(First published in the Business Standard on April 19, 2005)
Upon hearing of Saul Bellow’s death, my first reaction was to call an old friend, a gentle and erudite scholar who never permits himself to engage in what he considers vulgar disagreement. He’s been there on two occasions when someone or the other has referred to Sir V S Naipaul as “the greatest living writer of our time”, and he has voiced his protest mildly, in a gentle murmur of dissent: “Mr Bellow,” his quiet voice would say, “is still with us.”
So we talked of Saul Bellow’s life and his work and his thoughts, and then I ventured to ask my friend what he might say now if someone sought to anoint Sir Vidia as the greatest living writer of our age in his presence. “Well,” he said after long and careful consideration, “Mr Soyinka is still with us.”
He also suggested, as suitable candidates, Mr Heaney, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Ms Gordimer and Mr Mahfouz, but we agreed that his choice of Wole Soyinka was particularly apt. It was Soyinka and Achebe’s generation, after all, that began to provide the answer to the dismissive challenge Saul Bellow had laid down in a 1988 interview with the New Yorker : “Where is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? Show me the Proust of the Papuans and I will read him.” Bellow later said that he had been misunderstood, but his majestic challenge to multiculturalism still retains the power to spark off fierce debate, as did his profound and very public disagreements with the work of the late Edward Said.
The “Tolstoy of the Zulus” remark followed Bellow around for years, but even those who were distanced by it recognised that the author meant no malice; he was the man in the high castle, looking down from a pitiless height with a remorseless gaze upon the world as he saw it. It was a gaze touched by humour, softened by understanding, but remorseless for all of that.
The classic Bellow story is all together a more human one, though. Two years after he won the Nobel, Samuel Beckett read Herzog and discovered a tremendous admiration for Bellow, an admiration that was returned in full measure. A meeting was set up, through a friend of Beckett, and two of the greatest minds in literature finally met face-to-face—and discovered that they had nothing to say. Neither wanted to talk about his work, and the conversation ran aground on a shoal of awkward small talk.
When Bellow accepted the Nobel for literature in 1976, he set out part of his credo as a writer: “The condition of human beings has perhaps never been more difficult to define. Those who tell us that we are in an early stage of universal history must be right. We are being lavishly poured together and seem to be experiencing the anguish of new states of consciousness.” It was his business to explore the anguish, but also to go beyond it. “Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul.”
He began writing novels at a point where the novel had been declared dead—an obituary often repeated, a prophecy that has not yet come true. Bellow’s rebuttals came not through essays and lectures, though he delivered those, but through works like Herzog and Augie March . He refused to see the novel as a dead or dying form; in an essay for The New York Times he wrote: “From the first, too, I had been warned that the novel was at the point of death, that like the walled city or the crossbow it was a thing of the past.” But, he said, books still offered something that technology couldn’t deliver; books shouldn’t be compared to movies or to new technologies (this was slightly before the Net), for they offered different things. In his Nobel lecture, he insisted on the continuing power of books: “Books continue to be written and read. It may be more difficult to reach the whirling mind of a modern reader but it is possible to cut through the noise and reach the quiet zone. In the quiet zone we may find that he is devoutly waiting for us.”
That “he” was problematic for women of my generation, though it was of a piece with Bellow’s claim that he wrote for “mankind”. This was not a question of political correctness—he would have found s/he tedious and coy, and it would never have occurred to him that “mankind” might be an awkward label for all of womankind to adopt. He belonged to a generation for whom these terms came naturally, and in my generation, we read him accordingly: with humility and deep respect for the quality of his prose, the astounding ambition with which he sought to redefine Chicago, America, the novel, mankind.
But we read him at a distance, in the same way we listened to our fathers’ stories—with respect and detachment and a sense that not all of his world was open to us. Engagement would come later, once we had gained more understanding, more experience. Bellow was by no means a misogynistic writer, but his concern was mankind. Not womankind. Those of us who felt the distinction strongly turned to other writers; those who could live with the relative unimportance of his women characters took the rest of what he had to offer, and there was so very much, after all.
The debates over his writing would not have perturbed him at all. As one of his former students commented in a recent obituary, Saul Bellow had an exact sense of his own importance in the scheme of things. He didn’t set much store by prizes, but in the years after he won the Nobel, he would sometimes get a little testy around the time the prize was announced. It had come to him, says his former student, that it was not possible for even Saul Bellow to win the Nobel twice.