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For the Love of Reality

March 12, 2007

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s LA Times review of the third Library of America collection of Bellow’s novels is magnificent:

Bellow is often cited as a hero of narrative realism. But his relationship with reality was as complicated and adversarial as any writer’s before or after. A realist loves reality enough to be faithful to it, but Bellow, if he was a lover of reality at all, was a shifty and provisional one: He had no intention of being true, come what may. He was not going to submit himself. Let reality submit.

Though extolled as, first and foremost, a stylist — most especially by his English admirers, one of whom, James Wood, has edited “Novels 1956-1964” and its predecessor, “Novels 1944-1953” — his writing was no more about style than his fiction was about storytelling. Bellow wrote in order to take on reality. He loved reality the way Edmund Hillary loved Mt. Everest, or the biblical Jacob loved his nighttime wrestling opponent or Ahab loved the whale.

It’s extraordinary how many times Bellow calls out to his mighty antagonist by name: Reality. He uses the word more times than Kant and Hegel put together. That’s what he was up against, the thing he was out to master and possess, his metaphorically cleated boot planted smack on its exposed, bulging neck. The zealousness of his figurative language, the intermingling of milky thought and bloody-raw meat — these are never ends in themselves but a means of taking possession.

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