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Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Text and Criticism

Joyce Carol Oates on Saul Bellow

Imaginary Cities: America

"Moses Herzog" and "Charlie Citrine" are Joycean names, if not precisely Joycean people, but we should suspect in any case that Saul Bellow has learned from Joyce (as he has "learned" from any number of writers), for who among twentieth-century American novelists has evoked the City with more passion and more resonance than Bellow? With very little interest in formal experimentation, and no interest at all in following the wild, hilarious Dadaism of certain sections of Ulysses ("Nighttown" most famously), Bellow has nevertheless perfected a wonderfully supple and expressive style, a voice uniquely his own; one believes in Bellow immediately, no matter how fanciful the utterances of certain of his male characters. And they speak not simply for themselves but for their epochs, their cities. As the creator of superbly modulated prose and as the observer of character and cityscape Bellow is Joyce's equal. He has written no novel to rival Ulysses—who has?—but the complex riches of his numerous books attest to an imagination as deeply bound up with his subject as Joyce was with his; and if he is less ambitiously experimental than Joyce it should be noted that he is less self-indulgent as well.

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Bellow's Portraits

Among contemporary American writers there are many stylists of distinction, for ours is an age of intense literary activity, much idiosyncratic virtuosity and invention. The general assumption may be that "realism" is not an experimental literary convention but simply "the way things are"; but practicing writers know that all genres, all visions, all artful employments of language are conventions, freely available to the virtuoso. Of presumed realists, no contemporary of ours is more distinctive, more consistently inspired and defiantly risky than Saul Bellow, our genius of portraiture. What a gallery of outsized characters he has given us, more benign than Hogarth's but no less individual! What coruscating flights of language in his prose, what waterfalls of self-displaying energy! For one who has been reading Saul Bellow attentively since the early 1950s, the briefest passage of Bellow prose, a sentence fragment or quirky throwaway metaphor, is enough to sound the unmistakable Bellow note.

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The Bellow Epoch

Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination certainly helps to explain the extreme conservatism and air of angry reproach in Bellow's public utterances since approximately 1970. Unlike the young, vigorous, tolerant Augie March, Bellow has grown increasingly reactionary; his diatribes against the current state of literature, indeed of humanity in general, are well known. Women's studies, African-American studies, gay and lesbian writing, experimental art, Third World literature, above all the "academy" and "intellectuals"—all have drawn Bellow's scorn in recent years, as if, garlanded with awards as he is, he yet fears the emergence of voices and vision distinct from his own.

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