Should the Prince postpone his wedding as a mark of respect for a great writer?

Princes and popes come and go, but tragi-comedians of consciousness you can count on the fingers of two hands
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The Independent Online

Been trying to contact Clarence House for the past few days, in the hope of persuading the Prince of Wales to postpone the wedding again. Personally I never was entirely happy with a Saturday wedding, since it meant that orthodox Jews would be unable to attend or even watch the ceremony on television. But now the novelist Saul Bellow has died, does it not behove the Prince, as a mark of respect to Jews, North Americans, and novelists, to think again? It is admirable that a Protestant country should pause from its concerns to honour the sentiments of Catholics, but it is no less important for an unlettered country to bend the knee occasionally to literature. And the death of one of the truly great novelists of the 20th century is surely such an occasion.

Been trying to contact Clarence House for the past few days, in the hope of persuading the Prince of Wales to postpone the wedding again. Personally I never was entirely happy with a Saturday wedding, since it meant that orthodox Jews would be unable to attend or even watch the ceremony on television. But now the novelist Saul Bellow has died, does it not behove the Prince, as a mark of respect to Jews, North Americans, and novelists, to think again? It is admirable that a Protestant country should pause from its concerns to honour the sentiments of Catholics, but it is no less important for an unlettered country to bend the knee occasionally to literature. And the death of one of the truly great novelists of the 20th century is surely such an occasion.

Some of you reading these words might already be among the crowds waving their paper flags outside the Windsor Guildhall. In which case my appeal will have failed. I can't say I ever really expected it to succeed. The day is still a long way off when we accord to novelists the importance we accord to popes. And though the Prince has spoken passionately about the importance of Shakespeare, and regularly attends grand opera with Mrs Parker Bowles (or however she is now titled), I am not aware that he is a student of the contemporary Jewish novel.

I say the day is a long way off before we accord to novelists the importance we accord to popes, but I should have said the day is long gone.

When Dickens died they buried him in Westminster Abbey. Against the wishes his family who wanted him interred in Rochester Cathedral. Dickens himself had requested only modest obsequies in his will, resting his claims "to the remembrance of my country upon my published works". But the nation was in shock, and public opinion, orchestrated by The Times, demanded a more open demonstration of sorrow. By way of compromise, the family acceded to burial in the Abbey in return for a private service. Dickens' grave was then left open for as many days as it took for the thousands of mourners to file past and throw in flowers. An English commemoration of English genius, no doubt, but even in America, Longfellow wrote, "It is no exaggeration to say that the whole country is stricken with grief."

So if they could do it for us, why aren't we able to do it for them? Bellow's genius, I accept, was of another order to Dickens'. It will never again fall to a serious novelist to enjoy such popular appeal. We have grown too stupid for that. But all the more reason for us to honour in his passing a writer we weren't smart enough adequately to honour while he was alive. I haven't forgotten that Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I'm not talking prizes. You honour a novelist by carrying his words in your head, not by giving him a medal. And how many contemporary readers keep as much of Saul Bellow's intelligence about their persons as they do the collected crassnesses of Dan Brown?

"The whisky went down, burning pleasurably in his chest like a tangled string of fire" - why don't we recall that line every time we knock back a Scotch?

And how, speaking of popes, are we ever able to enter a church without remembering Herzog's newly converted wife Madeleine, eager in her grey suit with the squirrel collar, crossing herself and genuflecting in the aisle, her body gathered upward in the breast and shoulders - "Only it was more than genuflection. She sank, she cast herself down, she wanted to spread herself on the floor and press her heart to the boards."

I never met Saul Bellow, but I came close. I was in New York for the publication of my second novel. Not expecting too much, but excited. I had never been to New York before. I had been saving it up for just such an occasion as this - arriving in the city of Jewish words with Jewish words of my own secreted in my baggage. My agent's office was like an apartment, 40 floors up, a treehouse high among the offices and roof gardens. She was on the phone. Too animated to break off, she signalled me to make myself at home, take a novel from her shelves, pour myself a tangled string of fire. "You don't," she was saying, "you don't look a day over 60, all right, 55. You are still a man with the best of his life in front of him. No, I'm not shmoozing. Women fall at your feet. They always have and they aren't going to stop now. What's age? A man like you determines his own age. And people will be reading your novels when you're 700, never mind 70. You don't want to be reminded? Fine, we'll speak next week. Happy birthday ... sorry!"

"Saul Bellow," she said, putting down the receiver, "calling from Chicago. He's 70 today."

Twenty years ago and I still tingle with that proximity to greatness. I wished she'd handed me the phone. I'd have liked to thank him. Not least for sticking it to Henry James, who famously recoiled in "lettered anguish" from the tortured idiom of East Side Jews, fearing the effects of their immigrant barbarisms on "the consecrated English tradition". Far from defiling that tradition, Bellow's wonderfully sophisticated novels, resonating with Jewish street life, with Yiddishisms, and with all the accumulated sorrows, absurdities and learning of the shtetl, actually reconsecrated it. You want to see how English prose should be written? Read Humboldt's Gift. Forgive me if I add that after Bellow, whoever has wanted to write well has known he has to write Jewishly.

The two greatest comedies of the second half of the 20th century - Humboldt's Gift and Herzog. Tragi-comedies not of buffoons, but of thinking men. Princes and popes come and go, but tragi-comedians of consciousness you can count on the fingers of two hands.

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