Are there two writers with less in common?
Oh, probably. But these two, a quick census would surely agree, aren’t obvious soul-mates.
I group them here because The New York Review of Books recently ran reviews of Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (Little, Brown) and Bellow’s Letters (Viking).
Which got me to thinking.
Did you know, for example, that Foster Wallace had attended a Mennonite church? Or that Bellow had an obsessive interest in Rudolf Steiner?
Reviewing The Pale King, Jonathan Raban concludes that Foster Wallace had “a deep fundamentalist streak in his makeup, a disconcertingly innocent thirst for ‘capital-T Truth’” (12, NYRB, May 12, 2011).
Reviewing Saul Bellow: Letters, Edward Mendelson writes of Bellow: “Public and private chaos had erupted because, he thought, no one was guiding the course of history. …[H]e was grateful when he found in Steiner … a future in which the spirit would take charge of the world and shape it through inner vision and imagination” (19, NYRB, April 28, 2011).
I have a quotation from Bellow that I once liked enough to clip out of a newspaper where it appeared. I don’t remember the source. I just clipped it and stashed it with other such clippings of indeterminate origin.
Here’s the quotation:
Our society, like decadent Rome, has turned into an amusement society, with writers chief among the court jesters – not so much above the clatter as part of it.
In response, I would say to Bellow, there is no difference to being in the world and of the world. We are all post-modernists now, living in perpetual uncertainty. Aren’t we?
Well, no. Apparently not. Even Pynchon’s heir, Foster Wallace, stands accused of harbouring “a disconcertingly innocent thirst” for certainty. Raban reads The Pale King as a failed text book in how to “break on through.”
Both Bellow and Foster Wallace, these reviewers argue, housed capital-R Romantic souls.
Raban says of Wallace:
Wallace was both a satirist and preacher in the same breath, and the idea that the IRS, imagined as a quasi-religious foundation in which the burdensome and egotistic self might find redemption in the service of a greater good, could be both a comic conceit and a heartfelt belief seems to have been central to his conception of The Pale King.
Mendelson says of Bellow:
Bellow’s vestigial plots exist mostly to give his narrators something more to talk about then cultural complaints and philosophical musings. … Bellow had the characteristically American ambition to master European culture while also seeking beyond culture and beyond ambition for some transcendental spiritual truth.
Word drunk they both were, too. Outside of the mainstream, yet also saturated with it, singular voices singing towards a future that would break all boundaries.
Isn’t it pretty to think so, Hemingway wrote.
I turn to Wallace and Bellow when I’m seeking feats of literary derring-do. In this way for me they are linked as exemplars of a sort for the scribbler set.
Though, of course, much else could be said about each of them.