Harold Bloom Is Dead. But His ‘Rage for Reading’ Is Undiminished.

Harold Bloom’s posthumous “The Bright Book of Life” is his farewell gift to his readers — unless (and I wouldn’t put it past him) there are further 500-page Bloomian tomes lying in wait for us. Its subtitle is “Novels to Read and Reread,” and since it is first and foremost personal in its approach and tone, I feel justified in responding to it personally — especially since reading and rereading novels has not only been a lifelong pursuit, but I’ve spent much of the past three years rereading many of the books Bloom writes about here. (A number of these he’s written about before — he’s rewriting as well as rereading.)

What’s more, since he was only a year older than me, our early reading followed essentially the same hectic arc. It can’t be mere coincidence that the two books Bloom considers to be the “most eminent of all novels” — Samuel Richardson’s 2,000-page epistolary “Clarissa” and Proust’s seven-volume “In Search of Lost Time” — are works I have been making my way through again this past year (along with “The Tale of Genji,” “Tom Jones,” “Lolita” and “Martin Chuzzlewit”). If you suffer from what Bloom calls “the rage for reading and rereading,” you’re on a never-pausing treadmill — no sooner have you consumed, yet again, “War and Peace” and “Middlemarch” and “The Charterhouse of Parma” and all of Jane Austen but it’s time to return to them once more: to have one final go before (as the ever-morbid Bloom reminds us) it’s too late.

So what exactly is this (supposedly) final eruption from this brilliant and provocative teacher and literary critic? For those who do not know him: Harold Bloom was the formidable Yale professor whose 1973 assertion of “the anxiety of influence” — the way poetic genius has been both nurtured and threatened by the genius that preceded it — has launched a thousand Ph.D. theses; whose “The Book of J” proposes that Genesis, Exodus and Numbers were the work of a woman of surpassing literary talent at the court of King Solomon; and whose massive and magisterial if quirky “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” is the finest one-volume assessment of the plays at our disposal.

“The Bright Book of Life” is focused on the novel, but Bloom is just as knowledgeable and passionate about poetry as he is about fiction, and the poets are never far from his mind. He was also deeply invested in Gnosticism, although there I cannot follow him, since my understanding of Gnosticism is as limited as my understanding of what it is that hedge fund managers do. But then Bloom’s experience of religion and in particular Judaism — he spoke only Yiddish until he was 6 — is radically unlike mine, since I grew up in a completely secular family and society. (Oddly enough, until the Gottliebs graduated to Manhattan, we lived on Walton Avenue in the Bronx, not very far from where the Blooms lived on the Grand Concourse.) The crucial thing is that our reading was the same — just as my reading almost exactly duplicated that of Toni Morrison, who, like me, was born a year after Bloom yet whose external circumstances (she grew up in a Black community in Lorain, Ohio) could not have been more different from mine. We knew, and our tastes were formed by, the same books, both the classics and the dominant works of modernism. Like it or not, the zeitgeist is the zeitgeist.

Here’s what “The Bright Book of Life” isn’t: It isn’t a handy list of the 50 or 100 novels “you must read before you die.” Nor is it a collection of painless expositions of “the world’s greatest works of fiction.” Nor is it an introduction to the world’s greatest writers. It’s a series of meditations on what Bloom believes to be the most important novels we have, and it takes for granted that its readers already know the books under consideration; in other words, that they have already absorbed “the canon,” and are eager to reconsider it later in their lives. For those with the rage for reading and rereading, it is something of a feast; for others, it will be daunting. A not atypical, almost throwaway passage for you to test the waters on: “Tolstoy, as befits the writer since Shakespeare who most has the art of the actual, combines in his representational praxis the incompatible powers of Homer and the Yahwist.” This is not Bloom showing off; it’s the way Bloom thinks and proceeds.

What then is the Bloom canon? Apart from his novelists, his frame of reference rests on Shakespeare above all others, Homer, Chaucer, Dante, Montaigne, Emerson, Dr. Johnson (the “shrewdest of all literary critics”), Blake, Wordsworth, Whitman (for him, the central American writer of the 19th century), Wallace Stevens, Freud. Among the novelists, Cervantes, Tolstoy (supreme), Melville, Austen, Proust, Joyce. Until recently, these names would have been taken for granted by most of us, although political correctness is altering the picture, with even the “Odyssey” coming under attack — for being a classic, if I understand the argument.

There are many rewards to be reaped from “The Bright Book of Life” — its rescue of D. H. Lawrence’s reputation as a major writer is one of the most valuable — but the sorry truth is that the book as a whole is a great big mess. Or, rather, it’s a book that is clearly unfinished and is often under-thought. There are gaping holes. For instance, although George Eliot’s power and probity are referred to many times, and although Bloom has written deeply about her in his 2004 book “Novelists and Novels,” there is no chapter devoted to “Middlemarch,” surely one of the greatest if not the greatest of English novels. Where are the novels of Kafka and Beckett, both of whom he venerates and constantly refers to? Where is Dreiser, whose “An American Tragedy” he again and again, in other books, identifies as a major work? (For me, too, Dreiser is the outstanding American novelist of pre-Faulkner 20th-century American literature.) About F. Scott Fitzgerald he concludes — but elsewhere — “To come alive in one short novel and three or four stories is a lesson in the adequacy and authenticity of genius.” No chapter on “The Great Gatsby” here, though.

Instead, we’re served up Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed” (“I Promessi Sposi”). Yes, it’s the one 19th-century Italian novel anyone knows: While England and France and Russia and America were creating the 19th-century novel, Italy was pouring its creative energies into opera and poetry. But despite Verdi’s Requiem having been written in Manzoni’s honor, this celebrated novel reads like Sir Walter Scott warmed over. Trying to be fair to it, I’ve read it in two different translations — nothing helps.

In general, Bloom is too sketchy, too dutiful, about the major French novels, the exception being “Les Misérables,” which he perceives as “a vast prose poem … more a tidal wave than a book,” and which is, he acknowledges, despite its sentimentalities, a work that will live forever. Even Harold Bloom bows to the inevitable. About Balzac — “an amazing novelist” — he writes always with deference but here almost exclusively (and nervously) about the demonic character Vautrin, and fails to convey this writer’s astounding fecundity and acuity. Flaubert may be “except for Proust … the true artist of the novel,” but Bloom is more interested in Emma Bovary herself than in her novel. (Chez Bloom, cherchez la femme.) About that unique masterpiece of depravity, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” Bloom has nothing whatsoever to say.

He also gives short shrift to the most important novelists of late-19th-century Europe, and when in his various books he mentions them, it is conscientiously, not with a sense that he is committed to them or even deeply read in them. He does alight briefly, in one of his books, on Eça de Queirós’s “The Relic,” but of Portugal’s greatest novelist, author of “The Sin of Father Amaro,” “Cousin Basilio” and above all “The Maias,” “The Bright Book of Life” has nothing to say. More dismaying, he simply ignores Spain’s greatest novelist since Cervantes, Benito Peréz Galdós, whose huge, teeming novel of the life of Madrid — “Fortunata and Jacinta” — is especially fascinating since, as far as I know, it is the only major adultery novel of the 19th century in which the central character, the adulterer, is a man. (Fortunata is the lower-class mistress, Jacinta the respectable wife.) Galdós, inevitably referred to as “the Balzac of Spain” or “the Zola of Spain,” is hardly an obscure figure: Not only is he central to Spanish literature but Luis Buñuel adapted a number of his novels for film, including “Nazarín” and “Tristana.” And speaking of adultery, where is Theodor Fontane’s “Effi Briest” — indeed, where is Fontane himself, a superb writer who is Germany’s finest novelist between Goethe and Thomas Mann? Where, for that matter, is what to me is the most impressive novel written since World War II — Vasily Grossman’s overpowering “Life and Fate”? But Soviet literature is not part of Harold Bloom’s personal canon — a canon that increasingly looks to be too personal and, as a result, too narrow.

What else can explain Bloom’s failure to focus on writers of the stature of Eça de Queirós and Galdós and Fontane? Certainly not laziness — no reader was ever less lazy. Then I remember that when I was at college, which is when Bloom was at college, these writers were never even mentioned, let alone taught, unless you were taking specialist courses. You were on your own, until you stumbled on them. If you stumbled on them.

He is inevitably at his strongest when dealing with those writers he cares most about. With Jane Austen, for one. And, above all, with Tolstoy: “To have written ‘War and Peace,’ the profoundly troubling ‘Anna Karenina,’ and the perfect story ‘Hadji Murat’ is to have given such vitalism to readers that, whatever his moralizings, my primary reactions to Tolstoy are awe and gratitude.”

Bloom grapples mightily with Tolstoy’s hatred and resentment of Shakespeare — talk about the anxiety of influence! He tries to mitigate if not forgive Tolstoy’s unspeakable behavior to his wife. Most crucially, he makes crystal clear what may be Tolstoy’s outstanding quality as a novelist — that mysterious vivifying touch which, separate from analysis or description, makes his characters so real, so true: They simply are. This applies to Shakespeare too, of course — perhaps another cause of Tolstoy’s resentment? Even so, “Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible, which the old Tolstoy taught himself to read in the original; Homer; Dante; Chaucer; Cervantes; above all Shakespeare: These stand with ‘War and Peace.’ I myself would add Milton, Goethe, ‘Moby-Dick,’ Whitman. After that it is a question of individual taste and judgment.”

As for Dickens, whose “David Copperfield” was a direct influence on Tolstoy, to Bloom his greatest achievement is “Bleak House” — but the “Bleak House” he loves is the “Bleak House” of the long-suffering Esther Summerson, not the dark novel of fog, of London, of the law and the courts, of obsession, which is, I believe, the way most readers read it. He pairs it with Dickens’s final complete novel, “Our Mutual Friend,” a book I care for so extravagantly that I’ve read it three times, two of those times aloud. But where is “Great Expectations,”to my mind Dickens’s most profound and perfect book, which even in “Novelists and Novels” Bloom practically brushes off? Most important, does he adequately appreciate Dickens’s unshakable virile gusto — a quality Bloom so frequently celebrates? Who, other than Shakespeare, has created so vast an assortment of memorable human beings? Who so firmly commands both humor and pathos?

The two works in which Bloom is most fully invested are “Moby-Dick” (40 pages) and “Ulysses” (54). His view of Melville’s overwhelming masterpiece is inspiring and convincing (if you need to be convinced), although I find that quoting at least a dozen pages of it is not a helpful way of approaching it. “Moby-Dick” is a tremendous surge of a book, not something to be chopped up and read in passages. I believe Bloom when he reveals that he knows many of these pages by heart, and I agree with him that it and “Leaves of Grass” are the two essential books of 19th-century America (elsewhere he does full justice to Emily Dickinson’s genius). As for “Ulysses,” which he reverences, I suffer from Joyce blindness, and so remain silent.

When we leave behind the indisputable giants, we often find ourselves in troubling waters. Why in the world does Bloom single out for a chapter of its own Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Death of the Heart,” a book I cherish but which simply does not belong in the company of Tolstoy and Austen and Stendhal? How to justify his choice of “The Princess Casamassima” as one of the two Henry James novels (along with “The Ambassadors”) to write about at length? I keep trying to appreciate it, but it’s dead on its feet. (Where is “The Portrait of a Lady,” about which he has said elsewhere, it “seems more relevant each passing day, in a society where American women of education and beauty are more free than ever before to choose, and to fall”?) Nor do we understand why he is really more interested in Emily Brontë as a poet, wonderful as she is, than as the author of “Wuthering Heights,” or why of Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” we hear practically nothing. Again, elsewhere he has written tellingly and provocatively about it — why not here? As for Joseph Conrad, much as I esteem him (having once spent a summer reading his entire output chronologically), the balance of Bloom’s book is disturbed by his being assigned three separate chapters when only Austen (also three) and Tolstoy (four) are granted as many.

Things get stranger as we come closer to the present, when personal considerations are clearly impelling him. It’s “my friend” Cormac McCarthy — Bloom is passionate about “Blood Meridian,” in which McCarthy’s penchant for unmediated violence combines with his penchant for fancy writing. Try “All the Pretty Horses” instead, in which you won’t be tripped up by words like “bepopulate” and “endarkenment,” and sentences like: “The trail of the argonauts terminated in ashes as told and in the convergence of such vectors in such a waste wherein the hearts and enterprise of one small nation have been swallowed up and carried off by another the expriest asked if some might not see the hand of a cynical god conducting with what austerity and what mock surprise so lethal a congruence.” As for McCarthy’s notorious resistance to punctuation, you soon learn to skate over this affected bad-boyism.

And it’s “my friend Ralph Waldo Ellison.” (“During his final years, we lunched together once a week at the Century Club in New York and talked about literature and jazz.”) And, yes, he met Elizabeth Bowen once in London and once in New York, and “she was intensely civilized, gracious, and emanated an aura of good will.” And yes, it’s “my late friend Philip Roth,” although in this book he does not choose to anatomize one of Roth’s novels.)

Most egregious is the case of Ursula K. Le Guin, whom he never met but with whom he “became good friends during the last two months of her life, entirely by way of email,” exchanging letters 16 times. He chooses to give room to not one but two of Le Guin’s novels, “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Dispossessed,” a decision as bewildering as it is ludicrous. Le Guin is a strong writer, certainly, and deserves her eminence among writers of science fiction (about which Bloom appears to know nothing, as indeed he shows no signs of being knowledgeable about any genre writing). But two of her perfectly readable, even stimulating, novels as opposed to one by Dostoyevsky (whom he elsewhere acknowledges he “abominates”)? And one by Faulkner? It is to his friend Le Guin that he dedicates “The Bright Book of Life.”

It’s not only writers to whom we are introduced as friends or acquaintances. His personal remarks about irrelevant people reach their apogee in the chapter on “Invisible Man” when suddenly we come upon this: “Early in the 1980s, I was an overnight guest of Berndt and Jutta Ostendorf in Munich, introduced to them by my friend Miriam Hansen, a film historian who died in 2011 at the age of 61.” (He and the Ostendorfs chat about Ellison and jazz.) Here, as at many other points in “The Bright Book of Life,” we feel that a memoir is trying to break through: “I have the happiest memories of many teas shared with Mary Reynolds and Mary Ellmann during the years they were at Yale.” This is a book that has veered out of control.

As for the work with which Bloom concludes his revisitings of the major novels, what can explain his choice of Joshua Cohen’s “Book of Numbers”? There’s certainly a personal connection, since Bloom quotes at length from a letter that Cohen “kindly sent me,” but that is not enough to explain why instead of engaging with the two novelists of these past decades whom he most frequently invokes — Pynchon and DeLillo — he lands on this overstuffed and pretentious monument to (or of?) narcissism.

Equally maddening is Bloom’s ardent championship of the Pevear / Volokhonsky translations that are, to my mind, destroying our reading of Russian literature. Some time ago, I was trying to read their version of a collection of Chekhov’s short novels and was so irritated by the flat, lifeless dialogue that I found myself flinging the book across the room — I, who can hardly bear to deface a book by making a note in a margin! But to do this to Chekhov! I know God will forgive me.

The most baffling thing about “The Bright Book of Life” is that there is absolutely no context provided for it — Bloom’s rambling, perplexing preface is less than helpful. What were his intentions? How much that he intended to include never got written? How would he have acknowledged or explained why parts of the book are simply recycled from material in earlier books? (The absolutely superb discussion of Austen’s “Persuasion,” for instance, is reproduced word for word, apart from a few cosmetic details, from Bloom’s “Novelists and Novels.” Self-cannibalization is legitimate, or at least legal, if disclosed, but disturbing when not.) Who made the editorial decisions that determined the final shape and content of this book — the author, who at moments acknowledges his waning strength? The author’s literary executor(s)? The publisher? Or is this dismayingly erratic yet so frequently illuminating text exactly what it was when its author laid down the burden of his oracular vision of our literature? It is a tremendous pity that the final statement from a critic of such significance — the best reader of our time — should be this disjointed effort.

Harold Bloom is not only a master educator, he has been a central figure in today’s culture wars. As early as 1994, in his book “The Western Canon” — a book I wholeheartedly recommend — he is wading into battle to save the academy from what he challengingly labels the School of Resentment. His argument is dense, difficult, but in my view irrefutable. And although he is not optimistic, he has not abandoned hope: “Shakespeare’s eminence is, I am certain, the rock upon which the School of Resentment must at last founder. … Originality is the great scandal that resentment cannot accommodate, and Shakespeare remains the most original writer we will ever know.”

It is good to be able to point out that although humor is not Bloom’s strongest weapon as a writer, much as he admires it in Cervantes, Shakespeare, Austen and so many others, he can actually make a joke out of his argument for the canon. In “The Bright Book of Life,” remarking that President Obama “ranks Hemingway and Toni Morrison with William Shakespeare,” he comments: “I voted twice for Obama and wish he were still presiding over us, but I am happy I don’t have to grade him as a literary critic.”

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