An Informative but Imperfect Biography of Saul Bellow

Oct. 11 2018

Reviewing the second volume of Zachary Leader’s two-volume biography of Saul Bellow, which covers the time from the publication of Herzog until his death in 2005, Jeffrey Meyers writes:

James Atlas’s biography, published in 2000, was unremittingly negative, even condescending. Zachary Leader’s work, though superior to Atlas’s and better than his first volume, still has some serious flaws. He swallows Keith Botsford’s absurd claim that his subject “is a direct descendant of Machiavelli” and misses [many of Bellow’s learned] allusions.

Leader constantly tries to connect every person and event in Bellow’s life to his or its fictional counterpart instead of emphasizing [the author’s] imaginative transformation of experience. In a typically sinking and superfluous sentence he writes of a minor novella The Actual: “Bellow identified Herb Passin, a friend since high school . . . as the model for Harry Trellman; Marilyn Mann, the second wife of Sam Freifeld . . . as the model for Amy Wustrin . . . and Freifeld himself as the model for Amy’s second husband, Jay Wustrin.” As Bellow wrote of a friend’s mediocre work, “It has too much extraneous data . . . too many lists of names. . . . So much lavish documentation makes the reader impatient.” . . .

Bellow punctured the pretentious, unmasked the delusions, and deflated the reputations of several intellectual phonies, blackballing LeRoi Jones, Edward Said, and Susan Sontag for MacArthur fellowships. He was severely condemned for his provocative but hilarious challenge: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” But no one ever answered his attack on cultural relativism and he did not apologize. . . .

Leader defines Bellow’s recurrent themes as “the relative claims of life and work, the intensity of childhood experience, [and] sexual insecurity.” He could have added Jewish life and identity, the perils of matrimony, and the defects of modern civilization. Bellow vividly defines his settings and characters by minute particulars. In a frail and aged man, “only the pacemaker under his shirt had any weight.” An oppressive character “wouldn’t put you in his fish-tank for an ornament.”

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More about: American Jewish literature, Arts & Culture, Saul Bellow

 

For Israelis, Anti-Zionism Kills

Dec. 14 2018

This week alone, anti-Zionists have killed multiple Israelis in a series of attacks; these follow the revelations that Hizballah succeeded in digging multiple attack tunnels from Lebanon into northern Israel. Simultaneously, some recent news stories in the U.S. have occasioned pious reminders that anti-Zionism should not be conflated with anti-Semitism. Bret Stephens notes that it is anti-Zionists, not defenders of Israel, who do the most to blur that distinction:

Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way from, say, readers of the New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. . . . Anti-Zionism might have been a respectable point of view before 1948, when the question of Israel’s existence was in the future and up for debate. Today, anti-Zionism is a call for the elimination of a state—details to follow regarding the fate befalling those who currently live in it. . . .

Anti-Zionism is ideologically unique in insisting that one state, and one state only, doesn’t just have to change. It has to go. By a coincidence that its adherents insist is entirely innocent, this happens to be the Jewish state, making anti-Zionists either the most disingenuous of ideologues or the most obtuse. When then-CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill called last month for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” and later claimed to be ignorant of what the slogan really meant, it was hard to tell in which category he fell.

Does this make someone with Hill’s views an anti-Semite? It’s like asking whether a person who believes in [the principle of] separate-but-equal must necessarily be a racist. In theory, no. In reality, another story. The typical aim of the anti-Semite is legal or social discrimination against some set of Jews. The explicit aim of the anti-Zionist is political or physical dispossession.

What’s worse: to be denied membership in a country club because you’re Jewish, or driven from your ancestral homeland and sovereign state for the same reason? If anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are meaningfully distinct (I think they are not), the human consequences of the latter are direr.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism, Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian terror