When I die, please, someone, call up Ian McEwan (I understand there may be a mortality problem here) and ask him to write about me.
Today’s NYTimes gem (“Master of the Universe“) is McEwan’s elegy, eulogy, Op/Ed, story about Saul Bellow. I have an uninformed but special love for Saul Bellow, because his book Ravelstein was, briefly but feelingly, the most expensive, most controversial and possibly the most difficult book in my personal collection. McEwan, whose book Enduring Love is currently spending time in the bottom of my backpack, worships at the Bellow altar here, and quotes from a story I have not read but now very much want to:
“Mr. Bellow seems to set out a kind of manifesto, a ringing checklist of the challenges the novelist must confront, or the reality he must contain or describe. It also serves as a reader’s guide to the raw material of Mr. Bellow’s work. I came to know this passage by heart through re-reading, and borrowed it for the epigraph of a novel. It was a risk, because the pulse of this prose was likely to make my own sound puny.
“‘Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs…'”
And that is lovely and much to think about, particularly coming on a day when a fellow student’s comment that there is no difference between fiction and non-fiction, no existence of something like an essay has been pinging around in my mind and my chest. Here, though, is what sells me on McEwan (and Bellows):
Writers we admire and re-read are absorbed into the fine print of our consciousness, into the white noise of our thoughts, and in this sense, they can never die.
Let me lapse into the speech of my generation: Oh My God Yes. “Absorbed into the fine print of our consciousness.” It’s as though I’ve been trying to say this for 25 years about why I re-read certain things over and over, why some passages just stick. It explains the idea that I’m working on, filtering around in my head, that everything i read makes everything I’ve read before somehow change, subtly, in meaning, even in content and presentation. It feeds into the idea that literature can create a shared history between people. It… it’s just, Yes. So right.