Bellow’s Purgatory

Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow; drawing by David Levine

It has been a bewildering experience, these last few years, recognizing how many new American novelists ask—and expect—nothing more for themselves in the kingdom of literature than the undependable status of being considered “interesting.” The novel, which by the middle of the nineteenth century had clearly become the central and all-expressive form that formerly the ancient epic and Elizabethan tragedy had each been in its turn, had markedly, by the middle of the twentieth century, become for many of its practitioners just another avant-garde defiance by intellectuals, as self-consciously specialized in its relation to the visible world, to the universal cycle of human experience, as those other hifalutin’ skills that bring renown to the specialist but not much pleasure or enlightenment to the rest of us.

To one’s unspeakable regret, one suddenly saw that novelists—even novelists—could become as pedantic, showy, and entirely literary as those hordes of uninteresting poets, suffering from nothing but a lack of something to say, who in our age have so often made poetry a synonym for artifice, sterile elegance, and cultural self-pity. There was the same empty enthusiasm for “form,” the same peculiar evasiveness of style hoping to be mistaken for profundity even when the writer knew that nothing very unusual was being said, the same top-heavy load of theory; above all, the same naïve attempt to show oneself an artist at the expense of reality. When the question of whether the novel is “alive” or “dead”—a foolish question which novelists have usually been too busy to pose—could actually become part of the novel itself, then the camp anti-novel, or the intellectual essay designed in dramatic form so as to parody and destroy the novel’s “outmodedness,” was bound to appear, as it has in our day. The intellectual’s habit of mere self-assertiveness has at times seemed to triumph over the comic sense, the common sense, and the incomparable vitality of the English novel.

One reason for this strange recent weakness—this all-too-conscious and even deliberate weakness on the part of so many individual novelists—has been their superstitious respect for recent literary tradition, their need to associate themselves with the “revolution of sensibility” accomplished by Proust and Joyce. Just as many painters nowadays seem hung up on theory, are always trying to figure out some new bedazzlement to suit the “exhaustion of old forms,” so many novelists have identified themselves with literary “progress.” The marked academization of literary taste in our day has resulted in the idolatry of modernism. The novel, whose essential genius as a medium has always been the utter freedom it has given, since the eighteenth century, to individualizing and concretizing experience, has by its very freedom and plasticity in dealing with matter of fact become an embarrassment to those many over-impressionable intellectuals who no longer think of themselves as free men, who have no natural love for the unmediated facts of human existence, thus no…

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