Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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Some Quick Hits on a Recent Issue

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Martin Schneider writes:

I'm finding the April 26 issue of The New Yorker (green cover) kind of delightful. In no particular order:

1. Hendrik Hertzberg's Comment is excellent and also clarifies a subject that I'd pretty much missed, President Obama's recent successes on the nuclear proliferation front. If you think you might have missed it too, do check it out.

1a. Hertzberg quotes Obama's "Dmitri, we agreed" comment to Medvedev that apparently sealed the deal in the end.

The line possesses ... an odd echo* of some of the most delicious dialogue in Dr. Strangelove, which movie Hertzberg cites in the beginning of the Comment, when President Merkin Muffley, played by Peter Sellers, is on the phone to the Russian premier to tell him that the United States is about to destroy the USSR for no good reason:

Well let me finish, Dimitri. Let me finish, Dimitri. Well, listen, how do you think I feel about it? Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dimitri? Why do you think I'm calling you? Just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you. Of course I like to say hello. Not now, but any time, Dimitri. I'm just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened. It's a friendly call. Of course it's a friendly call. Listen, if it wasn't friendly, ... you probably wouldn't have even got it.

So, so good.

The other thing that struck me about "Dmitri, we agreed" is that it may be the most quintessentially Obamanian statement of any importance he has ever uttered as president. That statement is wholly consistent with the person I supported as early as 2007, voted for in 2008, and haven't seen quite enough of since.

2. Dana Goodyear's article on the restaurant Animal in Los Angeles (not available online) is a sheer delight, and towards the end takes on an almost fictive quality. A great subject, and she did the most with it.

3. The letter Saul Bellow wrote to Philip Roth on January 7, 1984 (not available online), is pretty fantastic, even if his appellation for the poor journo who crossed him, "crooked little slut," is a bit unfortunate.

4. Billy Kimball's list of rarely heard complaints about the iPad is very funny.

* Update: Somehow I missed that Hertzberg quoted a different part of Muffley's telephone monologue to start off his Comment. Kudos to Hertzberg for spotting this echo long before I did.


Living on the west coast as I do, my issue only arrived yesterday. So I finally read the letter of Bellow’s to which you refer here, and am curious to know more about what you admired about it.

I found it difficult to take at face value. It appears to be a letter of apology for insults he aimed at Roth in a People magazine interview — insults he’s now blaming on the journalist who interviewed him. Essentially, he’s saying, “I was quoted out of context,” though more gracefully.

Misquoted? Misrepresented? Maybe. But my guess is, probably not. Which makes me wonder: did Roth buy it?

I don’t know, it’s got style. I think we comprehend the letter’s meaning similarly, he’s probably being less than straight with Roth and Roth isn’t buying it either. Perhaps it’s the result of a guilty conscience. Perhaps Bellow envied Roth.

I liked the opening reference to the Good Intentions Paving Co.; I liked how his string of compliments petered out and became criticism (in an apology!); I liked his rather poetic closing slam of journalists. When I finished the letter, I thought, This was some guy! Until you mentioned it, it hadn’t really occurred to me that he was being a crumb, too, although of course I somehow knew that, too. It just wasn’t relevant.

I’ve read the letter in question and I fail to see anything very remarkable about it. Yes, there’s the bit about “crooked little slut,” but that’s par for the course in Bellow’s writing. He was notoriously tough on women both in his life and in his work. (He was married five times, four times divorced with plenty of infidelities on the side.) The letter also contains that malicious sliver about Roth being “motivated by his desire for fame, money and sexual opportunities.” There’s certainly a double standard at work there because Bellow was well known for his pursuit of sexual opportunities. Charles Simic, in his review of James Atlas’s “Bellow: A Biography” (New York Review of Books, May 31, 2001), says about Bellow: “As the old blues song goes, he had more women than a passenger train can hold.” From the perspective of writing as pure writing, there are other letters in the New Yorker set that are more interesting than that one to Roth. I particularly like the early one to Alfred Kazin in which Bellow draws a vivid distinction between critic and novelist: “He [the critic] finds his drama ready for him; the novelist has to assemble it from the materials he bumps blindly, fish-like, with his nose. And he has to change it, arrange it, set it in motion.”

Okay, Martin, I hear you. There’s no question the letter has style, especially that admirable fillip with the deerflies at the end of August. What bugged me, though, was the mendacity at its heart. As you know, though, I’m not a fan of what little of Bellow’s writing I’ve read—think, for example, of the overblown, “Ain’t I fascinating?” tedium of Herzog (see John Crace’s wonderful send-up here)—so I was suspicious from the start.

Bellow’s great gifts deserve great indulgence. As John Updike said, “He is not just a very good writer, he is one of the rare writers who when we read them feel to be taking mimesis a layer or two deeper than it has gone before” (“Hugging the Shore,” p.262-63).

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