On There Is Simply Too Much to Think About

There is simply too much to think about. The phrase, splashed across the cover, suggests a sweeping scope to which this collection doesn’t quite measure. But the title comes from an essay of the same name. In it Saul Bellow laments the classification of writers as intellectuals and berates intellectuals as phonies and philistines. Writers – essayists, but mostly fiction writers – have a higher calling than the order of the day. The beautifully poetic title may leave the reader with a false impression of the book’s contents but it fits perfectly a collection of essays written by a fiction writer, largely about writing and fiction. It’s not the awe-struck murmuring of a bookish kid walking for the first time into The Strand but the grumbling of an old man rolling his eyes at the candy-colored tables en route to the dusty first editions.

There is simply too much to think about – so just leave me alone.

It’s not the only contradiction on the cover. A blurb from the New York Review of Books adorns the top-right corner: “A milestone of twentieth-century criticism.” It takes only three pages for Bellow to assert that “the career of a critic, when I am feeling mean about it, I sometimes compare to that of a deaf man who tunes pianos.” (“Starting Out in Chicago”) Bellow’s nonfiction is everything his fiction would suggest. He’s alternately succinct and prolix, colorful and abstract, gracious and didactic – but always sharply creative and uncompromisingly imaginative. What emerges in 500 pages is a Saul Bellow of glorious contradiction.

He has no time for critics, but the longest essay in the volume is his “Recent Fiction: a Tour of Inspection,” in which he critiques the recent work of everyone from Philip Roth to James Baldwin over almost thirty pages. He is not a critic – but a writer who criticizes. He saves his hottest anger for public intellectuals – the sort of anger that burns slowly on the back of the tongue and invades the sinuses to hide from any bread or water that might otherwise quench it. It’s difficult to tell which he resents more: writers being asked to comment on politics or political pundits and intellectuals passing themselves off as writers. Putting aside that commenting on the vacuous nature of political discourse is its own sort of punditry, some of his most extraordinary writing stems from examinations of Jewish politics and culture: “I refused to agree with them that my life had been illusion and dust. I do not accept any interpretation of history that declares the deepest experience of any person to be superfluous.” (“Americans Who Are Also Jews”) He’s not a public intellectual – but a writer who comments on matters of public interest.

The orneriness and mercury of his writing are refreshing. He’s unapologetically certain of the validity of his thoughts and voice even when he’s aware of their inherent contradictions and equally certain that they might be wrong or change later. The arrogance and sure-footedness of his voice seem to contradict the nuance and uncertainty of his ideas. But they don’t.