I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Bellow’s Gift


Saul Bellow is writing in August 1990, from his home in Brattleboro, Vermont,  to Albert Glotzer (author of Trotsky: Memoir and Critique [1939]), an American revolutionary socialist and later social democrat, who he has discovered from reading his book shared a working class Jewish Chicago upbringing with him.

We too lived on Augusta Street – then unpaved – between Rockwell and Washtenaw, on the south side of the street. The address I believe was 2629, and we were on the second floor directly above the Polish landlord …
I didn’t get to Hammersmark’s bookshop until I was a high-school student. [Isadore] Bernick brought me there. The year must have been 1930. In 1936 Sam Hammersmark tried to recruit me for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade [a chiefly orthodox communist organisation]. But I was an early member of the Spartacus Youth League [a Trotskyist organisation]. Sam and I had a good-natured relationship, by which I mean we never discussed politics … Bernick … introduced me to proletarian art. Hammersmark hung it on his walls. Of a muscular, headless torso, mighty arms crossed, Bernick said that it was “symbolical of the proletariat without leadership.” On gloomy days such recollections cheer me up.

Glotzer had in the end given up on Trotskyism to embrace a form of left-wing social democracy which hoped to influence the Democratic Party and which was also strong on civil rights issues. The organisation, Social Democrats, USA, had among its leaders notable African-American socialists such as Bayard Rustin and A Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Bellow wrote to him:

Something remarkable about your book: I have observed that most people are incapable of altering their early beliefs. Most, I’ve noticed, think of their first education as a sort of investment made during their best, most vital years. Many of the Marxists I’ve known are unwilling to give up the labor they put into mastering difficult texts. They tend to hang on to the very end. A curious sort of rigidity. In most cases their knowledge became useless long long ago.

And finally, and somewhat miscellaneously, here is James Wood’s view of Bellow, expressed in The New Republic in 2005, the year of his death:

I judged all modern prose by his. Unfair, certainly, because he made even the fleet-footed — the Updikes, the DeLillos, the Roths ‑ seem like monopodes. Yet what else could I do? I discovered Saul Bellow’s prose in my late teens, and henceforth, the relationship had the quality of a love affair about which one could not keep silent. Over the last week, much has been said about Bellow’s prose, and most of the praise ‑ perhaps because it has been overwhelmingly by men ‑ has tended toward the robust: We hear about Bellow’s mixing of high and low registers, his Melvillean cadences jostling the jivey Yiddish rhythms, the great teeming democracy of the big novels, the crooks and frauds and intellectuals who loudly people the brilliant sensorium of the fiction. All of this is true enough; John Cheever, in his journals, lamented that, alongside Bellow’s fiction, his stories seemed like mere suburban splinters. Ian McEwan wisely suggested last week that British writers and critics may have been attracted to Bellow precisely because he kept alive a Dickensian amplitude now lacking in the English novel. […] But nobody mentioned the beauty of this writing, its music, its high lyricism, its firm but luxurious pleasure in language itself. […] [I]n truth, I could not thank him enough when he was alive, and I cannot now.

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