Thursday, April 07, 2005

"The beer-soaked precincts of the student bar in Hyde Park"

The University of Chicago, Hyde Park, and, I believe, Jimmy's (could possibly be the Pub) are in the Times op-ed section. Sadly, it took Saul Bellow's demise for this to happen, but I'll excerpt Brent Staples's editorial here all the same:

Saul Bellow was the first writer to appear to me in flesh and blood. I got my initial look at him in the fall of 1975, when I was a nervous graduate student at the University of Chicago. I was awed by the lofty environment, away from my hometown for the first time and longing to become a writer. He was the literary eminence of Hyde Park. He taught in the university's loftiest department - the Committee On Social Thought - and prowled the streets with a fedora pulled low over searching eyes. That day he had drawn a huge crowd to the bookstore where he was signing his novel "Humboldt's Gift," which would earn the Nobel Prize.

The man signing those books was surprisingly tiny, given his Olympian reputation, with wisps of white hair floating above the great domed head. But his eyes - hungry, saucerlike - were large enough for any three people. They swept over and seemed to vacuum in the people who came near. Watching him, and greedily consuming his books, in later years, it became clear that he was scanning bodies and faces for the painterly features that made his characters so physically vivid on the page.

The famous novels, including "Herzog," "The Adventures of Augie March" and "Humboldt's Gift," lived at three separate levels. They were praised in the literary world at large for rich, inventive language and probing explorations of the human condition. Within the Chicago city limits, they were often seen as assays of the brawling, big-shouldered city where book-smart, street-dumb characters - based on Mr. Bellow himself - were taken to the cleaners by scoundrels, grifters and ne'er-do-wells.

The books were divined at yet another level in the beer-soaked precincts of the student bar in Hyde Park. We ransacked them for stories from the local streets and inside stuff from Mr. Bellow's divorces and his feuds with other intellectuals. It was through these exercises that some of us learned how books were put together. Colleagues and acquaintances sometimes flew into rages about their unflattering cameos in the novels. Most people kept quiet, though, secretly flattered that those hungry eyes had settled even briefly upon them.

I'd also like to post my old Criterion essay on Hyde Park novels, which included more than a bit about "Ravelstein," but Criterion, ahem, is not online. I'll see what I can do to fix that.

1 comment:

guile said...

ravelstein is a very good book :).. fare thee well, mr bellow..