Christopher Hitchens was apparently able to shake George Galloway off his pant leg for long enough to attend last week’s “Celebration of the Life and Works of Saul Bellow” at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He wrote about it in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (subscribers only):
I absolutely do not remember Ian McEwan putting on a tie in all the decades I have known him, but there he was as a suited and respectable master of the farewell rite, saying that he had taken the risk of opening his fantastically successful novel, “Saturday,” with an excerpt from Bellow’s “Herzog.” The risk, as he modestly but sincerely said, was that his own prose would suffer by comparison. Martin Amis described the awe he felt at his first meeting with “Saul” â€” an awe inspired by the uncommon experience of finding that someone is just as good as you dared to hope they might be. James Wood, whose criticism is normally mordant and unsparing, spoke with great diffidence of the honor he felt at co-teaching a class with Bellow at Harvard. Part of this is a respect, perhaps more easily glimpsed by outsiders, for the huge immigrant and American Dream triumph that was announced when Augie March opened his narrative with the blunt claim of right: “I am an American, Chicago born.”
Part of it, too, is a respect for a more English quality of irony and understatement: Bellow coined a silken and deadly phrase that all his fans repeat at every meeting (”The Good Intentions Paving Company”) and was fond of telling how seldom anyone, even on the streets of Chicago, knew exactly who he was, even after he had become a Nobel Laureate. And part of it is the way that, even as he could write with such fluency in American demotic speech, he always had the classical literary tradition at his fingerprints.
Lest you think Chicago can’t memorialize its own, there’s a similar event this afternoon at 4 pm down at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel. The roster doesn’t feature the same high-powered literary talent — speakers include Mayor Daley, Bellow’s son Greg, Jeffrey Eugenides, Richard Stern and some of Bellow’s other pals — but there’s a religious service and a musical performance by personnel from the Lyric Opera, so you know Bellow would appreciate the effort to class things up a bit. More details here; it’s open to the public.