Magazine article The Spectator

The Crowded Wilderness Within

Magazine article The Spectator

The Crowded Wilderness Within

Article excerpt

The crowded wilderness within

Diana Hendry

COLLECTED STORIES by Saul Bellow Viking, L20, pp. 442, ISBN 067089172X

With Bellow nearing 90, there has to be 'A Collected', though personally I'd prefer three slim paperbacks. Apart from the frivolous thought that this volume is too heavy to take on the train and requires strong knees in bed, Bellow is such a brilliant writer that small helpings are sufficient. A feast like this has you reaching for the metaphorical Rennies.

It's to do with the fact that Bellow gives the reader meat for the mind rather than space for the imagination. It's also to do with the particular quality of his prose, aptly defined by P. J. Kavanagh. Writing in the TLS about Bellow's last novel, Ravelstein, Kavanagh described Bellow as the one who 'manages to cram in all that concerns him most - which also concerns us'. It's the cramming in that makes you want to come up for air every now and again. The Collected Stories is for the library shelf, possibly everyone's.

I'm not sure why the publishers have added the afterword (originally the foreword to Something to Remember Me By) in which Bellow echoes Chekhov's 'mania for shortness'. At the end of 400-plus pages? However there's an enjoyable marital antiphony with Bellow's wife, Janis, telling us in the preface that Bellow will 'accept no protection from distractions', while the man himself complains, in the afterword, that public life in the States is 'a mass of distractions'. Think of consciousness like a new territory with everyone trying to grab a bit of yours, 'something like an Oklahoma land rush'.

Janis Bellow's preface gives us a glimpse of how the great man works and how he transmutes autobiography into fiction. (He really did have that nightmare that he gives to the narrator of 'The Bellarosa Connection'.) But it's a cosy glimpse.

More than half of the 13 stories here feature some kind of Day of Reckoning. Hattie, in 'Leaving the Yellow House', realises her failure (sloth in life and love) while drunkenly writing her will. Mosby, who has spent much of his life making fun of others, is made aware of his own comedy of errors. Worse still, he has a fantasy that he's died but yet lives on, his purgatory being 'to live life to the end as Mosby' ('Mosby's Memoirs'). The narrator of 'Him with His Foot in His Mouth' confesses his sins by letter, apparently to pre-empt the Swendenborg consequences that after death we will 'feel the pain we inflicted on others'. …

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