Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 19, 2021 7:14 pm 
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ASAF GALAY: THE ADVENTURES OF SAUL BELLOW (2021) - San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 2021 (July 22 - Aug. 1)

At last a documentary portrait of Saul Bellow

Perhaps in a moment of enthusiasm, the eminent critic James Wood wrote that Saul Bellow was the finest prose stylist of the twentieth century. Surprising we've waited till sixteen years after his death for someone called Asaf Galay (qualified: he previously did one about his great Yiddish forebear Isaac Bashevis Singer), to make a documentary film about a man who was the leading writer in America for decades, who received, besides the Pulitzer, the Nobel for Literature, and most deservedly.

Sadly, a bit late. In his heyday, which lasted about forty years, Bellow was a central figure in American, indeed English language, fiction. Now as Prof. Hana Wirth-Nesher says toward the end as a sort of postscript-epitaph, Bellow's writing is considered "offensive," and he is no longer read as much.. But this film, the first of its kind, however flawed or leaving room for comment and addition, is a superb piece of work and a pleasure to watch and even, for a lover of American fiction, a thrill. Here is the last great literary man from when one man could matter, the man, we learn, who turned the Hemingway sentence on its end and made it more inward and complex.

Literary reputations change. The "offensive" is on two counts: racism, noted in a passage in Bellow's (late, 2000) novel Ravelstein, read and commented on by the black novelist Charles R. Johnson; and, in considerably richer detail, misogyny, noted in many clearly autobiographical passages in various novels and evidenced in his behavior toward women as a man who had five wives and often depicted them unflatteringly in his pages.

No one of his five wives speaks ill of Bellow here. But two of the marriages were brief and ended acrimoniously. His fourth wife, a Romanian mathematician, says she felt after their eleven years together he simply was done with the experiment and ready to try something new. He married women younger, much younger, and the last time much, much younger: forty-seven years younger. But he was up to it, since at eighty-four he fathered a daughter by Janis, whom we hear from the most, reporting a happy, youthful-seeming union, and is worshipful and full of good memories. A man who has five wives must have a complex relation with the fair sex.

What we get here that we wouldn't get from a print biography is images, first of all, many handsome, nostalgic ones of the city of Chicago. The film also shows us many pages of the novels and lets us hear people, in some cases close relatives, read from them. Then there are all the people, in person, the children, the nephew, the admiring writers, the literary authorities.

Three very significant writers express in detail their debt to Saul Bellow and admiration for his work and his achievement: Salmon Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Philip Roth. Roth was his successor, almost his child and literally his friend. Luckily, Galay was able to interview Roth before his death in 2018. Rushdie and Amis show that to feel kinship with Bellow does not require one to be Jewish - or American.

They and other speakers make clear the lasting importance of Bellow's third novel, The Adventures of Augie March. So much so that its opening lines are to be read and remembered today, and are read and commented on here: "I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent." The first part, "an American, Chicago born," has the sound of a Walt Whitman. The ending, Prof. Wirth-Nesher suggests, is a Jew speaking. A Jew has to knock. Whitman didn't.

That Bellow was a Jewish writer is central and this film clarifies how that worked and how the way it worked changed. For me the most enlightening words - though she is saying things she wrote decades ago - come from Vivian Gornick (whose In Search of Ali Mahmoud touched unique cords for me as someone with ties to Cairo). Bellow wrote as a Jew who was proudly American (though, interestingly, he was born in Canada), a Jewish writer who grew up constantly exposed to Yiddish, Hebrew, and English and became a master stylist and innovator in an American literary idiom he made his own. As Roth took up the mantle as the foremost American Jewish writer, the role of being Jewish became more of a shtick and could be played with and joked about as well as continuingly chronicled. Other Jewish writers, Bernard Malamud and above all J.D. Salinger, neither mentioned here, contributed to making Jewishness increasingly mainstream. And they mattered. But I see listed online an academic article (often cited, perhaps) called "The Death of the American Jewish Novel," dated 1978.

It seemed so important to read the Jewish writers in late Fifties and Sixties America. It was. This film shows how it doesn't matter in the same way any more and has not for decades. Gornick explains this is because Jews are so much more assimilated, as has been happening similarly, but later, to blacks and Hispanics (and latest, Asians).

Galay is judicious; the voices here feel essential, no one unnecessary. And we are also fortunate in hearing fairly often from Bellow himself, and even see him, laughing and chortling a little too much, perhaps in embarrassment, on the Dick Cavett show. Always he is the natty dresser with the nice suit, the jaunty hat, the bright bow tie, the bright smile, the fresh, smiling face, always vivacious, charming, sometimes a little too sure of himself. Not for him the diffident, perpetually tentative voice of that other, more recent, and half Jewish Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Patrick Modiano. (What would he say about Bob Dylan?) Bellow explains how it was fun to win the Nobel at first, but then it meant he and his wife had to hide - in Chicago. But he died at their summer place - in Massachusetts; and I feel that the film's promise of telling us about Chicago is not quite kept.

Nearly half of the novels are not mentioned. They don't talk about Henderson the Rain King. They never mention it, or Seize the Day. They do talk about The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Humboldt's Gift, and Ravelstein. This choice perhaps reflects a biographical bias. The film is handily hung on the story of Bellow's five wives and how they figure in these novels. That is alright: this excellent film digs deep and enjoyably into the life, the man, and his place in the pantheon. Next time a filmmaker can reexamine that place (will he rise in a post-racial, post-#MeTo world?), and delve more deeply and widely into the novels. This film, with its fresh footage of key people and its balanced, enjoyable unfolding, is unlikely to be majorly bettered, though.

The Adventures of Saul Bellow, 84 mins., was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

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