Monday, September 15, 2008
The Actual by Saul Bellow
I have a general, rather nasty rule about novels by post-Nobel Prize winning authors: Avoid. I'm sure that there are exceptions out there, but none that I can think of off the top of my head. The same thing applies to poets winning major awards, or that kiss-of-death post of poet laureate. Official posts and poets generally don't work too well. The same could be said for novelists winning famous prizes or getting jobs as creative writing instructors or professors -- jobs that involve teaching writers how to write washes out the writing for authors.
The Actual offers interesting insights into Sigmund Adletsky, Amy Wustrin and the main character, Harry Trellman, but the plot gets blurred in what reads more like a character study than a novel. Harry Trellin has a life-long obsession with Amy and never gets too far in declaring his love for her; Adeltsky helps them reunite. The last scene of the book is compelling and odd. Some interesting insights into upper crust Jewish society, but in general this novella reads long for its one hundred and four pages. There were times while reading this that I wasn't exactly sure how a particular scene related to the whole.
Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976 for Humboldt's Gift, his eighth novel. His first, Dangling Man, was written almost thirty years prior to it. Bellow was a just over sixty when graced with the Nobel. Isn't this a common practice of the Nobel committee to award the prize when the author has grayed a bit? They probably didn't anticipate him living another four decades. The Nobel Prize in Literature must be the most highly celebrated pink slip in history. It's the gold watch and pension, but in an age beyond gold watches and pensions I'm not sure if it means anything anymore.
I've heard that Bellow returned to the novella as he aged. If this is true, then this late turn may be similar to Tolstoy (never won the Nobel, by the way). Not sure why Bellow has turned to the novella, and I haven't read the one that is considered his best, Seize the Day ... so anything I say about Bellow is based soley upon The Actual. And I confess to my uncharitable and one-dimensional view on an author who probably deserves my greater attention. Unfortunately, my initial exposure to The Actual hasn't left the greatest of first impressions and I will be reluctant to return to him.