Saturday, February 4, 2017

"I didn't want to seem fantastic"

     Even though I've met Saul Bellow—been to his house, in fact when he lived in Hyde Park in the late 1980s—I'd never read anything he'd written, beyond mastering the parts of Herzog that take place at the Division Street Russian Baths, for purposes of my Chicago book. He seemed ... I don't know ... very 1970s, a Jewish John Updike.
     I did read James Atlas' biography, which confirmed my disinclination toward Bellow, as a self-obsessed cocksman who was lousy to his friend, Sydney J. Harris. The take away from the book was, a year after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bellow was despondent because he couldn't win it again. Why bother with a guy like that? 
     But my older boy Ross read The Adventures of Augie March and decided that my not having done so was a reason to tweak me. For years. Eventually I cracked, and a few weeks ago opened the book. 
     It's interesting. Not in a plot sense—not a lot happens in the nearly 600 pages that follow its famous opening line. "I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city..." a line that Ross liked to quote, I now suspect, because it was true for him but not for me. The Chicago part. I am also an American, but Cleveland-born, which just doesn't sound the same.
     Augie is a feckless lad, attractive to women, and drifts from one relationship to another, in the 1930s and 1940s. Bellow was proud he didn't write a word of it in Chicago, but in various foreign enclaves, and it shows, an odd, internationalism, which grates with the image of city life through the kitchen transom in the book. 
    It did have a certain density, a lived physicality, that made me understand why people prize it so. 
    What struck me most was the book as an artifact of its time, as something published in 1953. There is a hideous abortion odyssey of humiliation for the most interesting female character, Mimi, that I'll have to save as illegal abortions come closer to reality across this country.
    And one exchange in the oddest part of the book -- a protracted journey with Thea, a rich gal who fell hopelessly in love with Augie because, well, that's what people do. They go off to Mexico to ... wait for it ... train eagles to hunt iguanas. It's an endless digression, one where, despite a cameo by Trotsky, I found interest in an unexpected place. Notice the word being bandied about in this passage, during one of the couple's wincingly-realistic fights:
     "We're not talking about the same thing. Not the love. It's the other thing you're so fantastic about."
    "Me—so fantastic?" she said with dry mouth and laid her hand over her breast."
     "Well, how can you think you're not—the eagle, the other things, the snakes, hunting every day?"
    It gave her another hurt.
    "What, were you just being indulgent with me? About the eagle? That didn't mean anything to you? All along you thought I was only fantastic?"
     For as long as I remember, "fantastic" is a slightly more stilted form of "wonderful" or, to quote the online dictionary, "extraordinarily good or attractive." A synonym for "great." 
      But here it is obviously something negative. After batting about another word with a much more commonly-known shift in meaning -- "queer"— as in "Loving you, that wasn't at all queer to me. But now you start to seem queer." she ends with. "Why didn't you say how you felt? You could have told me. I didn't want to seem fantastic to you."
    It seemed so odd to see "fantastic" as a bad thing.
    "Fantast" or "phantast" is from the Greek, φαντα, "an ostentatious person, a boaster," someone concocting lies. Samuel Johnson starts the definition of "fantastick" in his great 1755 dictionary with "1. Irrational, bred only in the imagination" and touches upon unreality, unsteadiness and "having the nature of phantoms."
     Two hundred years later, in my 1978 Oxford English Dictionary, "fantastic" has hardly changed. The first definition is "existing only in imagination, proceeding merely from imagination, fabulous, imaginary, unreal" much closer to how we think of "fantasy" 
    My 1942 Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, a useful resource parsing shades of meaning, places "fantastic" squarely in Bellow's world: "extravagantly fanciful or queer and hence incapable of belief, or, sometimes, approval." 
      "Fantastic" can be seen as taking a similar journey to "terrific" which, if you remember your zeppelin history, meant, according to the same Webster's, "by its size, appearance, potency, or the like, fitted or intended to inspire terror." which is the meaning WLS' Herb Morrison intended when he described the exploding Hindenberg as "a terrific thing, ladies and gentlemen." 
     And at that we had better wind it up, lest this turn into an awful post, which at one point would have meant it was "full of awe," and now would just mean "it's bad."


  1. I remember being mildly amused by Augie March, but sort of baffled at it's popularity. The Bellow I prefer is Humboldt's Gift; portrays a 70s Chicago, including the bath-houses on Division St., and a barely-veiled portrait of poet Delmore Schwartz. As for Bellow himself, as I have read, too, he seems not to be someone you'd care to meet, let alone know. I am learning more and more over time, more often than not I wouldn't not want to have known or even met many of the artists whose work I admire.

    1. I'm nearing 56 and still can't get "it's" right. Dang!

  2. Faulkner wasn't a pleasant one either.

    1. I have to stand up for Thurber. He could be curt, and became bitter as alcoholism overtook him. But he had a good heart.

  3. Thurber wasn't all bad. When he planned to send in something that was too mean spirited he let his wife talk him out of it.

    Dr. Johnson wrote an essay titled "AN AUTHOR'S WRITING AND CONVERSATION CONTRASTED." It begins, "Among the many inconsistencies which folly produces or infirmity suffers in the human mind, there has often been a manifest and striking contrariety between the life of an author and his writings." After enumerating reasons an author in person might fall short of the impression left by his works, he concludes "A transition from an author's book to his conversation is too often like an entrance into a large city after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendor, grandeur and magnificence; but when we have passed the gates we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions and clouded with smoke."

    And a more recent writer gave the subject perhaps the last word. (Cited before, I believe, but Auden is usually worthy of repetition.)

    "Time that is intolerant
    Of the brave and innocent,
    And indifferent in a week
    To a beautiful physique
    Worships language and forgives
    Everyone by whom it lives.
    Pardons cowardice and conceit.
    Lays its honors at their feet."

    I did read "Herzog," and seem to remember enjoying it -- at least I finished it. Will now have to put Bellow on my list of authors to revisit. So many books; so little time!

    Tom Evans

  4. I've noticed an apparent similar shift in meaning of the word, "interesting." I now hear it used to denote negativity, as well. Anyone else seeing this?

  5. No. But 'fabulous,' now often a figure of teen-speak, seems to have drifted some distance away from its origins.


  6. I had the very paperback. Bellow is not aging well for me. Roth seems more important.

  7. And the word "disaster" is over used these days by certain leaders.

    1. Yeah, well, that's what happens when you have a vocabulary of about 75 words.

      Bitter Scribe

  8. I had to read "Henderson the Rain King" in college. Ugh ugh ugh. One of the most unreadable pieces of turgid crap I have ever encountered.

    Bitter Scribe


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