This semester, I started my graduate writing class on Zoom the same way I begin most semesters: sharing with my students copies of a cherished manuscript page from Saul Bellow’s 1987 novel, More Die of Heartbreak, as an example of how writers, especially great ones, revise. Bellow had scribbled all over it, reworking the typescript in pen. His brilliance was evident in the edits, weaker sections crossed out, phrases circled and arrowed into better corners within the crease of a different paragraph. After a brief discussion, I asked, as I do every semester, if any of my students had read Saul Bellow or even heard of him. Usually they haven’t. It is a game I play with myself, a fervent believer in the sand-mandala school of life—where Tibetan monks will spend days or weeks producing a painting, one grain of colored sand after another, only to destroy the final work of art in order to celebrate the beauty and ephemerality of life. Miraculously, this fall, one student had heard of Bellow. More, he’d also read him. His was the first raised hand I’ve counted in the last decade.
My bet is that fear of this slow fade to erasure of a former literary star is in part what prompted Martin Amis to write Inside Story,which he states, in an opening section, portentously titled “Preludial,” is “about a life, my own.” There are five parts to this “novel” (not counting the Preludial, an Interludial, and a Postludial, plus Afterthoughts and an addendum), and each part contains roughly four or five chapters. Within all of this are bouts of fiction and nonfiction and memoir. There are also photographs and long footnotes, which at times make reading a chore. But, wait, there’s more: “How to Write” passages in which Amis pretends that he is addressing some imagined young writer, inviting him or her into his home, offering a drink, and promising craft lessons, which are then threaded throughout the book.