Thursday, June 21, 2007

Stern warning

Richard Stern writes on his late friend Saul Bellow in the Chicago Tribune:

In the books, there are portraits. The day after Bellow's Nobel Prize had been announced, a professor he knew said, "I see that you've just been added to the ranks of Grazia Deledda and Sully Prudhomme" (two of the least-distinguished winners of the literature prize). More than 20 years later, Bellow's anger at this rude remark generated a magnificent portrait. It appears in his last published novel, "Ravelstein":

"Rakhmiel was neither a large man nor a healthy one, but he was physically conspicuous just the same -- compact and dense, high-handed, tyrannically fixated, opinionated. His mind was made up once and for all in hundreds of subjects and maybe this was the sign that he had completed his course. . . . [He] was, or had been once, a redhead, but the red hair had worn away and what remained was a reddish complexion -- in medieval physiology, sanguine: hot and dry. Or better yet, choleric. His face wore a polite expression and he often looked, walking fast, as if he were on a case -- on his way to serve a warrant or make a pinch. . . . He looked like a tyrant with the tyranny baked into his face. . . . My belief is that on the side he grew a little herb garden of good, generous feelings. He hoped, especially when he was wooing a new friend, that he could pass for a very decent man."

If you knew the portrait's original, as I did, you felt as Michelangelo's friends must have felt when they recognized a mutual acquaintance dangling from a devil's claws in the artist's "Last Judgment": "Thank God it's not me up there." Even in my abbreviation of the portrait, one can see how complex it is, the physical details, olfactory and gustatory, as well as visual, interspersed with general remarks from medieval physiology or English police work, and then its concession that Rakhmiel also "grew a little herb garden of good, generous feelings." Years ago, Bellow told me that writing fiction forced you into being open-minded, tolerant and just. Rakhmiel is not a simple expression of Bellow's anger or revenge. He's a complex portrait by the writer who may be the greatest portraitist in our literature.
I know some people actually prefer Stern to Bellow. Those people include Dizzyhead Jason and Dizzyhed ME. Not that it's a competition!

Which reminds me, I have two unread Sterns on the bookshelf...



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