Thursday, April 07, 2005


Now that Saul Bellow has died, an unseemly battle has broken out between Chicago and New York to claim him. The Chicago Tribune's Wednesday cover story declares him "Chicago's Novelist." Today the New York Times has a clever riposte: "New York was Saul Bellow's Second City."

Chicago would seem to have an edge in this one; he grew up in Chicago and worked, lived, and taught there for much of his career. On quality of coverage, though, the Times has the Trib beat hands down; the Times's appreciations sound a bit more like real criticism, comparing Bellow to other 20th-century authors and even using words like "postmodernism"--which, of course, as a Great Writer, Bellow was said to loathe. (The Trib's synonym for postmodernism seems to be "cynicism.")

The Trib, in contrast, is hamstrung, as it usually is in its arts coverage, by having no idea what audience it's talking to--Chicago or the world? the city or the suburbs? the intellectual or the "man on the street"? We're treated to a list of Chicago writers who praise Bellow as Mr. Chicago; to a comparison of Bellow to "Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner" (whose only resemblance to Bellow seems to be that two of them also won Nobel Prizes); to the insight that "he was the antithesis of everything blase"; and to a catalog of Bellow's thoughts on Chicago that make him sound like the thinking man's Mike Royko. The important thing, in the end, is that Bellow "out-and-out loved Chicago."

That kind of crass civic boosterism makes it easier for the Times's writers to conceal their own provincialism (I mean, come on--Bellow loved New York's "complicated women" and "the onion rolls from Zabar's"?) behind a veneer of sophistication, even drafting Ian McEwan to explain why Brits love Bellow.

I am starting to wonder about Michiko Kakutani, though. I gave her a free pass last time, and I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that she would wax eloquent about a hero of realism who rejected "mainstream" literature, "aestheticism" and "postmodern pyrotechnics" (McEwan even claims that Bellow "freed" the novel from the iron grip of modernism--take that, Virginia Woolf!). But what's with describing Melville as a "brawny, red-blooded American"? Robin says: "I think the word I would use would be 'anemic.'"

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