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Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002

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The Acid Tongue
Adam Mars-Jones finds Collected Stories Bellow par

Selected By Cyril Wong

Adam Mars-Jones’s statement, “The short story, already something of a threatened species, receives precious little help from Saul Bellow in his Collected Stories”, sets the tone for the rest of his review about Bellow’s latest offering.

Saul Bellow is the author of thirteen novels, most recently Ravelstein, novellas, stories, and collections of essays. He is the only novelist to have received three National Book Awards, for The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Mr Sammler's Planet. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Humboldt's Gift. Reasons for his win are suggested by the no-lack of “wonderful things on almost every page of this book”, in Bellow’s “lyrical, analytical portraits of people, landscapes physical and mental”.

But Mars-Jones also writes: “What there is surprisingly little of, though, is a sense of the glories and confinements of the story, as a form distinct from the novel... When 'story' becomes a polite way of saying 'workable slice of novel that didn't happen', the smaller form is slighted. 'Collected Shorter Fiction' would be an altogether more truthful title... There are novelists who have no affinity with the short story, just as there are symphonists with no string quartets in them. With two striking exceptions, this volume makes the case for Saul Bellow being one of them.

“In the novella 'A Theft', for instance, Bellow allots a characteristically rich sentence of description to the partner of a minor character who isn't even herself essential to the plot... Details in fiction are like points of light, but such illuminations come at a cost. In profusion they can drain the current from a story... This obtrusive philosophising, making the texture lumpy, is a recurrent element from the earliest stories. This, for instance, is from 'Looking For Mr Green': 'OK, then, Grebe thought further, these things exist because people consent to exist with them - we have got so far - and also there is a reality which doesn't depend on consent but within which consent is a game. But what about need, the need that keeps so many vast thousands in position?'”

As Mars-Jones also points out, Saul Bellow indeed “rewrites his work to the last possible moment, and beyond”. His wife Janis, who writes the introduction to the collection, relates Bellow’s own reservation about some of the stories: “There were too many ideas piled on at the start – too much to expect the reader to digest all at once.”

Notably, critics agree that only two stories work, one “Leaving the Yellow House”, which Mars-Jones indicates too, “ventures rather far from the fictional territory that Bellow has marked out.” But Mars-Jones also talks about how “to do too much in a short story is actually to risk falling short.” The other supposedly successful story is “Something To Remember Me By”, which closes the volume.

But the main criticisms of Bellow still stand: the endless “passages of philosophizing ('This meant that nature didn't make life; it only housed it')”, “extended descriptions of family members who never actually appear”, Bellow’s convoluted sentences like “When I look back at past moments, I carry with me an apperceptive mass that ripens and perhaps distorts, mixing what is memorable with what may not be worth mentioning,” although, as Mars-Jones points out, the resolution to the story is first-rate.

After so much criticism, this is how the review ends: “Life stubbornly continues to ramify, and Bellow is committed to following every forking.” But Collected Stories is still far from Bellow’s best.

Should novelists be banned from writing short stories? Drip acid in the Forum!

'The Acid Tongue' is a column that celebrates acerbic reviewing. Mail us if you know of any examples.

QLRS Vol. 1 No. 2 Jan 2002


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  Related Links

Saul Bellow biography
External link to the Nobel Museum.

Saul Bellow Society and Journal
External link.

Saul Bellow bibliography
External link to CSU Stanislaus.

Robert Fulford on Saul Bellow, Allan Bloom and Abe Ravelstein
External link.

Alex Clark on Saul Bellow's Collected Stories
External link to the Guardian.


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