Wednesday, November 15, 2006

`The High Ones Die, Die'

I was browsing aimlessly among the library stacks when a comforting realization occurred. In front of me were shelves holding volumes by and about John Cheever; behind me, within arm’s reach, Saul Bellow; and also behind me but further to the left, John Berryman – a remarkable generation of American writers, born in 1912, 1915 and 1914, respectively. My timing was fortuitous, for I discovered them as a teenager, in the nineteen-sixties when all were thriving (as writers, if not as human beings), and all remain among my favorites. I remember my excitement when Mr. Sammler’s Planet was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. I also remember, a year or two later, arguing with an English professor who claimed Jerzy Kosinski was a greater writer than Bellow, and Steps a greater novel than Mr. Sammler’s Planet. That professor is still around but has morphed into a writer of unreadable avant-garde fiction.

The link among them was Bellow. He was friends with the others and eulogized both. To my knowledge, Berryman and Cheever were not acquainted. Of Berryman, in his foreword to the poet’s posthumous novel, Recovery, Bellow wrote:

“He knocked himself out to be like everybody else – he liked, he loved, he cared, but he was aware that there was something peculiarly comical in all this. And at last it must have seemed that he had used up all his resources. Faith against despair, love versus nihilism, had been the themes of his struggles and his poems. What he needed for his art had been supplied by his own person, by his mind, his wit. He drew it out of his vital organs, out of his very skin. At last there was no more. Reinforcements failed to arrive. Forces were not joined. The cycle of resolution, reform, and relapse had become a bad joke that could not continue.”

I still find Bellow’s eloquence heartbreaking, 33 years after I first read Recovery. Read the entire foreword, included in Bellow’s nonfiction collection, It All Adds Up, for reminders of earlier, happier times. The volume also includes the eulogy he wrote in 1982 for Cheever – another alcoholic, like Berryman, but one who recovered and thrived. Bellow praises his friend as a “self-transformer,” a writer who, against human odds, continued to grow:

“For me no one makes more sense, no one is so interesting, as a man who engages his soul in an enterprise of this kind. I find myself, as I grow older, increasingly drawn to those who live as John did. Those who choose such an enterprise, who engage in such a struggle, make all the interest of life for us. The life John led leaves us in his debt. We are his debtors, and we are indebted to him even for the quality of the pain we feel at his death.”

What an honor and a terrible sadness to outlive your brilliant friends and to write their eulogies. In his journals Cheever called Bellow a “real explorer” (not how my Kosinski-admiring prof could ever think of him), and Berryman claimed The Adventures of Augie March helped energize Homage to Mistress Bradstreet. Berryman himself was a frequent and proficient eulogizer. He dedicated “Dream Song 36” to William Faulkner, who died in 1962. Here’s the first stanza:

“The high ones die, die. They die. You look up and who’s there?
Easy, easy, Mr Bones. I is on your side.
I smell your grief.
I sent my grief away. I cannot care
Forever. With them all again & again I died
And cried, and I have to live.”

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