I’m belatedly reading my first ever Saul Bellow novel, and one of the things that strikes me is that it’s hard to imagine it being written today. Humboldt’s Gift was published in 1975, which doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but my daughter struggles to imagine life then — before mobile phones, before computers, before delete buttons and ctrl-C that allows you to move paragraphs around at will.
Everything these days is snappier, quicker, breezier — bam bam bam. (My first editor in NYC (2004) told me that my responsibility was to grab my reader by the scruff of the neck and drag him/her through the story. Really?) Of course there are exceptions. Marilyn Robinson leaps to mind. But attention spans are definitely shrinking. Mine, too.
Saul Bellow wanders off on the most extraordinarily discursive of journeys, peppered with the merest suggestion of plot. I can’t think of anyone writing today who’s this tough and dense and true, and funny.
Like his prose style, the Chicago that Bellow writes about doesn’t exist any more. Along with Damon Runyon’s NYC, or Raskolnikov’s St Petersburg, it’s ancient history.
It’s odd to think that in my lifetime, cities like New York, London and Chicago have become the playgrounds of rich people, with most of their derelict, frightening corners ironed out.
I was held up at gunpoint in Greenwich Village, back in 1980. Life felt grittier then, looser, with more dangers and more possibilities. You didn’t have to be born great to achieve greatness. You could kind of wander till you got there. Or got somewhere. Anywhere at all.