A Year in Reading: Rivka Galchen

December 15, 2009 | 2 2 min read

coverI have a friend who – the details don’t matter – I think of as a character in a Saul Bellow novel. One of the wild charismats, making a mess of life, attractively, and whose conversation is knit of brainy references, emotive bursts, and half-baked theories. Said friend was enthusing to me the other day about the great Jackie Chan. He said Jackie Chan is our Buster Keaton. Jackie Chan, I didn’t know this, was basically sold to the Peking Opera as a child. (Madness!) In that sense Chan belongs – so goes his notion – to the American vaudeville tradition of impoverished genius. What a weird and necessary set of circumstances goes into the making of a Jackie Chan. Well: what weird compression made a literary genius of little Solomon Bellow, who could wax on as enraged and impassioned about teeth as about, say, Hannah Arendt? To go back and read Saul Bellow is to encounter again the kind of mad virtuosity that, in a certain mood, a certain type might argue is a sort of translation of the embodied genius of Chan.

Anyhow, my favorite Bellow novel, which I reread this past year, is Herzog. If you want to feel a bit grandiose about your own madness – how charming we remain, nothwithstanding – then Herzog’s for you. And if you want that grandiose good feeling you have about being near mad – if you want that bubble popped – then, again, Herzog – with wronged and wronging Moses Herzog at its center – is for you. Moses Herzog – that suffering joker – resembles the best of clowns of any era or field. He’s sexual, ecstatic, bitter, and comedic: a fire you watch burn with increasing hopes (intermittently justified) that there will be no ash.

So Bellow: the uninsurable stunt man. Buyable.

More from A Year in Reading

is the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and a Cullman Fellowship from the New York Public Library, where she is at work on her second novel.


  1. Using extended kitschy pop references for serious cultural achievements has grown very tiresome. And this one is inaccurate, and insulting to both Bellow and Keaton. You and your friend should realize how wrong it is to compare Keaton and Chan. Keaton’s humor excelled because his characters were earnest and sincere creatures navigating an absurdly collapsing reality. Much like Herzog in Bellow’s wonderful novel. Chan’s “humor” is all mugging, obvious reactions to contrived situations.

  2. I am an Iranian translator and journalist. I have read Ms. Galchen’s works and follow up her writings. I am looking for a contact address of Rivka Galchen or her agent. .Any help will be much appreciated and acknowledged.

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