Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saul Bellow

New York, New York

Maureen Corrigan’s review of The Scientists yesterday at NPR makes an interesting claim in its first paragraph. Marco Roth’s new memoir of growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the Eighties nudges Corrigan into a taxonomy of New York literature:

Every New York story ever written or filmed falls into one of two categories. The first — like Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or the musical On the Town — regards New York as the representative American city, a jam-packed distillation of the country’s dreams and nightmares. The second group views New York as a foreign place — a city off the coast of the U.S. mainland that somehow drifted away from Paris or Mars.

The normal response to any two-part invention like this is to begin coughing up exceptions. (What about Edith Wharton’s Old New York? The Lower East Side and Jewish Brooklyn of Anzia Yezierska, Henry Roth, and Daniel Fuchs? The Harlem of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin? The Queens of Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker?) The protesting sputter of exceptions may be the whole purpose of such an exercise, which can’t stand up to logical scrutiny on its own. To divide every “story ever written” into just two categories is to invite you to think about the stories carefully and in detail.

But I’m thinking about something else. Ever since I started book blogging four years ago, I have been moaning about “the almost complete disappearance of regionalism from American fiction” and groaning how very few writers these days are “striking roots in any single American soil.” It’s one of my tiresome little themes. Even when a novelist is successful in evoking the peculiar genius of a place — recent examples would include Michael Chabon’s borderland between Berkeley and Oakland in Telegraph Avenue, Pauls Toutonghi’s Butte in Evel Knievel Days, Richard Ford’s wind-blown prairie town in Canada — the place is not his native ground. Chabon’s previous novel was set in a possible (not an actual) Alaska; Toutonghi’s, in Milwaukee; Ford’s, in suburban New Jersey. The last true regionalist in American fiction may be Louise Erdrich, who maps the same corner of North Dakota where the Indian reservation collides with the white man’s town in novel after novel.

There have been New York regionalists. To think of Wharton as a New York regionalist is to arrive at a new appreciation of her. Francine Prose sticks close to the city — if the metropolitan region of New York stretches north to the Taconics, east to Fire Island, and west to the New Jersey suburbs. (There is nothing south of New York.) Paul Auster writes again and again of New York, although the unmarked intersection where fictional worlds meet physical reality is where he prefers to set up camp.

The truth is that New York is either an anthology of places — Cynthia Ozick’s Bronx, Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn, Alice McDermott’s Long Island, Richard Price’s Jersey City — or it is Manhattan, which can turn pretty quickly into a symbol rather than a human habitation (as in Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin). Even Saul Bellow, whose 1947 novel The Victim is one of the best books about the city, edges away from geography and into allegory:

On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok. The whole continent seems to have moved from its place and slid nearer the equator, the bitter gray Atlantic to have become green and tropical, and the poeple, thronging the streets, barbaric fellahin among the stupendous monuments of their mystery, the lights of which, a dazzling profusion, climb upward endlessly into the heat of the sky.

The best New York book of all time is Alfred Kazin’s 1951 memoir A Walker in the City, because it explores Brooklyn at street level. That’s really the only way to know New York, which is why an entire literature is required to study the city as a whole. Early last year the novelist Edmund White named his choices for the ten best New York books. Not to duplicate him, I’ll list ten more (in chronological order):

  1. Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)
  2. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)
  3. Dawn Powell, Turn, Magic Wheel (1936)
  4. Ann Petry, The Street (1946)
  5. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
  6. Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959)
  7. Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
  8. Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker (1995)
  9. Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler (1997)
10. Zoë Heller, The Believers (2009)

Maureen Corrigan’s review of The Scientists yesterday at NPR makes an interesting claim in its first paragraph. Marco Roth’s new memoir of growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the Eighties nudges Corrigan into a taxonomy of New York literature:

Every New York story ever written or filmed falls into one of two categories. The first — like Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or the musical On the Town — regards New York as the representative American city, a jam-packed distillation of the country’s dreams and nightmares. The second group views New York as a foreign place — a city off the coast of the U.S. mainland that somehow drifted away from Paris or Mars.

The normal response to any two-part invention like this is to begin coughing up exceptions. (What about Edith Wharton’s Old New York? The Lower East Side and Jewish Brooklyn of Anzia Yezierska, Henry Roth, and Daniel Fuchs? The Harlem of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin? The Queens of Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker?) The protesting sputter of exceptions may be the whole purpose of such an exercise, which can’t stand up to logical scrutiny on its own. To divide every “story ever written” into just two categories is to invite you to think about the stories carefully and in detail.

But I’m thinking about something else. Ever since I started book blogging four years ago, I have been moaning about “the almost complete disappearance of regionalism from American fiction” and groaning how very few writers these days are “striking roots in any single American soil.” It’s one of my tiresome little themes. Even when a novelist is successful in evoking the peculiar genius of a place — recent examples would include Michael Chabon’s borderland between Berkeley and Oakland in Telegraph Avenue, Pauls Toutonghi’s Butte in Evel Knievel Days, Richard Ford’s wind-blown prairie town in Canada — the place is not his native ground. Chabon’s previous novel was set in a possible (not an actual) Alaska; Toutonghi’s, in Milwaukee; Ford’s, in suburban New Jersey. The last true regionalist in American fiction may be Louise Erdrich, who maps the same corner of North Dakota where the Indian reservation collides with the white man’s town in novel after novel.

There have been New York regionalists. To think of Wharton as a New York regionalist is to arrive at a new appreciation of her. Francine Prose sticks close to the city — if the metropolitan region of New York stretches north to the Taconics, east to Fire Island, and west to the New Jersey suburbs. (There is nothing south of New York.) Paul Auster writes again and again of New York, although the unmarked intersection where fictional worlds meet physical reality is where he prefers to set up camp.

The truth is that New York is either an anthology of places — Cynthia Ozick’s Bronx, Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn, Alice McDermott’s Long Island, Richard Price’s Jersey City — or it is Manhattan, which can turn pretty quickly into a symbol rather than a human habitation (as in Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin). Even Saul Bellow, whose 1947 novel The Victim is one of the best books about the city, edges away from geography and into allegory:

On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok. The whole continent seems to have moved from its place and slid nearer the equator, the bitter gray Atlantic to have become green and tropical, and the poeple, thronging the streets, barbaric fellahin among the stupendous monuments of their mystery, the lights of which, a dazzling profusion, climb upward endlessly into the heat of the sky.

The best New York book of all time is Alfred Kazin’s 1951 memoir A Walker in the City, because it explores Brooklyn at street level. That’s really the only way to know New York, which is why an entire literature is required to study the city as a whole. Early last year the novelist Edmund White named his choices for the ten best New York books. Not to duplicate him, I’ll list ten more (in chronological order):

  1. Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)
  2. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)
  3. Dawn Powell, Turn, Magic Wheel (1936)
  4. Ann Petry, The Street (1946)
  5. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
  6. Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959)
  7. Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
  8. Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker (1995)
  9. Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler (1997)
10. Zoë Heller, The Believers (2009)

Read Less

Veterans Day and Veterans’ Novels

The strange career of Veterans Day from its origins after the First World War as a day on which America could (in the words of Woodrow Wilson) “show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations” to a day on which America could (as Ronald Reagan said nearly seven decades later) “pay tribute to all those men and women who throughout our history, have left their homes and loved ones to serve their country” is neatly traced by Leon R. Kass at the Weekly Standard’s blog this morning.

What has always interested me, as a literary critic, is the degree to which American literature is a veterans’ literature. Not merely because so many American writers “left their homes . . . to serve their country,” especially during the Second World War. Even more importantly, because so many who did not serve in uniform made combat veterans their heroes.

Four American novels in particular take on renewed and deepened significance when they are read, correctly, as veterans’ novels — The American (1877) by Henry James, The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henderson the Rain King (1959) by Saul Bellow, and The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy.

James’s hero Christopher Newman is a veteran of the Civil War, a former brigadier-general, whose “four years in the army had left him with an angry, bitter sense of the waste of precious things” and had fired him with a “passionate zest and energy” for the postwar “pursuits of peace.” His military service was the pivotal experience in his life. It leads him first to success in business and then to Europe, where he goes in search of “something else.”

Fitzgerald’s narrator is a veteran of the Great War (“that delayed Teutonic migration”), and so is the title character, an officer and decorated war hero. Jay Gatsby came back, like James’s Newman, with a sense of purpose — a “creative passion,” an “incorruptible dream,” which he nurtured during his years in the army. Although he may have been shady and not entirely law-abiding, Gatsby was like no one else in the whole “rotten crowd” of the postwar boom. Compared to the “careless” rich, who avoided military service and “smashed up things and creatures,” he really was a great man — or at least as great as a man could be in such a lost generation.

Bellow’s hero is a veteran of the Second World War, one of only two soldiers in his unit who survived the Italian campaign, although he was wounded by a land mine and received the Purple Heart. “The whole experience gave my heart a large and real emotion,” Eugene Henderson says. “Which I continually require.” The voice within that ceaselessly chants I want, I want, I want, oh, I want formed its first words when Henderson was in the army. His search, like Newman’s and Gatsby’s, commences upon demobilization.

Walker Percy’s hero and narrator is a veteran of the Korean War, who is also on a search (“what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life”). Binx Bolling’s is an existential search, a religious search, a search for meaning. And the first time the search occurred to him was in 1951. Knocked unconscious in battle, he came to with a “queasy-quince taste” in his mouth, his shoulder pressed into the ground, and the vow that, if he ever got out of this fix, he would relentlessly pursue the search.

None of these novelists served in the military, but when thinking about the kind of experience that would turn a man around — that would even create him anew — they immediately thought of what Kass calls the one percent who guard and protect the 99 percent. Except for the crazed Vietnam vet, the soldier who becomes an adult in the military — who learns the responsibilities of adulthood, defined by the U.S. Army as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage — has now largely disappeared from American literature. James, Fitzgerald, Bellow, and Percy demonstrate what has been lost.

Today is the day we honor the ordinary heroes who are better than 99 percent of us.

The strange career of Veterans Day from its origins after the First World War as a day on which America could (in the words of Woodrow Wilson) “show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations” to a day on which America could (as Ronald Reagan said nearly seven decades later) “pay tribute to all those men and women who throughout our history, have left their homes and loved ones to serve their country” is neatly traced by Leon R. Kass at the Weekly Standard’s blog this morning.

What has always interested me, as a literary critic, is the degree to which American literature is a veterans’ literature. Not merely because so many American writers “left their homes . . . to serve their country,” especially during the Second World War. Even more importantly, because so many who did not serve in uniform made combat veterans their heroes.

Four American novels in particular take on renewed and deepened significance when they are read, correctly, as veterans’ novels — The American (1877) by Henry James, The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henderson the Rain King (1959) by Saul Bellow, and The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy.

James’s hero Christopher Newman is a veteran of the Civil War, a former brigadier-general, whose “four years in the army had left him with an angry, bitter sense of the waste of precious things” and had fired him with a “passionate zest and energy” for the postwar “pursuits of peace.” His military service was the pivotal experience in his life. It leads him first to success in business and then to Europe, where he goes in search of “something else.”

Fitzgerald’s narrator is a veteran of the Great War (“that delayed Teutonic migration”), and so is the title character, an officer and decorated war hero. Jay Gatsby came back, like James’s Newman, with a sense of purpose — a “creative passion,” an “incorruptible dream,” which he nurtured during his years in the army. Although he may have been shady and not entirely law-abiding, Gatsby was like no one else in the whole “rotten crowd” of the postwar boom. Compared to the “careless” rich, who avoided military service and “smashed up things and creatures,” he really was a great man — or at least as great as a man could be in such a lost generation.

Bellow’s hero is a veteran of the Second World War, one of only two soldiers in his unit who survived the Italian campaign, although he was wounded by a land mine and received the Purple Heart. “The whole experience gave my heart a large and real emotion,” Eugene Henderson says. “Which I continually require.” The voice within that ceaselessly chants I want, I want, I want, oh, I want formed its first words when Henderson was in the army. His search, like Newman’s and Gatsby’s, commences upon demobilization.

Walker Percy’s hero and narrator is a veteran of the Korean War, who is also on a search (“what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life”). Binx Bolling’s is an existential search, a religious search, a search for meaning. And the first time the search occurred to him was in 1951. Knocked unconscious in battle, he came to with a “queasy-quince taste” in his mouth, his shoulder pressed into the ground, and the vow that, if he ever got out of this fix, he would relentlessly pursue the search.

None of these novelists served in the military, but when thinking about the kind of experience that would turn a man around — that would even create him anew — they immediately thought of what Kass calls the one percent who guard and protect the 99 percent. Except for the crazed Vietnam vet, the soldier who becomes an adult in the military — who learns the responsibilities of adulthood, defined by the U.S. Army as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage — has now largely disappeared from American literature. James, Fitzgerald, Bellow, and Percy demonstrate what has been lost.

Today is the day we honor the ordinary heroes who are better than 99 percent of us.

Read Less

Bellow, Hitchens, and COMMENTARY

One of the pleasures of the just-published Saul Bellow: Letters is the letter about the 1989 dinner with Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens – where Commentary played a dramatic role. Amis wrote about it in his 2001 memoir, Experience; Hitchens described it last year in Hitch-22. Now we have Bellow’s perspective, in an August 29, 1989, letter to Cynthia Ozick.

Amis had invited Hitchens, his best friend, to join him for dinner at Bellow’s Vermont home. On the ride there, Amis warned Hitchens that he “wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel.” But before dinner, Hitchens spotted something that would soon set him off:

Right on the wicker table in the room where we were chatting, there lay something that was as potentially hackneyed in its menace as Anton Chekhov’s gun on the mantelpiece. If it’s there in the first act … it will be fired before the curtain comes down. … It was the only piece of printed matter in view, and it was the latest edition of COMMENTARY magazine, and its bannered cover-story headline was: “Edward Said, Professor of Terror.”

As Hitchens told it, Bellow made an observation during dinner about anti-Zionism and went to retrieve his underlined copy of COMMENTARY to prove his point, and Hitchens decided he could not allow his friend Edward Said to be “defamed.” And “by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and [Amis’s] foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.” On the long ride home, Hitchens explained he had to defend his absent friend — to which Amis responded, “And what about me?” Read More

One of the pleasures of the just-published Saul Bellow: Letters is the letter about the 1989 dinner with Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens – where Commentary played a dramatic role. Amis wrote about it in his 2001 memoir, Experience; Hitchens described it last year in Hitch-22. Now we have Bellow’s perspective, in an August 29, 1989, letter to Cynthia Ozick.

Amis had invited Hitchens, his best friend, to join him for dinner at Bellow’s Vermont home. On the ride there, Amis warned Hitchens that he “wasn’t to drag the conversation toward anything political, let alone left-wing, let alone anything to do with Israel.” But before dinner, Hitchens spotted something that would soon set him off:

Right on the wicker table in the room where we were chatting, there lay something that was as potentially hackneyed in its menace as Anton Chekhov’s gun on the mantelpiece. If it’s there in the first act … it will be fired before the curtain comes down. … It was the only piece of printed matter in view, and it was the latest edition of COMMENTARY magazine, and its bannered cover-story headline was: “Edward Said, Professor of Terror.”

As Hitchens told it, Bellow made an observation during dinner about anti-Zionism and went to retrieve his underlined copy of COMMENTARY to prove his point, and Hitchens decided he could not allow his friend Edward Said to be “defamed.” And “by the end of dinner nobody could meet anyone else’s eye and [Amis’s] foot had become lamed and tired by its under-the-table collisions with my shins.” On the long ride home, Hitchens explained he had to defend his absent friend — to which Amis responded, “And what about me?”

In his letter to Ozick, Bellow wrote that Hitchens had identified himself as a regular contributor to the Nation — a magazine Bellow had stopped reading after Gore Vidal “wrote his piece about the disloyalty of Jews to the USA” – and as a great friend of Said:

At the mention of Said’s name, Janis [Bellow] grumbled. I doubt that this was unexpected, for Hitchens almost certainly thinks of me as a terrible reactionary – the Jewish Right. … [He said] he must apologize for differing with Janis but loyalty to a friend demanded that he set the record straight. … Fortunately (or not) I had within reach several excerpts from Said’s Critical Inquiry piece, which I offered in evidence. Jews were (more or less) Nazis. But of course, said Hitchens, it was well known that [Yitzhak] Shamir had approached Hitler during the war to make deals. I objected that Shamir was Shamir, he wasn’t the Jews. Besides I didn’t trust the evidence. The argument seesawed. Amis took the Said selections to read for himself. He could find nothing to say at the moment but next morning he tried to bring the matter up, and to avoid further embarrassment I said it had all been much ado about nothing.

Then Bellow broadened the point of his letter:

Well, these Hitchenses are just Fourth-Estate playboys thriving on agitation, and Jews are so easy to agitate. Sometimes (if only I knew enough to do it right!) I think I’d like to write about the fate of the Jews in the decline of the West — or the long crisis of the West, if decline doesn’t suit you. The movement to assimilate coincided with the arrival of nihilism. This nihilism reached its climax with Hitler. The Jewish answer to the Holocaust was the creation of a state. After the camps came politics and these politics are nihilistic. Your Hitchenses, the political press in its silliest disheveled left-wing form, are (if nihilism has a hierarchy) the gnomes. … And it’s so easy to make trouble for the Jews. Nothing easier. The networks love it, the big papers let it be made, there’s a receptive university population.

So many ironies in this episode: only a few months before, Hitchens had learned that his mother and maternal grandparents were Jews, and that he was thus a Jew himself. Today he technically qualifies as part of the Jewish right (and believes that the U.S. military attracts the nation’s most idealistic people). He would write an introduction to a new edition of The Adventures of Augie March and receive a warm letter from Bellow; he left the Nation, in part because of the magazine’s tolerance of Gore Vidal, and he fell out with Edward Said, in part because of Said’s rigid anti-Americanism. Hitch-22 is marred by the occasional eruption of Hitchens’s anti-Zionism (reflecting his longstanding Palestinian blind spot), but it is a fascinating account of an extraordinary life by someone who traveled a long road after that dinner 20 years ago.

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Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel Laureate

The Nobel Prize for Literature, given to as many horrible writers as worthy ones, is now of value only for two reasons: It makes its recipient rich (now up to $1.5 million), and it causes people to take account of the careers of some notable authors. Such is the case with this year’s Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa. He achieved a broad international reputation in the 1980s and 1990s–indeed, for a time, he was probably one of the world’s best-known writers–but that has faded somewhat over the past decade. He is, quite simply, wonderful–a novelist and essayist of great wit, range, sagacity, playfulness, and high seriousness.

He first came to prominence in the United States with the late-1970s translation of his hilarious, joyful, and wildly original blend of novel and memoir, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a study of the unique circumstances that led to his first marriage to a much older distant cousin; he draws a comic parallel between his life and the crazed plots devised by Peru’s leading soap-opera writer, a monastic lunatic who seems nonetheless to embody the creative process itself. The next work of his to appear in English was extraordinarily different and extraordinary in every sense of the word: The War for the End of the World, a highly realistic historical novel about a millenarian cult in fin-de-siecle Brazil. It offered a portrait, unparalleled in our time, of the way in which radical ideas can seize hold of ordinary people and drive them to suicidal madness.

This was the first of his novels to reveal Vargas Llosa’s mature world view: Almost alone among Latin American intellectuals of his time, he had become a liberal in the classic sense of the word, a believer in and advocate for Western-style free speech, free markets, and free inquiry. This was the result of an ideological journey not unlike the one taken by neoconservatives in the United States, except that in Vargas Llosa’s case it was even more remarkable given the lack of any kind of liberal culture in South America and especially in the world of Latin novelists, who were, to a man, radical Leftists either aligned with or entirely joined at the hip with Marxist-Leninist-Castroist activism. He made his decisive spiritual break with the Left plain with a short novel called The Real Life of Alejandro Meyta, which specifically linked radical Leftist thinking to the impulse to terrorism.

The same year he published that book, he became head of a commission in Peru examining the devastation wrought by a terrorist group called the Shining Path. He wrote one of the great essays of our time for the New York Times Magazine on the matter, called “Inquest in the Andes.” Alas, it appears to be unavailable on the Times website, suggesting Vargas Llosa withheld rights to its electronic distribution. That is a shame, but you can read the astounding essay he wrote for the same magazine entitled “My Son the Rastafarian,” about grappling with his teenager’s rebellion and the horror of being a judge at the Cannes Film Festival. (That son, Alvaro Vargas Llosa, became the editorial-page editor of the Spanish language edition of the Miami Herald and an even greater rarity among South Americans, a libertarian.)

It is important to note that Vargas Llosa really is a liberal, not a conservative in any sense of the word. His work is often frankly libertine, as his powerful erotic novel In Praise of the Stepmother demonstrates. He doesn’t have a populist bone in him, and suffered from his inability to connect with ordinary people when he ran for president of Peru — offering sensible austerity measures that caused him to lose to a dangerous populist named Alberto Fujimori who drove the country into chaos and then fled to Japan ahead of corruption charges. Imagine Saul Bellow as president of the United States and you get some sense of what it might have meant for Vargas Llosa actually to have won his race. He wrote a remarkable book about that too, called A Fish in the Water.

He is one of the most interesting men of our time and I’m glad he got the Nobel money. Doesn’t wash the Nobel clean by any means, but at least the proceeds will be spent by someone who deserves it. Vargas Llosa wrote a visionary essay for COMMENTARY in 1992 called “The Miami Model,” which we’re making available from our archives today. Sample:

This profession of faith—hatred for the United States disguised as anti-imperialism—nowadays is actually a rather subtle form of neocolonialism. By adopting it, the Latin American intellectual does and says what the cultural establishment of the United States (and by extension, elsewhere in the West) expects of him. His proclamations, condemnations, and manifestoes, with all their grace notes and glissandos, serve to confirm all the stereotypes of the Latin American universe cherished by much of the North American cultural community.

It’s an honor to have published it, and a pleasure to congratulate our contributor on his award.

The Nobel Prize for Literature, given to as many horrible writers as worthy ones, is now of value only for two reasons: It makes its recipient rich (now up to $1.5 million), and it causes people to take account of the careers of some notable authors. Such is the case with this year’s Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa. He achieved a broad international reputation in the 1980s and 1990s–indeed, for a time, he was probably one of the world’s best-known writers–but that has faded somewhat over the past decade. He is, quite simply, wonderful–a novelist and essayist of great wit, range, sagacity, playfulness, and high seriousness.

He first came to prominence in the United States with the late-1970s translation of his hilarious, joyful, and wildly original blend of novel and memoir, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, a study of the unique circumstances that led to his first marriage to a much older distant cousin; he draws a comic parallel between his life and the crazed plots devised by Peru’s leading soap-opera writer, a monastic lunatic who seems nonetheless to embody the creative process itself. The next work of his to appear in English was extraordinarily different and extraordinary in every sense of the word: The War for the End of the World, a highly realistic historical novel about a millenarian cult in fin-de-siecle Brazil. It offered a portrait, unparalleled in our time, of the way in which radical ideas can seize hold of ordinary people and drive them to suicidal madness.

This was the first of his novels to reveal Vargas Llosa’s mature world view: Almost alone among Latin American intellectuals of his time, he had become a liberal in the classic sense of the word, a believer in and advocate for Western-style free speech, free markets, and free inquiry. This was the result of an ideological journey not unlike the one taken by neoconservatives in the United States, except that in Vargas Llosa’s case it was even more remarkable given the lack of any kind of liberal culture in South America and especially in the world of Latin novelists, who were, to a man, radical Leftists either aligned with or entirely joined at the hip with Marxist-Leninist-Castroist activism. He made his decisive spiritual break with the Left plain with a short novel called The Real Life of Alejandro Meyta, which specifically linked radical Leftist thinking to the impulse to terrorism.

The same year he published that book, he became head of a commission in Peru examining the devastation wrought by a terrorist group called the Shining Path. He wrote one of the great essays of our time for the New York Times Magazine on the matter, called “Inquest in the Andes.” Alas, it appears to be unavailable on the Times website, suggesting Vargas Llosa withheld rights to its electronic distribution. That is a shame, but you can read the astounding essay he wrote for the same magazine entitled “My Son the Rastafarian,” about grappling with his teenager’s rebellion and the horror of being a judge at the Cannes Film Festival. (That son, Alvaro Vargas Llosa, became the editorial-page editor of the Spanish language edition of the Miami Herald and an even greater rarity among South Americans, a libertarian.)

It is important to note that Vargas Llosa really is a liberal, not a conservative in any sense of the word. His work is often frankly libertine, as his powerful erotic novel In Praise of the Stepmother demonstrates. He doesn’t have a populist bone in him, and suffered from his inability to connect with ordinary people when he ran for president of Peru — offering sensible austerity measures that caused him to lose to a dangerous populist named Alberto Fujimori who drove the country into chaos and then fled to Japan ahead of corruption charges. Imagine Saul Bellow as president of the United States and you get some sense of what it might have meant for Vargas Llosa actually to have won his race. He wrote a remarkable book about that too, called A Fish in the Water.

He is one of the most interesting men of our time and I’m glad he got the Nobel money. Doesn’t wash the Nobel clean by any means, but at least the proceeds will be spent by someone who deserves it. Vargas Llosa wrote a visionary essay for COMMENTARY in 1992 called “The Miami Model,” which we’re making available from our archives today. Sample:

This profession of faith—hatred for the United States disguised as anti-imperialism—nowadays is actually a rather subtle form of neocolonialism. By adopting it, the Latin American intellectual does and says what the cultural establishment of the United States (and by extension, elsewhere in the West) expects of him. His proclamations, condemnations, and manifestoes, with all their grace notes and glissandos, serve to confirm all the stereotypes of the Latin American universe cherished by much of the North American cultural community.

It’s an honor to have published it, and a pleasure to congratulate our contributor on his award.

Read Less

The Cheap Mental Stimulants of the NY Times

Apropos your post, Jennifer, about Maureen Dowd’s most recent temper tantrum: it is noteworthy how liberals, in the wake of the failures of Obama and the broader liberal effort to transform America, are expressing deepening alienation from our nation and turning on the American people with a vengeance.

This type of lashing out is now fairly commonplace and, for the liberal cause they claim to speak for, insane. Voters don’t like to be condescended to by a political class that possesses unchecked moral arrogance, and they don’t appreciate their nation’s being referred to as “irrational” and suffering from “some weird mass nervous breakdown” simply because they take positions contrary to those held by denizens of the Upper West Side.

In Saul Bellow’s 1964 novel, Herzog, the main character, Moses Herzog, a philosophy professor, refers to “the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation.” A lot of the commentariat, including Ms. Dowd, are showing signs of addiction to that cheap stimulant these days.

It comes at a cost.

Apropos your post, Jennifer, about Maureen Dowd’s most recent temper tantrum: it is noteworthy how liberals, in the wake of the failures of Obama and the broader liberal effort to transform America, are expressing deepening alienation from our nation and turning on the American people with a vengeance.

This type of lashing out is now fairly commonplace and, for the liberal cause they claim to speak for, insane. Voters don’t like to be condescended to by a political class that possesses unchecked moral arrogance, and they don’t appreciate their nation’s being referred to as “irrational” and suffering from “some weird mass nervous breakdown” simply because they take positions contrary to those held by denizens of the Upper West Side.

In Saul Bellow’s 1964 novel, Herzog, the main character, Moses Herzog, a philosophy professor, refers to “the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation.” A lot of the commentariat, including Ms. Dowd, are showing signs of addiction to that cheap stimulant these days.

It comes at a cost.

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The Reverend Archie Bunker

We’ve all been overreacting to Jeremiah Wright. He’s not a dangerously influential peddler of paranoia and hate. He’s just a goofy TV character. At least that’s how Alessandra Stanley describes him in today’s New York Times:

. . . Mr. Wright’s monomania over the last three days has helped prove the point Mr. Obama made about his former pastor last month in his speech on race, in which he described Mr. Wright as “imperfect” but having also been “like family to me.” Mr. Wright revealed himself to be the compelling but slightly wacky uncle who unsettles strangers but really just craves attention.

Yeah! He’s just like that slightly wacky uncle of yours! You know:  the one who flew with Louis Farrakhan to meet Moammar Khaddafi? The one who thinks Zionism is a “gutter religion”? That’s the lovable old goof we’re talking about here. Not anyone of consequence. Stanley thinks it’s time to reassess the entertaining old fellow:

Now it turns out that Mr. Wright doesn’t hate America, he loves the sound of his own voice.

Yep, those two qualities sure are mutually exclusive. People who hate America never, ever speak out about it. There’s no tradition of anti-American celebrity culture whatsoever.

Stanley also manages to make the fast-talking Chicagoan sound like a character out of Saul Bellow. Wright is

a voluble, vain and erudite entertainer, a born televangelist who quotes Ralph Ellison as well as the Bible and mixes highfalutin academic trope with salty street talk.

And also a Warholian phenomenon:

He is not out of touch with the American culture, he is the avatar of the American celebrity principle: he grabbed his 30-second spots of infamy and turned them into 15 minutes of fame.

Never mind his decades of influence on his church and on a man who may well be the next President.

We’ve all been overreacting to Jeremiah Wright. He’s not a dangerously influential peddler of paranoia and hate. He’s just a goofy TV character. At least that’s how Alessandra Stanley describes him in today’s New York Times:

. . . Mr. Wright’s monomania over the last three days has helped prove the point Mr. Obama made about his former pastor last month in his speech on race, in which he described Mr. Wright as “imperfect” but having also been “like family to me.” Mr. Wright revealed himself to be the compelling but slightly wacky uncle who unsettles strangers but really just craves attention.

Yeah! He’s just like that slightly wacky uncle of yours! You know:  the one who flew with Louis Farrakhan to meet Moammar Khaddafi? The one who thinks Zionism is a “gutter religion”? That’s the lovable old goof we’re talking about here. Not anyone of consequence. Stanley thinks it’s time to reassess the entertaining old fellow:

Now it turns out that Mr. Wright doesn’t hate America, he loves the sound of his own voice.

Yep, those two qualities sure are mutually exclusive. People who hate America never, ever speak out about it. There’s no tradition of anti-American celebrity culture whatsoever.

Stanley also manages to make the fast-talking Chicagoan sound like a character out of Saul Bellow. Wright is

a voluble, vain and erudite entertainer, a born televangelist who quotes Ralph Ellison as well as the Bible and mixes highfalutin academic trope with salty street talk.

And also a Warholian phenomenon:

He is not out of touch with the American culture, he is the avatar of the American celebrity principle: he grabbed his 30-second spots of infamy and turned them into 15 minutes of fame.

Never mind his decades of influence on his church and on a man who may well be the next President.

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Bookshelf

• Last week Mary McCarthy, this week her ex-husband: I’ve been perusing two new Library of America volumes devoted to the essays of Edmund Wilson, who is now remembered chiefly by literary historians and readers of a more-than-certain age but once was America’s best-known literary critic. Between them, Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920’s and 30’s and Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930’s and 40’s contain all of Wilson’s collected literary articles from the first half of his career. Additional volumes are in the pipeline, but these two bring together the bulk of Wilson’s most significant literary criticism in a convenient and attractive format not too far removed from that of the elegant little crown octavo volumes he favored for his essay collections.

I have no doubt that Wilson would have been pleased by these two volumes, for the Library of America was his idea, more or less, and for the most part it has been executed along the lines he had in mind when he envisioned a publishing venture devoted to “bringing out in a complete and compact form the principal American classics.” Yet I wonder how widely they will be read, and I’m not sure that Wilson’s memory will be served best by republishing his original collections in toto, as the Library of America apparently plans to do. Not only did he spend a fair amount of time and energy reviewing books that are no longer of any great interest today, but his work almost always becomes silly, even squalid, whenever it strays from the narrow path of art. In his journals, for instance, he preserved for posterity an enervatingly complete record of his senile couplings, while his political views were left-wing in all the most tiresome ways. Though deeply disillusioned by Stalin, Wilson thereafter embraced the idiot notion of moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States; on one infamous occasion he compared their relationship to that between a pair of hungry sea slugs bent on mutual engorgement.

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• Last week Mary McCarthy, this week her ex-husband: I’ve been perusing two new Library of America volumes devoted to the essays of Edmund Wilson, who is now remembered chiefly by literary historians and readers of a more-than-certain age but once was America’s best-known literary critic. Between them, Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920’s and 30’s and Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930’s and 40’s contain all of Wilson’s collected literary articles from the first half of his career. Additional volumes are in the pipeline, but these two bring together the bulk of Wilson’s most significant literary criticism in a convenient and attractive format not too far removed from that of the elegant little crown octavo volumes he favored for his essay collections.

I have no doubt that Wilson would have been pleased by these two volumes, for the Library of America was his idea, more or less, and for the most part it has been executed along the lines he had in mind when he envisioned a publishing venture devoted to “bringing out in a complete and compact form the principal American classics.” Yet I wonder how widely they will be read, and I’m not sure that Wilson’s memory will be served best by republishing his original collections in toto, as the Library of America apparently plans to do. Not only did he spend a fair amount of time and energy reviewing books that are no longer of any great interest today, but his work almost always becomes silly, even squalid, whenever it strays from the narrow path of art. In his journals, for instance, he preserved for posterity an enervatingly complete record of his senile couplings, while his political views were left-wing in all the most tiresome ways. Though deeply disillusioned by Stalin, Wilson thereafter embraced the idiot notion of moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States; on one infamous occasion he compared their relationship to that between a pair of hungry sea slugs bent on mutual engorgement.

Fortunately, these two volumes mostly give us the critic to whose infectious gusto I and so many other readers of my generation owe an all but endless debt. Even when he was most spectacularly wrong, he rarely failed to stimulate, and the plain-spoken prose and hard-headed common sense of his best criticism still has a tonic effect:

John O’Hara subjects to a Proustian scrutiny the tight-knotted social web of a large Pennsylvania town, the potpourri of New York night-life in the twenties, the nondescript fringes of Hollywood. In all this he has explored for the first time from his peculiar semi-snobbish point of view a good deal of interesting territory: the relations between Catholics and Protestants, the relations between college men and non-college men, the relations between the underworld and “legitimate” business, the ratings of café society; and to read him on a fashionable bar or the Gibbsville country club is to be shown on the screen of a fluoroscope gradations of social prestige of which one had not before been aware.

Has there ever been a critic who was better at charging such summary passages as these with the force and selectivity that makes them so perennially readable? Or who had a surer grasp of the indispensable critical skill of making his readers want to go out and buy the books he praised? It was The Shores of Light, The Wound and the Bow and Classics and Commercials, all contained in the Library of America’s first two Wilson volumes, that first inspired me to read O’Hara, Max Beerbohm, Cyril Connolly, Dr. Johnson, the later Kipling, Ring Lardner, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Wharton, and Thornton Wilder, and it is still possible to read Wilson on these and many other writers with pleasure and profit.

Those already closely familiar with Wilson’s work will be pleased to see that Lewis Dabney, the editor of this series, also plans to include a selection of reviews that didn’t make it into any of his books. These two volumes, for instance, contain Wilson’s hitherto uncollected thoughts on Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man, William Maxwell’s The Folded Leaf, Dawn Powell’s My Home Is Far Away, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, plus the best essay Wilson ever wrote on H.L. Mencken. All these pieces are worth reading, and it is a puzzlement why he didn’t think them worth collecting.

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Bookshelf

• Erskine Caldwell’s novels of rural Georgia life are so completely forgotten that it is hard to grasp how popular they were a half-century ago, much less how seriously he was taken by his colleagues. Saul Bellow actually thought that the author of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933) rated a Nobel Prize, while William Faulkner, who got one, regarded Caldwell as one of America’s top five novelists (his other picks, for the record, were John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Faulkner himself). He was one of the most successful ones, anyway. God’s Little Acre sold 10 million copies—one of which was read and underlined by Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts*—while Jack Kirkland’s stage version of Tobacco Road ran on Broadway for 3,180 performances, still the longest run ever racked up by a straight play.

So what happened to Caldwell, who died in obscurity in 1987? I can’t tell you—I’m no better at forecasting the changing winds of literary fortune than the next man—but I now know that at least one of his books is worth remembering. I’d never read a word of Caldwell when I flew down to Greensboro, N.C., to see Triad Stage give the first professional revival of Tobacco Road in some twenty-odd years. I found it hugely impressive, not just as a stage production but also as a work of theatrical art. “It combines humor and horror to strikingly modern effect,” I wrote in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, “and its unattractive characters are portrayed with an unsentimental sympathy that fills the viewer with pity.”

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• Erskine Caldwell’s novels of rural Georgia life are so completely forgotten that it is hard to grasp how popular they were a half-century ago, much less how seriously he was taken by his colleagues. Saul Bellow actually thought that the author of Tobacco Road (1932) and God’s Little Acre (1933) rated a Nobel Prize, while William Faulkner, who got one, regarded Caldwell as one of America’s top five novelists (his other picks, for the record, were John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Faulkner himself). He was one of the most successful ones, anyway. God’s Little Acre sold 10 million copies—one of which was read and underlined by Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts*—while Jack Kirkland’s stage version of Tobacco Road ran on Broadway for 3,180 performances, still the longest run ever racked up by a straight play.

So what happened to Caldwell, who died in obscurity in 1987? I can’t tell you—I’m no better at forecasting the changing winds of literary fortune than the next man—but I now know that at least one of his books is worth remembering. I’d never read a word of Caldwell when I flew down to Greensboro, N.C., to see Triad Stage give the first professional revival of Tobacco Road in some twenty-odd years. I found it hugely impressive, not just as a stage production but also as a work of theatrical art. “It combines humor and horror to strikingly modern effect,” I wrote in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, “and its unattractive characters are portrayed with an unsentimental sympathy that fills the viewer with pity.”

Curious as to whether the novel was as good as the play, I procured a copy of Tobacco Road (University of Georgia Press, $16.95 paper), which was reissued in 1995 and remains in print to this day. (The stage version, alas, is unavailable, though used copies can be found online.) Somewhat to my surprise, I found that Kirkland’s play tracks the events of Tobacco Road very closely indeed, and that most of the dialogue comes more or less directly from Caldwell’s novel. To be sure, the play is tighter and more conventionally “effective,” but in either form Tobacco Road, if by no means a masterpiece, is still quite remarkably compelling.

What is most striking about Tobacco Road is the unsparing frankness with which Caldwell writes about what we now call the underclass. Despite his sympathy for the backwoods sharecroppers who are his characters, he never makes the mistake of supposing that they bear no responsibility for their desperate plight, and his candor on this score is far more likely to shock modern readers than the comparative sexual explicitness that got him in trouble with the censors seven decades ago. Jeeter Lester, the coarse, illiterate anti-hero of Tobacco Road, may have a certain primitive dignity arising from his unswerving (if ineffectual) commitment to “the struggle to break the land each spring and plant cotton,” but his inability to support his family is unambiguously presented by Caldwell as a failure of character, and we are made to see that the tragedy of his life is in large part one of his own making:

There were always well-developed plans in Jeeter’s mind for the things he intended doing; but somehow he never got around to doing them. One day led to the next, and it was much more easy to say he would wait until tomorrow. When that day arrived, he invariably postponed action until a more convenient time. Things had been going along in that easy way for almost a lifetime now.

Such implicit censoriousness long ago went out of literary fashion, and I suspect that it is one of the reasons why Tobacco Road is no longer looked upon with favor by the literati, though there are other passages more likely to please them:

“I reckon Jeeter done right,” Lov contended. “He was a man who liked to grow things in the ground. The mills ain’t no place for a human who’s got that in his bones. The mills is sort of like automobiles—they’re all right to fool around in and have a good time in, but they don’t offer no love like the ground does. The ground sort of looks out after the people who keeps their feet on it. When people stand on planks in buildings all the time, and walk around on hard streets, the ground sort of loses interest in the human.”

Fortunately, that kind of Popular Front pseudo-poetry is rarely to be found in Tobacco Road (and is almost completely missing from the leaner stage version). For the most part Caldwell laid it on the line, leaving the reader in no possible doubt that Jeeter and his family were what the rural folk of my own Midwestern youth called “white trash.” That doesn’t make their terrible fate less tragic, but it definitely makes it more interesting.

*Editorial error originally reversed the name of the play and the name of the character.

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“Saul Bellow and the Bad Fish”

Ron Rosenbaum has a fascinating essay up at Slate on Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—his last novel, a roman à clef centering on Bellow’s friendship with Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago, where they taught together. Rosenbaum admits to being a Bellow skeptic (something Sam Tanenhaus decidedly is not) but a lover of this particular novel, and speculates about the source of Ravelstein‘s great power. He suggests that it resides in an episode of food poisoning that nearly took Bellow’s life (and which appears in the novel). “The cigua toxin didn’t kill [Bellow],” Rosenbaum writes, “it made him, or made his work stronger, more vibrant and luminous, shimmering like Ravelstein’s golden sport coat or like the Caribbean waters that harbored the toxic seafood.”

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Ron Rosenbaum has a fascinating essay up at Slate on Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein—his last novel, a roman à clef centering on Bellow’s friendship with Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago, where they taught together. Rosenbaum admits to being a Bellow skeptic (something Sam Tanenhaus decidedly is not) but a lover of this particular novel, and speculates about the source of Ravelstein‘s great power. He suggests that it resides in an episode of food poisoning that nearly took Bellow’s life (and which appears in the novel). “The cigua toxin didn’t kill [Bellow],” Rosenbaum writes, “it made him, or made his work stronger, more vibrant and luminous, shimmering like Ravelstein’s golden sport coat or like the Caribbean waters that harbored the toxic seafood.”

It’s hard to imagine Bellow failing to find this implicit comparison to Adrian Leverkühn—the subject of Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, a brilliant and radical composer spurred to incalculable heights of genius by syphilis—absolutely delightful. Rosenbaum continues in this Mannean vein:

It certainly seems to me that a number of American novelists could benefit from a cruise to the Western Caribbean of the sort Bellow took, and as many sumptuous seafood meals (red snapper and barracuda especially recommended) as necessary to raise the level of their art through a slightly less-than-lethal dose of cigua.

The whole essay is worth reading.

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Another Look at Auden

Out to sea, hunting Nazi war ships, Saul Bellow’s Augie March encounters a sailor, a brilliant autodidact, who tells him, “Pascal says people get in trouble because they can’t stay in their rooms. The next poet laureate of England—I figure—prays to God to teach us to sit still.” It would take W.H. Auden, who might well have become England’s poet laureate had he sat still, half his career to arrive at a similar conclusion about the mischief men do in pursuit of lofty goals. The centennial of his birth fell on February 21st of this year; most of the comments on this sadly muted occasion focused on the distinction between his “early” and “late” stages, which also happen to coincide with his Communism and his regained Anglicanism.

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Out to sea, hunting Nazi war ships, Saul Bellow’s Augie March encounters a sailor, a brilliant autodidact, who tells him, “Pascal says people get in trouble because they can’t stay in their rooms. The next poet laureate of England—I figure—prays to God to teach us to sit still.” It would take W.H. Auden, who might well have become England’s poet laureate had he sat still, half his career to arrive at a similar conclusion about the mischief men do in pursuit of lofty goals. The centennial of his birth fell on February 21st of this year; most of the comments on this sadly muted occasion focused on the distinction between his “early” and “late” stages, which also happen to coincide with his Communism and his regained Anglicanism.

Auden reached his artistic pinnacle at Europe’s darkest moment, a fact that might itself be described as Audenesque. The year 1939 yielded other burnished gems besides his “September 1, 1939″: the threnodies to Yeats and Freud, “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” “The Unknown Citizen,” “Law Like Love.” Critics of Auden’s “Spain,” who see it solely as a testament to all that was sinister and myopic in an epicene Communist’s worldview, should take the poem’s full measure. For instance, the apostrophe to nations, which calls upon “the life / That shapes the individual belly and orders / The private nocturnal terror,” has that life replying: “O no, I am not the mover; / Not to-day; not to you. To you I’m the / Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped . . . ” We know now from the publication of long-secret Soviet archives that the yes-man, the bar-companion, and the easily-duped comprise precisely the grim troika that enabled and excused Stalin’s reign of terror for so long. The poem is, thus, also a withering indictment of the Western intellectual class to which Auden belonged with such passion and brilliance. So his conscience managed to get it right, in the end—even if his short-lived political allegiances got it so remarkably wrong.

Though his abandonment of those allegiances is praiseworthy, it did nothing for him as an artist. Auden’s poetry steadily declined in quality as his commitment to religion broadened and his sense of purpose—both as a poet and as a “citizen”—grew humbler. He also traveled less, abandoning the exploratory wanderings of his earlier years, confining himself mainly to his adopted city of New York and his shire-girded summer home in Austria. As Philip Larkin observed in a withering 1960 essay, “What’s Become of Wystan?,” someone who had read nothing of Auden’s work after 1940 would have little to talk about with someone who had read nothing before 1940. A shame, too, in Larkin’s opinion: a born-again Yank might well have gone on to become a “New Yorker Walt Whitman viewing the American scene through lenses coated with a European irony” instead of the book-obsessed purveyor of agape Auden became. So much, one supposes, for Pascal and the wisdom of sitting still.

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