Chicago in the early 60’s. Nor should we forget that once upon a time, Bellow stole a girlfriend of Philip Roth’s, Susan Glassman, and made her his third wife.) But where were the Americans?

More to the point, why have the English (Christopher Hitchens, on Slate.com, and James Wood, in The Guardian, also contributed to the postmortem scrum) appropriated Saul Bellow?

The trouble began some 20 years ago, when Martin Amis, still in his enfant terrible phase, did a lengthy interview with Bellow (“Saul Bellow in Chicago,” collected in The Moronic Inferno). It was a piece so uncharacteristically deferential that when Bellow’s agent read it to him over the phone, Bellow commanded the agent to read it again. Here was an acolyte with class: an acclaimed young English novelist with growing credibility as a critic and essayist, not to mention a literary pedigree. A paternal/filial friendship, if not a mutual-admiration society, ensued. Mr. Amis proceeded to write a half-dozen more pieces on Bellow; the two appeared on British TV together (Bellow warbled “Just a Gigolo” for his delighted interlocutor); the younger man began to visit the older on his Vermont farm every summer. Envious accusations of brown-nosing were inevitable, especially after Mr. Amis rapturously asserted, in another essay, that “Bellow’s first name is a typo: that ‘a’ should be an ‘o.'”

And the usually acidulous Bellow, who reportedly had thorny relationships with his three sons (by three different wives), himself exhibited an unwonted soft spot for his young devotee, letting no butter melt on his tongue when he spoke on the record of Mr. Amis. But the big payoff came in 1995, when Bellow allowed part of an interview with him to be excerpted as a blurb for Mr. Amis’ novel The Information, to wit:

“Martin Amis certainly uses a charged language. Anyone with that much feeling for words is bound to be accused of putting words first. This was the case with Flaubert and Joyce …. The discovery is an overpowering one when it happens; you find a new way to write about modern life. And that’s pretty heady.

“Q: [Do you] think that Martin Amis has the inventive genius of a Joyce or a Flaubert?

“Yes, I do. I see signs of a very large outline.”

With all due respect for Martin Amis’ impressive body of work, one also saw, inevitably, signs of some very large logs being rolled. Putting one’s own feelings of envy aside (if possible) and giving the subject of friendship between writers a good, hard, Amis-esque squint (see The Information), one could posit an understandable but not altogether seemly scenario: An old artist, never renowned for being kind, and covered with glory but facing the certainty of diminishing returns, being circled adoringly by a younger artist, almost equally renowned for emotional sharpness, but still very much about the task of constructing a substantial career.

More cynically still, Bellow had nothing to lose by praising a writer who wasn’t a threat to him. You’d never catch him doling out kudos to the other phallocrats.

But one could hardly be blamed for thinking cynically, given the players: For his part, Bellow, a master of the quick-draw put-down, had a famous and long-standing habit of scorching the landscape whenever people tried to get cozy with him. (“A difficult uncle” was the warmest thing James Atlas could come up with, by way of eulogy.) And Mr. Amis, who never let an opportunity pass to be called the Bad Boy of British Literature, or to be photographed wearing a sneer, had a novelistic oeuvre marked by vast tundras of cynicism, here and there relieved by patches of faintly moist sentimentality. A love fest between the two of them was all well and good, as long as they kept it to themselves.

But of course they didn’t. That wasn’t the point. The adulatory pieces flowed from Mr. Amis’ pen, and Bellow never let slip (to the public, anyway) anything as sharp as a backhanded compliment where his young devotee was concerned. In the payback-intensive year of 1995, Mr. Amis wrote an extended essay in The Atlantic, making what could only be called an impassioned case for Bellow’s breakthrough 1953 book, The Adventures of Augie March, as, of all things, the Great American Novel. “Search no further,” he wrote. “All the trails went cold forty-two years ago. The quest did what quests very rarely do: it ended.”

Here, I have to tip my mitt: As an occasional American novelist myself, I was surprised and, I must admit, slightly offended by the diminutive Brit’s big-footing proclamation. For one thing-fairly or not-I couldn’t help thinking, What business was it of his?

For another, the proclamation seemed almost defiantly tin-eared. I had long ago taken it as an article of faith that the Great American Novel was a chimera, an empty shibboleth, something that dim but hopeful advertising men of the mid-1950’s would dream of running off and writing, but not anything that ever could or should be thought about as a single, actual entity. There were so many great American novels-narrowing down the field to one was a vacant exercise for bored newspaper feature writers.

Or, apparently, for impassioned acolytes. In my sniffy state, I couldn’t help thinking about those rolling logs, those dog-and-pony father-and-surrogate-son TV interviews, but most especially about British writing itself, and the hoary but reliable formula of two nations separated by a common language. My own prejudice-might as well blow off caution where wild generalizations are concerned!-is to find the British idiom itself pinched and withheld-feeling, fatally emotionally distanced, farbissener. Or, to try and put it more objectively: A gap of understanding seems inevitable between a nation (theirs) whose intelligentsia lives in mortal fear of being found “wet”-oversentimental-and a nation (ours) whose culture oozes wetness from every pore.

And as dry as I strive to be, this gap certainly applies to my own feelings about Martin Amis’ fiction. I have grave doubts: I find his mannered toughness, his insistent yob-ism, tiresome and, at worst, emotionally dead; his quest for Great Ideas as arid and schematic as Saul Bellow’s is thrilling. Yes, he can be funny, but I never feel very good about the laughter he stirs in me. When he amps up his wild comedic effects or dramatic conceits, he reminds me of a malevolent curry chef, pouring in shakers full of spices without a thought for nutritional value.

And this is strange, because whenever I see Mr. Amis interviewed on TV, or hear him on the radio, I find him delightful: extraordinarily thoughtful, intelligent and decent. The very soul of reason. The toughness recedes; the claws retract. Christ, he’s smart! As is his critical writing. (In the divide between his fiction and his nonfiction, he reminds me of Gore Vidal.)

And Ian McEwan’s Bellow eulogy was smart- of course it was smart. Messrs. McEwan and Amis, good friends in the face of all that’s seemingly impossible about literary friendship, share not just the good fortune of equal success, but an affinity for concinnity. But both men are finally, inescapably English-and therefore, when it comes to putting together sentences about our greatest contemporary novelist, slightly but fatally off the mark.

“[Bellow's] heroes”-Mr. Amis writes in his essay “Saul Bellow and the Moronic Inferno”-“are well tricked out with faults, neuroses, spots of commonness: but not a jot of Bellow’s intellectuality is withheld from their meditations. They represent the author at the full pitch of cerebral endeavour …. “

When Ian McEwan started rhapsodizing-in his cool and masterful way-about that barking dog in The Dean’s December, all I could think of, for some reason, was a piece of herring: the herring snack that Charlie Citrine, in the incomparable Humboldt’s Gift, eats at his kitchen counter as he reads the obituary of a Princeton professor who once interviewed him for a teaching job. In the novel, that herring, together with Charlie’s afternoon whisky, becomes a Proustian device for stirring up memories of the late poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, the fictional stand-in for Saul Bellow’s real-life friend, the doomed, dazzling Delmore Schwartz.

Yet that herring is more than a Proustian device. It’s also an actual piece of herring-a quintessentially Jewish food, a nosh which I suspect is, in its homely Yiddishkeit, quite beneath the notice of the likes of Messrs. Amis and McEwan, who prefer metaphorical dogs and the full pitch of “cerebral endeavour.”

There was something even nearer and dearer to Saul Bellow than herring, metaphorical or actual, something I surmise high-toned British writers also have trouble with: the human soul.

From his earliest writing, Bellow had a fixation on the existence of the soul-not as a vague idea or hazy metaphor, but as a real entity, one that he would discuss (or have his fictional characters meditate upon) at the drop of a hat, to the consternation and embarrassment of many colleagues and critics steeped in American materialism. For years, he involved himself seriously with theosophy and the Buddhist-tinged, reincarnation-obsessed teachings of Rudolf Steiner and Emanuel Swedenborg. Artur Sammler, the Bellow-like protagonist of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, said, “Very often, and almost daily, I have strong impressions of eternity.” “God adumbrations,” he called them-blissful visions that stood in tragic contrast to the world’s mass butchery and moral and cultural unwinding.

Martin Amis has earnestly taken on, in all his writing, the subject of history’s relentless violence and dissolution-except that for him, there are no cures. No God adumbrations. He’s a nonbeliever, and his nonbelief seems to haunt his writing and the very fiber of his being, from his bleak worldview to his sour puss. He isn’t smug about it. One senses he’d like to believe, but can’t.

But for Bellow, as Mr. Amis acknowledged, the soul is “probably not just a metaphor. I think it is a real belief in his case. It’s a rather weaker belief in my case. Not … a belief, but a kind of inkling, or suspicion.”

If this feels half-hearted, it’s because it is half-hearted. In yet another interview (almost nobody gets interviewed as much as Martin Amis), the Englishman opined, in a wistful, the-grass-is-always-greener way, “[My] sense is that America has had much more respect for its writers [than England] because they had to define what America was. America wasn’t sure what it was …. And looked to its writers to say, ‘Are we just a bunch of Italians and Greeks and Jews? Or are we a nation with a soul and a heart?’

“But England,” Mr. Amis continued, “has never worried about what it was. Its identity goes so far back. And it doesn’t look to anyone to tell it what it is, so they prefer that the writers just shut up.”

These words are hard to read: There is a sadness to them, and a sourness, that feels so close to the bones of England, where the constant oscillation between one-up and one-down frequently leads to spiritual exhaustion and cynicism. No wonder the country’s best literary minds want to appropriate Saul Bellow. He has something they don’t have, and it isn’t just genius.

No wonder anyone with a mind in America wants to claim him back. But do we deserve him? As James Atlas pointed out in these pages recently- and as Bellow himself had lamented to his biographer-the Jewish-American moment in our native literature was surprisingly brief. Other immigrant groups, other dispossessed voices, have scrambled to the forefront. Still, new arrival only guarantees newness; profundity is a different matter. There was only one Saul Bellow: He leaves no literary heirs, only a surrogate son-not a blood relation.

In the end, the thing to remember is that the Brits grabbed Bellow because he was up for grabs. His death made the front page in The Times, but in the New York Post it was on page 12, buried a little deeper than news about the domestic troubles of the actor who played Big Pussy on The Sopranos. On my Internet home page, the all too appropriately named Yahoo (see Gulliver’s Travels), I looked in vain for any mention at all of the passing of our greatest living writer.

We have nothing over the British any longer: We’ve found our own ways of being soulless. Unfortunately, we’re now also Saul-less.

James Kaplan is at work on his third novel.