Missing Saul Bellow’s Legacy: On Gary Shteyngart’s Tepid Reading of Bellow for “The New York Review of Books”

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One of the main tasks of the introduction is to make the work of an author relevant for contemporary readers. But sometimes book publishers choose the wrong people to write introductions for books of dead authors. And what happens is that the legacy that this or that writer wished to pass on – if indeed they had one – is lost.

Such is the case with Gary Shteyngart’s essay for The New York Review of Books, entitled “Bellow After Death.” This was not a special essay for NYRB so much – as the blurb at the end of the article tells us – as the “new introduction to Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, to be published in May 12th.”

The introductory essay doesn’t spell out a legacy so much as its death. Throughout the article Shteyngart takes on what Leo Strauss, an intellectual deeply respected and followed by Bellow, would call a modern “historicist” or “progressivist” reading of a past text. Strauss made this comment in relation to how modern thinkers – such as Julius Guttman or Herman Cohen – would read Moses Maimonides and Medieval Jewish philosophy.   Instead of allowing oneself (and the modern reader) to learn from the legacy of Maimonides or Medieval philosophy, it judges it to be a thing of the past. Our reading of it, rather than its own intrinsic meaning, matters. Strauss called the opposite approach to the text “immanent criticism.” In this modality, we have to let the text teach us, not the other way around.

And for Strauss, modernity has a lot to learn about how certain questions have not been resolved and remain for modernity. And these questions involve questions about the relationship between faith and reason.   In his introduction to Philosophy and Law: Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and his Predecessors, Strauss argues that many modern Enlightenment thinkers thought they decide on and won the argument simply because the Medievals were ridiculous. But, as Strauss reminds us, one doesn’t end an argument or kill a legacy by virtue of mockery (29-30).

Building on what Strauss says, I would argue that the same can be said for Shteyngart’s treatment of Bellow. He historicizes him in such a way as to argue that he is in the dustbin of history (even while seemingly praising him). He suggests that we mock him and put his claims to rest as they are all dated. On the one hand, we seem to lack the intellectual rigor for his texts, but, on the other, its dated and simply not worth it. And the latter wins out over the former. And this pronounces the death sentence to Bellow’s legacy; hence, the ironic title, “Bellow After Death” which is contrary to what one would think. He doesn’t live on after death; he dies. And that’s that. There is no legacy and there is nothing to learn except that…that what happened in Bellow’s novels…was something that had an appeal…at one time…but not today.

I’d like to briefly show how the deracinating of Bellow’s legacy works in each part of Shteyngart’s essay.

In the beginning of the essay, Shteyngart associates Bellow with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. The quote suggests that his books – like Maimondies’ Guide for the Perplexed – will be “hard to read” and, as the “illiteracy of the public increases,” will become “harder.” Shteyngart’s addition is to suggest that it will be impossible. He uses himself as a modern example:

As I try to read the first pages of Ravelstein, my iPhone pings and squawks with increasing distress. The delicate intellectual thread gets lost. Macaulay. Ping! Antony and Cleopatra. Zing! Keynes. Marimba! And I’m on just pages 5 and 6 of the novel. How is a contemporary person supposed to read 201 pages? It requires nothing less than performing brain surgery on oneself. Rewiring the organ so that the neurons revisit the haunts they once knew, hanging out with Macaulay and Keynes, much as they did in 2000, before encounters with both were reduced to brief digital run-ins on some highbrow content-provider’s blog, back when knowledge was actually something to be enjoyed instead of simply being ingested in small career-sustaining bursts.

If Shteyngart, a novelist can’t read, how much more so will the average reader not be able to get anything from Bellow. For Shteyngart, Philip Roth’s Portnoy rather than Bellow’s Herzog (a character from his earlier and most popular novel of a schlemiel) is more relevant. Portnoy, in all his vulgarity and rude wit, speaks to “low” culture, today. While Bellow’s Herzog oscillates between “high and low” culture – an oscillation which, apparently, modern people don’t get since they are too distracted by iphones etc to be affected by this movement.

But Shteyngart’s characterization of Bellow’s novels suggest that his novels are filled only with high cultural kinds of characters. And the language they use is outdated:

Or perhaps it’s just Bellow’s formative haunts—the stables filled with poets, thinkers, and novelists—that have lost some of their appeal, not to mention their hay. Where academia and literature intersect today, you will find a bunch of dudes in Converse and dudettes in skinny jeans grimly discussing their health care premiums in an overlit conference hall just outside Minneapolis or Denver. Few would turn to one another and say, like Ravelstein: “But can you explain what Nature does for you—a Jewish city type?” And yes, that’s Nature with a capital N.

No one talks about Nature anymore, apparently. I find this interesting because, as a Professor (Shteyngart notes he is also a teacher) I find many students interested in discussing these very issues.   In fact, they want to know. They aren’t all historicists as he suggests. Or perhaps I have the wrong students.

Although, in this part, the historicism is evident in Shteyngart’s reading, it is most evident in how he characterizes Bellow’s Jews versus Jews today:

“As a Jew you are also an American, but somehow also not,” Chick muses. I could well hear these words emerge from my father’s mouth, and from others of his generation, and for a few bunkered-in Jewish stalwarts of my own. But how I disagree, generationally and experientially, with that line of thinking. In post-Seinfeldian, post–Larry-Davidian America, the very opposite could be inferred: “As an American you are also a Jew, but somehow also not.” The fantasies of being pogrommed out of New Hampshire by an anti-Semitic militia nonetheless serve as a useful reminder of what post-Holocaust life was like for a generation of Jews who believed the ashes of the crematoria could one day fall upon the Berkshires.

Shteyngart’s distinction makes a mockery of those Jews from the past. We, in our “post-Seinfeldian, post-Larry-Davidian America,” can’t understand the “post-Holocaust” life. It is not our legacy. It may “nonetheless serve as a useful reminder of what post-Holocaust life was for a generation of Jews, etc.” In other words, it’s for the dustbin of history and need not affect Jewish readers today. Today, we are Americans first and maybe…Jews second. These generalizations reek of fatalism and assumptions about “post-assimilation” American Jews. Should the reader see him or herself in this way, they may approach the book as yet another relic of Jewishness that is unattainable; namely, a Jewishness informed by history. Some of my students, actually, have a contrary drive. What about them? Has the question of what it means to be a Jew disappeared from our horizon? Are all American Jews comfortable with being Americans?

The only thing Shteyngart finds relevant is the remainder of history for Jews, our only legacy, is materialism and anxiety. Jews need to critique it and make fun of it:

What remains relevant more than ever is Bellow’s take on our hyper-materialistic, luxury-goods-loving society. If this were an Updike novel, it might be titled Ravelstein Is Rich. “It was wonderful to be so public about the private, about the living creature and its needs.” Chick thinks of the French, and the novel positively luxuriates in Ravelstein’s newly minted millions. There’s an exquisite description of the purchase of a BMW (“With extras, the car would cost eighty thousand bucks”) that lasts for two entire pages. There are Lanvin jackets “advertised in Vanity Fair and the other fashion slicks, and they’re usually modeled by unshaven toughs with the look of rough trade or downright rapists.” There’s the appearance of the then-exotic Visa Gold card on which you could slap $4,500. And then there’s also the comedy of physicality and decline, as Ravelstein’s third espresso serré finally puts an end to the reign of the aforementioned Lanvin jacket. “I tried to interest him in bow ties,” the narrator tells us of his efforts to rescue Ravelstein’s multitudes of Zegna neckties from similar fates, a sentence I would also crown as One of the Best Examples of Jewish Thought in the Twentieth Century. By which I mean it’s funny, tender, menschy. It’s all about trembling fingers and hot beverages; it’s about anxiety, desire, and death.

Nothing else remains, apparently.

The last paragraphs of Shteyngart’s essay are sheer mockery. He suggests that Bellow wanted to live on in “pictures” of the past. Shteyngart identifies with the writers interest in childhood and its juxtaposition with death – he says that it is a topic he revisits in his own fiction. But in the last lines he also suggests that Bellow’s obsession with his childhood and the past marked his death sentence. And it’s a wonder that his work had an after life of “eighty more years.”

It never hurts a writer to nearly die in the first decade of his life, as Bellow did. But how exceptionally kind was the universe in that it allowed him eighty more years of existence.

But what Shteyngart misses, especially in a novel like Herzog, is that Bellow turns back to his past continually so as to relate it to his present. In fact, this is what Jewishness does; it is the legacy of Jewishness to do this. But Shteyngart does the opposite. He mocks it and situates his Jewish childhood and Jewishness in the dustbin of history.

Bellow’s movement to the past, which put the present into question, was a gesture that he shared not just with Allan Bloom but also with Leo Strauss and Irving Howe. Without doing so, we pronounce the past as posing no questions to the present. And for Bellow’s Herzog, these questions had to do with morality and faith and their tension with modern brutality and evil.

In an important criticism of Leslie Feidler, Irving Howe suggested that Fiedler must be called out as a “crank.”

In American literary life, the crank is by now a familiar figure. He is a man who believes he has found a total and thereby solacing explanation for the chaos and multiplicity of existence…There has been a similar development in literary criticism….What can one say about such books except that they are sincere, often ingenious, and quite batty?

Shteyngart should also be called out in this way since he is also speaking about the legacy of Bellow in such broad brushstrokes. He is not bothered by Bellow’s Herzog. And in not being bothered, Howe would likely say he lacks a literary and historical conscience. I’ll end with Howe’s words on the role of the critic, words which can and should be applied in relation to Shteyngart who hasn’t let the text put him and his Jewishness into question. It would, to be sure, silence his mockery and self-congratulatory hip-historicism. The better introduction would suggest – to Bellow’s new and future readers – that everything is or can be at stake when we read:

Mr. Fiedler lacks the one gift – I think it is gift of character – which is essential to the critic: the willingness to subordinate his schemes and preconceptions to the actualities of a particular novel or poem. (154)

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