Short and Cranky

Like his mentor Saul Bellow, Philip Roth has been dedicating much of his late career to writing short novels. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal timed to the release of his new novel, Nemesis, he recalls discussing the art of concision with Bellow:

Mr. Roth began to think seriously about writing shorter novels about six years ago. He admired the shorter work of Saul Bellow, and at one point discussed it with him. “I said, ‘How do you do it? I know how to write a novel, and I like the amplification that goes into writing a novel, but how do you pack a punch in just 150 pages?'”

Unfortunately, the interviewer decided either not to follow up about what Bellow’s response was, or chose not to ask. I’ve spent some time trying to dig up some information about Bellow’s philosophy of the short novel, especially the ones he wrote during his own late period, but I haven’t had much luck. (They’re not my favorite books of his; though I have distinct memories of having read 1989’s A Theft and 1997’s The Actual, I can’t recall them packing much of a punch.) A Theft, in fact, isn’t really a short novel at all—it’s a short story that was deemed too long to run in the New Yorker, Esquire, and the Atlantic by their editors, so Bellow decided to go the then-unusual route of publishing it as a paperback original.* The problem, Bellow made clear to the New York Times, wasn’t the story but the growing contempt magazines had for serious fiction. ”I had already suspected for a long time that they are not interested in fiction very much any more,” he told the paper. ”Most of the serious magazines feel it necessary to have one story per issue, and the minimalists are much in favor because they don’t take up too much space. That way you can have all that room for advertisements.”

I may just be using the internet, Google Books, and Lexis-Nexis incorrectly, but it seems no journalist wondered why a novelist who made his name with bricks like The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog would shift gears later in life, and what differences there were between his widescreen novels and his novellas. Bellow did discuss the appeal of brevity for him, though somewhat quietly—he buried it in the afterword he wrote for his 2001 Collected Stories.** “[I]n my early years I wrote more than one fat book,” he writes. “It’s difficult for me now to read those early novels, not because they lack interest but because I find myself editing them, slimming down my sentences and cutting whole paragraphs.”

But his urge for tightening prose, he explains, involved more than just an editor’s instinct—the afterword as a whole is a lament for the death of readers’ attention spans, though his frustration is so velveted it takes a moment to actually register as frustration. His mood slowly darkens in the course of a paragraph:

[W]e respond with approval when Chekhov tells us, “Odd, I have now a mania for shortness. Whatever I read—my own or other people’s works—it all seems to me not short enough.” I find myself emphatically agreeing with this. There is a modern taste for brevity and condensation. Kafka, Beckett, and Borges wrote short. People of course do write long, and write successfully, but to write short is felt by a growing public to be a very good thing—perhaps the best. At once a multitude of possible reasons for this feeling comes to mind: This is the end of the millennium. We have heard it all. We have no time. We have more significant fish to fry. We require a wider understanding, new terms, a deeper penetration.

From there, some gorgeously rendered passages of get-off-my-lawn-ism ensue: Complaints about Michael Jackson’s new record deal making the arts pages, and then a list of all the things jockeying for our attention instead of books: “automobile and pharmaceutical giants, cable TV, politicians, entertainers, academics, opinion makers, porn videos, Ninja Turtles, etc.” Bellow suggests that future writers will have to both compete with and address this new way of living: “Such a writer will trouble no one with his own vanities, will make no unnecessary gestures, indulge himself in no mannerisms, waste no reader’s time. He will write as short as he can.” But he closes with a line I can’t help but read as a screw-you: “I offer this as a brief appendix to the stories in this volume,” writes Bellow, a man who had little patience with being told to write to length.

The mentee makes clear what the mentor would only state indirectly. “The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people’s reach anymore,” Roth recently told Reuters. In writing a short novel like Nemesis, he said, “I am with the times.”

* According to a 1989 story in the Independent, 60,000 copies of the British edition of A Theft had to be pulped because the cover misrepresented the title as Theft—a tale that echoes present-day events.

** The book treats A Theft and 1989’s The Bellarosa Connection as stories, not short novels.

A Thing About Ideas

The selection of Saul Bellow‘s letters published in this week’s New Yorker (not online)—a book of his correspondence is slated for the fall—is a sort of greatest hits of the Bellow myth. Among numerous other personas, the letters showcase the nervy free spirit, dismissing critics to Alfred Kazin; the Jew defending his kinsmen, slapping William Faulkner for supporting Ezra Pound; the mentor, passing his agent’s name on to a young Philip Roth; the convivial but tough colleague, trying to explain his love of John Cheever to Cheever himself; and the casual misogynist, grousing about the “crooked little slut” who interviewed him for People.

But though this particular clutch of letters seems largely chosen to emphasize star power and provocative statements, they also make up a chronology of how Bellow felt about his work, shifting from arrogance to Herzogian anxiety to, in his last years, a kind of ruefulness about what he avoided even in his most expansive novels. The passage most likely to be quoted (and which Bellow’s widow, Janis Bellow, reads on this week’s New Yorker books podcast), comes from a 1957 letter to Roth responding to his story “Expect the Vandals”:

A company of Japanese committing hari-kari, though, I wasn’t sure about. A great idea, but palpably Idea. I have a thing about Ideas in stories. Camus’s “The Plague” was an IDEA. Good or bad? Not so hot, in my opinion.

Being so deliberately anti-idea freed him to write stemwinders like Augie March, Herzog, and Henderson the Rain King. But in his later years, he seemed concerned about what those novels didn’t address, particularly the Holocaust. As he put it in a 1987 letter to Cynthia Ozick: “I was too busy becoming a novelist to take note of what was happening in the Forties. I was involved with ‘literature’ and given over to preoccupations with art, with language, with my struggle on the American scene…with anything except the terrible events in Poland.” In Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors‘ 2009 book A New Literary History of America—a massive, inventive, entertaining, Bellovian book—Harvard literature professor Ruth Wisse expands on that point, writing that, for better or for worse, that kind of denial was critical to Augie March‘s success. “To have taken any greater note of Hitler’s war against the Jews in that novel would have changed the entire balance of its American project,” she writes. “That insouciance is part of Augie’s charm.”

The letters in the New Yorker don’t track how Bellow shifted away from being an anti-ideas man, just how heavily the shift seemed to weigh on him. It’ll be interesting to see how much of that he addressed head-on in his correspondence.

Writing Up Absurd

In the Guardian, Wayne Gooderham pays tribute to Saul Bellow‘s 1964 novel, Herzog, which he thanks for helping him to dig out of a rough time. One attribute of the novel’s healing power, Gooderham suggests, is its clear, firm prose. “It is so precise, so carefully constructed, with not a badly chosen word or comma out of place, that it demands your full attention and focuses your mind so that you are forced to concentrate completely on the novel (one cannot speed-read Herzog. Or at least I cannot),” he writes.

I read Herzog last fall feeling just fine about myself, so I can’t speak to its curative powers*, but it’s true that the novel’s precision is one of its charms; after finishing it, I figured there was nothing I could say about the book that couldn’t be said better just by quoting it at length. But precision isn’t enough by itself to be inspiring—if it were, our hearts would sing more often reading the news. (Of course, there are times when a work of journalism can do that.) It may be more that in Herzog, Bellow openly faces the messiness of what it’s like to be in the midst of an identity crisis—Moses Herzog is one of the more fascinating, wide-ranging neurotics in fiction. Yet writing can be a little sloppy to get neurosis across too. Part of the appeal of a messy cult novel like Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1968 novel, Nog (reissued last year), is the way it turns confusion into an asset. Jumbling up genres, questioning what’s true and what’s imaginary, clouding up the identity of its main character, shifting perspectives—all of it reflects Wurlitzer’s anxiety about a society straining to order things. “If only nothing would grow, nothing change, nothing take hold and join where things take hold and join,” he writes.

Both Herzog and Nog are 60s novels, and perhaps the following decades have made novels about mental illness a little less interesting. That’s a point Marco Roth made in his recent essay in n+1 magazine, “The Rise of the Neuronovel”—now that we’re better able to identify and treat what’s malfunctioning in our heads, obsessive letter-writing campaigns and genre mashups may seem too frivolous for a writer who’s now more prone to study up on diagnoses and treatments. That, or writers have just sublimated those old neuroses into fake memoirs and stunt memoirs. That’s a notion Daniel Mendelsohn recently floated in the New Yorker:

[T]he trauma-and-redemption memoir, with its strong narrative trajectory and straightforward themes, may be filling a gap created by the gradual displacement of the novel from its once central position in literary culture…. In a way, not only the spate of memoir hoaxes but the recent proliferation of what [Memoir: A History author Ben] Yagoda calls “stuntlike” memoirs—narratives that result from highly improbable stimuli (“One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States”)—arise from a deeper confusion about where reality ends and where make-believe begins.

So, just like Herzog, James Frey worked through a breakdown by getting it all down on paper. And just like Bellow, he knew it would be more appealing if he made it up.

* When I was having a rough go of it a while back, the only book I felt mentally capable of processing was Sidney Sheldon‘s 2000 novel, The Sky Is Falling, which is horrible in every conceivable way. Either I had it worse than Gooderham, or he’s more ambitious about his reading during his funks.

Wuss 1.0

“The Naked and the Conflicted,” Katie Roiphe‘s essay in last week’s New York Times Book Review, is a little like that old cartoon of a blackboard showing the beginning of an equation and its solution, with the words “then a miracle occurs” written in between. In the 60s, Roiphe argues, writers like Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow were proudly open about sex, their sexuality, and the kind of power they enjoyed wielding over women; today’s male authors, by contrast, write about sex as if they’re disinterested or downright scared of it. In between, feminism occurred.

I don’t reflexively disagree with the notion that consensus male fiction writers of the 60s wrote more candidly about sex; if there’s nothing shocking about the sex scenes themselves in Couples, Updike was definitely much more casual with c-bombs than most male writers would be today. I’m just not sure what feminism has to do with it, at least any more than it has to do with changing marriage patterns (you can’t be a randy adulterer in your 20s if everybody’s waiting till they’re 30 to get hitched), more explicit sex in other media, or anything else. I’m also not convinced that the division in generational attitudes is as clean as she asserts.

“Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life” in more contemporary writers’ work, Roiphe writes, calling out Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon for special attention. Roiphe doesn’t mention any particular moment when this shift occurred, saying only that younger writers who are “steeped in a certain kind of liberal education” produce works “denuded of a certain carnality” as a result of a “certain cultural shutting down,” so now sex has “a certain vanished grandeur.” (When a critic repeatedly opines about “a certain” anything, you can be pretty sure that something isn’t being studied closely enough.) So I wonder what she might make of novels that appeared in the middle of this timeline, like, say, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter.

That book came out in 1986, presumably in the heart of the moment when feminism was doing its literary damage. Ford’s a Boomer though, and at least demographically enough a part of the patriarchal past to be immune to “a certain kind of liberal education.” Yet Frank Bascombe is, by most stereotypical standards of masculinity, a bit of a wuss. He participates in a support group for divorced men like himself, likes sports but isn’t particularly interested in the manly-man aspects of it, is comfortable following instead of leading, and tends to succumb to a “dreaminess” that leaves him occasionally out of touch with the wider world. (Not without reason; he’s been mourning the death of his son for years.) Women? He’s an enthusiast, but not in any explicit way. Frank doesn’t fuck or screw or deploy any of the coarser terms for sex. He “boinks.” He “woggles.” He and a woman go “woogling around in each other’s businesses.” He refers to his ex-wife as “X,” which in most novels might have a tinge of I’ll-never-speak-her-name-again to it, but Frank’s too well-meaning for that; his use of “X” seems more an act of protection, a willingness to keep her name out of the document he’s writing. If we’re arbitrarily laying blame for Wallace’s disinterest in writing about fucking, there’s no reason not to blame Ford as much as anybody else.

But the thing is, Bellow’s and Updike’s heroes were less immune to that kind of Bascombe-y “dreaminess” than Roiphe suggests, and to deny that is to say that they were only as good as the sex scenes they wrote. The hero of, say, Updike’s Roger’s Version is so lost within himself that he plays out his wife’s ongoing affair wholly in his imagination. Regarding Bellow, Roiphe calls out his novel Herzog as a special example of the brashness with which he approached women. Yet Bellow rarely intended that to exclusively signify masculinity, virility, or even some kind of general verve; what Moses Herzog most lives with is concern about how he relates as to the world as well as women, a case that’s as true for him as it is for Rabbit Angstrom or Bascombe or any of the many well-intentioned but fearful fellas who’ve populated fiction since 2000. Why does Roiphe think Moses Herzog was writing all those letters, if not because he’s scared of something?

Inspirational Verse

[H]e was quivering. And why? Because he let the entire world press upon him. For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers with made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against some foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you enjoyed delicious old-fashioned Values? You—you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot.

— Saul Bellow, Herzog

Saul Bellow’s Tears

Today would have been the 94th birthday of Saul Bellow, a fact that sent me on a wild goose chase for an online version of John Hankiewicz‘s lovely two-page graphic tribute, “A Paragraph by Saul Bellow (1915-2005).” (No luck, but it’s in An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, edited by Ivan Brunetti, and well worth tracking down.) Instead, I did find a piece the Rumpus recently published reprinting excerpts of a tribute to Bellow by Herbert Gold titled “A Genius for Grief.” The segments suggest that the overall piece, originally published in News From the Republic of Letters, paints Bellow as a bit of a despairing soul:

Until I came to live in San Francisco, our friendship went through ups and downs, with periods of intense intimacy; that is, Saul confided his troubles, I listened and felt warm about being invited in. Occasionally he stayed with me in New York and gave me the difficult gratification of hinting that I stood between him and some desperate act at the high window. These threats didn’t interfere with his intent sessions bent over the notebooks with their ruled lines upon which his fountain pen tracked his imagination and indignation. I learned that folks don’t usually kill themselves in the middle of composing the suicide note.

I’m not well-schooled enough in Bellow’s biography to know if he had serious issues with depression. But a 1978 interview with Henrietta Buckmaster, published in Conversations With Saul Bellow, suggests that, even if he wasn’t, he gave a lot of thought to a uniquely American kind of despair:

We Americans are in a peculiar position when it comes to brainwashing, because we’ve been spared the worst in modern history—we’ve been spared the holocaust—both wars—we’ve been spared totalitarianism, the forced labor camps, the police regimes and all the rest of that. We are the avant garde of safety, comfort, affluence, security. We’re also witnesses to the horrible effects that safety, comfort, affluence, privilege can have. I sometimes think we’re stuck somewhere in the middle. We no longer have nature and history to punch us in the nose. Other nations could depend on that punch in the nose to keep them realistic. I think we’ve lost that principle of realism in the United States—if we ever had it. Most of us are spoiled and blundering, and we believe, in a very shallow way, in the goodness of our intentions….

[T]here is a comfort for our despair, I think. It’s better than the despair Europe wallowed in.

Interviewer: Meanwhile, things go on and life somehow remains, I think, a remarkable commodity.

Well, life is the only thing we know, isn’t it?

Links: Collectors

Naoko Mayuzumi, who’s generously compiled a bibliography of Haruki Murakami‘s Japanese translations of American writers, recently wrote in with news of a new translation, based on Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver. The page has been updated accordingly.

This blog isn’t available on the Kindle. The main reason I’m not signing up is that I think that free is a perfectly fine price to put on what I what I’m slinging here. But it’s not the only reason.

Telegraph classical music critic Michael White considers the recent death of composer Nicholas Maw by pulling out a 2002 feature on Maw’s opera based on William Styron‘s Sophie’s Choice, with some comments by Styron.

Jeffrey Eugenides thinks that Saul Bellow‘s Herzog is a great cure for writer’s block, but given that it’s going to be a while before he finishes a follow-up to Middlesex, it’s probably best to take his advice with a grain of salt.

Critical Distance, an new effort to create a repository of thoughful reconsiderations of recent American fiction, launched yesterday with founder Dan Green‘s essay on Russell BanksAffliction. I’ll have more to say on this project soon-ish.

The summer issue of Bookforum is available online, including an interview with Aleksandar Hemon.

If you’re looking for a group summer reading project, your ship has just come in.

Knockemstiff author Donald Ray Pollock gave thanks for the $35,000 prize he received at the PEN Literary Awards earlier this week. “It was good timing,” he said. “I’m getting ready to get out of grad school and there are no jobs right now.”