TO JERUSALEM AND BACK
A Personal Account
Bellow goes to Israel in 1975--not to see the sights, but to talk, listen, and learn--and returns drenched in issues ("the facts are coming out of my ears") and keen on sharing his radar-oven exposure to the crossed wires (Israeli, Arab, Russian, American) that keep the Middle East just this side of all-out conflagration. The journey itself supplies only a feathery structure and relatively little in the way of travelogue commonplaces: a planeful of wildly willful Hasidim, communings with Mount Zion and the Dead Sea ("here you die and mingle"), a wander through the Old City in search of ancient baths. Two poets, a barber, a masseur, and a child violinist offer charming cameos, but politicians and professors are the main attractions; there are intense question-and-answer sessions with Prime Minister Rabin, Abba Eban, Arab moderate Elie Kedourie (a London stop-over), and, inevitably, upon return, a date with Mr. Kissinger. Each acquaintance, occurrence or vista--from a grapevine arbor in the Greek quarter to a Chicago taxicab ride--triggers a free-associative dive into Bellow's vast "personal Israel syllabus": dozens of books, articles, white papers, and remembered interviews. The elegant paraphrases of political arguments slide into personal and literary reflections. Balzac, Baudelaire, Faulkner, Joyce, and Tolstoy hover over Jerusalem. But the real problems aren't muted by the slightly incongruous erudition, the gentle ironies, or the ever-surprising, pleasing phrasing. The West Bank, Russian and French anti-Semitism, valid Palestinian claims, and the all-important future of American Mideast policy; Bellow is overwhelmed--and occasionally rendered naive or tedious--by the seriousness of what you discover "when you leave your desk and enter life." The outing to Jerusalem and back earns him no peace of mind, and responsible readers have tough work ahead if they want to share the expedition's dry rewards.