I’d worked out this April 2010 Message from Dan in some detail over quite a few weeks of this, the sixth or seventh snowiest winter and “spring” that Colorado’s ever recorded. The working title was Shakespeare’s Fool – or – How Learning to Love Hamlet the Dane Has Driven Me Insane and the text was to be about my many months now of reading five or so hours of Shakespeare -- or about Shakespeare -- per day (night) and what insights, if any, that had given me: insights not only on the Bard and his work, but on the most human of topics.
And then I decided . . . no. I’ve talked enough about Shakespeare in recent weeks on my forum and elsewhere. Plus the Message would, of necessity, have grown a shade scholarly, with names necessarily cited that would have included Greenblatt, Rosenbaum, Kermode, Vendler, Empson, Goddard, Bate, Bradley, Auden, Booth, Bloom, McDonald, Garber, Hazlitt, Goethe, Tolstoy, Carlyle, Coleridge, Eliot, Taylor (the punk), Welles, Duncan-Jones, Schiffer, Grebanier, Folger, Ackroyd, Nuttall, Gollob, Knight, Bryson, Goodman, Chute, Stoppard, Collins, Spurgeon, Shapiro, Honan, Van Doren, and a slew of others.
They’re all sitting here staring at me right now, as a matter of fact. It’s a little unnerving.
So, another time. If at all.
Instead I want to write about a writer whose work and sensibilities I love almost as much – and maybe more – than Shakespeare’s: Saul Bellow.
James Wood, in a 2005 eulogy of Bellow in The New Republic, wrote:
“ I judged all modern prose by his. Unfair, certainly, because he made even the fleet-footed – the Updikes, the DeLillos, the Roths – seem like monopodes. Yet what else could I do? I discovered Saul Bellow's prose in my late teens, and henceforth, the relationship had the quality of a love affair about which one could not keep silent. Over the last week, much has been said about Bellow's prose, and most of the praise—perhaps because it has been overwhelmingly by men—has tended toward the robust: We hear about Bellow's mixing of high and low registers, his Melvillean cadences jostling the jivey Yiddish rhythms, the great teeming democracy of the big novels, the crooks and frauds and intellectuals who loudly people the brilliant sensorium of the fiction. All of this is true enough; John Cheever, in his journals, lamented that, alongside Bellow's fiction, his stories seemed like mere suburban splinters. Ian McEwan wisely suggested last week that British writers and critics may have been attracted to Bellow precisely because he kept alive a Dickensian amplitude now lacking in the English novel. [...] But nobody mentioned the beauty of this writing, its music, its high lyricism, its firm but luxurious pleasure in language itself. . . .] [I]n truth, I could not thank him enough when he was alive, and I cannot now."
So in this Message from Dan I’ll attempt no biography of Saul Bellow, nor recommendations for writers-to-be or others to read him, nor any thank-you note to the late Saul Bellow, not any literary criticism of Bellow, but, rather, attempt briefly to tell of my own encounters with some of Saul Bellow’s writing, starting, as did James Wood’s “in my late teens, and henceforth, the relationship had the quality of a love affair about which one could not keep silent.”
I’ve kept pretty silent about this particular love affair with a certain prose until now, but it’s time to talk about it.
A warning here. I said I wouldn't get into Bellow's biography and I won't (here's a link to his wikipedia biography -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Bellow), but you need to know that there's no really good biography of Saul Bellow in existence.
There's the 1980 University of Georgia Press Saul Bellow - Drumlin Woodchuck by Mark Harris that I (unfortunately) own, but it's a total embarrassment and not a biography. Mark Harris, a would-be writer (Bang the Drum Slowly) and sports interviewer for various publications, was a fan-boy "obsessed" with Saul Bellow over the decades. He spent decades begging Bellow to let him (Harris) write Bellow's "authorized" biography while constantly publishing little things about wanting and waiting to write Bellow's biography, all of which were never about Bellow but about Mark Harris, which was Mark Harris's only real interest in life.
Bellow was infinintely patient with Harris (I have dispatched less obnoxious hangers-on with a letter or phonecall) and not even the fact that on the very days that Harris was smooching up to Bellow to get permission to be his Boswell, he (Harris) was also trying to bed Bellow's wife, Susan, seemed to be enough to make Saul Bellow tell this fan-boy to get lost for good. (In truth, Bellow's graciousness is a lesson in graciousness. In Harris's own book, he tells of inviting himself to Bellow's house where all Harris wants to know is "Did you read the book of mine I just sent you. Did you? Did you? Did you?" Saul Bellow answers graciously, "I've decided to set aside all books written by good friends to read at a later date." Harris's response -- "Yeah, but did you read it? Did you? If you didn't like it, you can tell me . . ." Etc., etc., etc.
You probably won't find Saul Bellow - Drumlin Woodchuck except in some used bookstore, but be warned -- it's a sad and icky descent into fanboyism.
The "definitive" biography of Bellow is Bellow (© 2000) by James Atlas. This biography is well-written, carefully researched, exhaustive in what it covers, and well-earns its common descriptor of "definitive." It is also, for me, more of an embarrassing failure than Mark Harris's droolathon.
James Atlas -- founding editor of the Lipper-Viking Penguin Lives Series and longtime contributor to The New Yorker, editor at the New York Times Magazine, frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, etc., etc. comes across as an Olympian God, condescendingly (and critically) judging every aspect of Saul Bellow's all-too-human life and thoughts and marriages and affairs. Atlas also sneers at most of Bellow's fiction and other writing, which I believe may be immortal in a way that Olympian Mr. Atlas is not.
Understand that I read dozens of author biographies a year and I'm never interested in a hagiography (such as Mr. Harris might have written if he'd ever quit looking in the mirror and tried to write anything about Saul Bellow), but Atlas is the kind of "generous biographer" whom you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.
I take that back. I would wish James Atlas on my worst enemy. His condescension and politically correct posturing is that bad.
I could spend a few thousand words showing examples of how nasty Atlas can be toward that obsolete old fart that he treats the late Saul Bellow as being, but it would be a waste of all our time. Suffice it to say that with every precise compliment on writing that Atlas grudgingly puts forward, there are ten uses of "sexist" or "racist" or "misogynist." If Bellow uses a 25-year-old anecdote heard from a friend in his fiction, it's inevitably a "betrayal."
I'll share just one example and let you judge the snide tone. In the 1990's, when Saul Bellow was in his eighties and still writing strongly, the author made the following observation about mass culture and entertainment. But please note Atlas's bracketing sentences. This times several thousand instances shares the always-condescending, always-insulting tone of the long biography as a whole:
He [Bellow] made no secret of his distaste for mass entertainment. "Is rap music in any respect a folk art?" he asked rhetorically. "Can we rank the appetite for Nintendo or rock and rap CDs or Mortal-Kombat video games with the literary passions of an earlier time?" Literature was over because Saul Bellow was over.
So, according to James Atlas, if you're not with the current video games, you're "over." Unfortunately for Atlas's incessant superiority complex, Saul Bellow kept writing -- and writing magnificently and humanly and compassionately and without peer -- until close to his death at the age of 90.
Enough words wasted on James Atlas. If you need to read a biography of Saul Bellow, Bellow by unelected Olympian god James Atlas is the "definitive" one to read. If you cut out the nasty comments and left-handed condescending insults, the 610-page book would be a more readable 394 pages.
I may have read Bellow’s earlier novel The Victim and heard about The Dangling Man and even encountered early draft sections of Herzog in Esquire or The Saturday Evening Post before I read his full 1964 book-length version of Herzog, but it was that novel – Herzog – that drew me into Saul Bellow’s orbit and never let me go. (Me and hundreds of thousands of others.)
Recently, as I was trying to wean myself off the steady diet of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets (what do you follow Shakespeare with?), I began re-reading Herzog and excitedly tried to share it with people on my On Writing Well forum. I chose the passage below which I shared completely at random – i.e. they were simply the next paragraphs I was about to read. This is where Herzog, entering a train station as a sad and somewhat befuddled middle-aged man, remembers his family’s emmigrant trip from Montreal to the United States when he was a small boy.That excerpt:
Anyway, a holiday should begin with a train ride, as it had when he was a kid in Montreal. The whole family took the streetcar to the Grand Trunk Station with a basket (frail, splintering wood) of pears, overripe, a bargain bought by Jonah Herzog at the Rachel Street Market, the fruit spotty, ready for wasps, just about to decay, but marvelously fragrant. And inside the train on the worn green bristle of the seats Father Herzog sat peeling the fruit with a Russian pearl-handled knife. He peeled and twirled and cut with European efficiency. Meanwhile, the locomotive cried and the iron-studded cars began to move. Sun and girders divided the soot geometrically. By the factory walls the grimy weeds grew. A smell of malt came from the breweries.
The train crossed the St. Lawrence. Moses pressed the pedal and through the stained funnel of the toilet he saw the river frothing. Then he stood at the window. The water shone and curved on great slabs of rock, spinning into foam at the Lachine Rapids, where it sucked and rumbled. On the other shore was Caughnawaga, where the Indians lived in shacks raised on stilts. Then came the burnt summer fields. The windows were open. The echo of the train came back from the straw like a voice through a beard. The engine sowed cinders and soot over the fiery flowers and the hairy knobs of weed.
But that was forty years behind him. Now the train was ribbed for speed, a segmented tube of brilliant steel. There were no pears, no Willie, no Shura, no Helen, no Mother. Leaving the cab, he thought how his mother would moisten her handkerchief at her mouth and rub his face clean. He had no business to recall this, he knew, and turned toward the Grand Central in his straw hat. He was of the mature generation now, and life was his to do something with, if he could. But he had not forgotten the odor of his mother's saliva on the handkerchief that summer morning in the squat hollow Canadian station, the black iron and the sublime brass. All children have cheeks and all mothers spittle to wipe them tenderly. These things either matter or they do not matter. It depends upon the universe, what it is. These acute memories are probably symptoms of disorder. To him, perpetual thought of death was a sin. Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.
It worked pretty well as an example.
But it wasn’t typical of the content of Herzog, which is so dominated by Moses Herzog’s soliloquys – in the form of unfinished letters the near-mad Herzog is dashing off to people, celebrities and family members, the living and dead – that the book could have been titled Hamlet II and not been far off the mark.
These musings by Moses Herzog are the soul of the novel. The letters – thoughts – are so varied that no exerpts can give a real sense of their richness and variety, but flipping the book open again and putting a finger down at random give us:
Dear Dr. Mossbach: I am sorry you are not satisfied with my treatment of T.E. Hulme and his definition of Romanticism as “split religion.” There is something to be said for his view. He wanted things to be clear, dry, spare, pure, cool, and hard. With this I think we can all sympathize.
Well, perhaps we can all sympathize with that, but it’s infinitely easier to sympathize – as I did in high school – with Saul Bellow’s voyage into Moses Herzog’s thoughts: thoughts that were confused, moist, rich, alloyed, warm, and definitely soft around the edges.
Herzog is of the Huckleberry Finn sort of novel that you can re-read throughout a long lifetime only to find -- years and decades and major life-stages and events apart -- that it always has something new to say to you without ever losing its newness.
Mr. Sammler's Planet (© 1970), read by me sometime during the winter of 1971-'72., is the Saul Bellow novel that's had the deepest and most lasting impact on me.
It was an interesting winter for me. I was alone, just out of graduate school, and teaching fourth-grade in Washington, Missouri, a small town on the southernmost bend of the Missouri River.
My car, a new Fiat 850 Coupe, was broken and unable to run most of that year. Some part was always being sent for -- to Italy was my best guess -- and the penatosa (lemon)-yellow car sat parked at the curb outside the haunted house I lived in. The street was on a steep hillside and ran downhill steeply to a cliff that dropped away to the river. It's one of the most inexplicable things of my life that I never took the parking brake off that useless pile of four-wheeled Italian junk and let it glide off the cliff and into that river.
In the meantime, the apartment I'd rented consisted of two habitable rooms in a large and -- as I mentioned -- very empty, very drafty, and very haunted house. The rooms had been fixed up by a local chiropractor and even in my state of Original Innocence then, I vaguely perceived that the place was the good doctor's . . . ah . . . boink pad. The rooms were windowless and dark and I set up my work table -- a door on trestles -- against the door opening on an empty room so that Whatever lurched out of the darkness toward me would have to overturn the desk first. But sometimes I peeked through that keyhole into the cobwebby room and at all times, the wind sighed and moaned and sent cold fingers into the two "refitted" rooms where I lived.
But I'd chosen the place because one of the windowless rooms had an entire wall of bookshelves built in. Perfect for the hundreds of paperbacks I was dragging from place to place with me. (The apartment had no TV -- only a big gas-burner heater with row upon row of blue flames, lined up like soldiers -- and I was recently trying to remember how many years I went around that time without any access to a television. Except for watching the Apollo moon walks, the TV wasn't misssed.) I read a lot that winter.
Most of us lifelong readers have one or two or three books that we can say -- but wisely rarely do, at least not to anyone other than that person closest to us -- "changed my life." Mr. Sammler's Planet is one of those rarest of books for me, and even though I make my living putting things into words, I won't really try to explain the broad spectrum of impact and influence that this book by Saul Bellow had -- and continues to have -- on me. Suffice it to say that I love it and learned from it both in literary terms and in human terms.
James Atlas tells us that with Mr. Sammler's Planet, Bellow "all but abandoned plot altogether," but of course this isn't the case. Bellow himself admitted under questioning that the book "had no dramatic center" and said "It's a dramatic essay of some sort, wrung from me by the crazy Sixties."
Would that there had been more such literary works wrung from the crazy '60's.
It's true that not much happens in the novel. Artur Sammler, now in his seventies,-- a Polish Oxonian-speaking survivor of the Holocaust, once a member of H.G. Wells's and other leading British intellectuals' circle between the wars, a man who had to dig himself out of his own grave after the Nazis had killed his wife and scores of other Polish Jews and left him for dead -- says goodbye to a dying relative, helps retrieve a manuscript about living on the moon that his crazy daughter stole from a Bengali-intellectual, suffers the distractions of some crazy people (several related to him), is assaulted physically by a black pickpocket and verbally by a professor-thug at Columbia University -- and thinks about a lot of things.
But a blurb from the Cincinnati Inquirer in the flyleaf pages of my $1.75 Fawcett Crest 1970 paperback says it best -- "No brief review can do justice to the scope of this novel."
For the scope of the novel is nothing less than the state of humanity and our hope of redemption -- or the lack of both -- and the role that compassion guided by intelligence can play in such a personal and cultural redemption.
On the way there are scenes both deeply funny and deeply bitter.
In one of these, a much younger con-man friend of Mr. Sammler's named Feffer gets the half-blind (he has one working eye) aging intellectual to speak at Columbia as part of a "fundraiser for Negro inner-city kids." Imagining discussing the Bloomsbury group to a few graduate students in a small seminar room, Mr. Sammler is led out onto a platform looking out a huge room filled with hundreds of adults. With the topic suggested by Feffer (who quickly disappears), Mr. Sammler begins discussing the Cosmopolis project for a World State supported after WWI by H.G. Wells and supported by the likes of Gerald Heard and Olaf Stapledon. (Mr. Sammler feels that it had been a "kindhearted, ingenuous, supid scheme.") He's just warming to his subject when he's interrupted:
Telling this into the lighted, restless holo of the ampitheater with the soiled dome and caged electric fixtures, until he was interrupted by a clear loud voice. He was being questioned. He was being shouted at.
He tried to continue. "Such attempts to draw intellectuals away from Marxism met with small success . . ."
A man in Levi's, thick-bearded but possibly young, a figure of compact distortion, was standing shouting at him.
"Hey! Old Man!"
In the silence, Mr. Sammler drew down his tinted spectacles, seeing this person with his effective eye.
"Old Man! You quoted Orwell before."
"You quoted him to say that British radicals were all protected by the Royal Navy. Did Orwell say that British radicals were protected by the Royal Navy?"
"Yes, I believe he did say that."
"That's a lot of shit."
Sammler could not speak.
"Orwell was a fink. He was a sick counterrevolutionary. It's good he died when he did. And what you are saying is shit." Turning to the audience, extending violent arms and raising his palms like a Greek dance, he said, "Why do you listen to this effete old shit? What has he got to tell you? His balls are dry. He's dead. He can't come."
Feffer was nowhere to be found. There were no voices raised to defend him, so Mr. Sammler got his umbrella, his trench coat, and hat and made his way off the stage, down several stairs, out the door, and onto Broadway and One hundred-sixteenth Street.
Years later, I found out that Bellow had been the recipient of almost identical courtesy at San Francisco State College in 1968. He'd been invited to give a talk he called "What Are Writers Doing in the Universities" and had finished his formal talk and was discussing elements of it with the audience and had warmed to his theme of how D.H. Lawrence had seen the future in Studies in American Literature when "an instructor in the creative-writing department by the name of Floyd Salas" burst through the door and shouted: "Are you saying the university should offer writers a haven from the vulgarities of the contemporary world? Is that what you said in your speech?"
Shocked, the audience laughed.
"Since you came in late," replied Bellow, "I have the right to not answer your question. I mean, I'm sorry you couldn't get in, but at least other people have notes and you can find out what I said."
"I want to challenge you if that's the case," shouted Salas.
"But you don't know what you're challenging."
"I've read your books."
"My books are my business," said Bellow.
This prompted a string of obscenities and expletives from Salas, who -- between curses -- shouted that Bellow was "trying to make the university a genteel old maid's school."
"It would have been better if you had heard my speech," Bellow said patiently. "I mean, I'm an old soap-box speaker. I used to be a Trotskyite in my youth, and I'm well accustomed to handling this sort of thing, but I don't really like to do it."
"Why?" screamed Salas. "Because it's vulgar?"
Bellow tried to recognize other hands raised in the audience, but Salas started shouting questions as to why Bellow hadn't called his last novel "Bellow" instead of "Herzog," since it was obviously an autobiography? Wasn't it? Answer the fucking question! Wasn't it?
"If it were," said Bellow through the rising uproar, "it would be none of your business."
At that point, Salas -- "in the words of one witness" -- went berserk.
"You're a fucking square, Bellow. You're full of fucking shit. You're an old man, Bellow. You haven't got any balls. You can't come, man!"
"I think this meeting is pretty well broken up by now," Bellow announced to laughter and left the stage.
Wonderful material. Mr. Sammler ponders the insult to himself fairly unemotionally as he takes an uptown bus back to his apartment on the upper West Side. Bellow answered letters from friends by writing:
I'm not too easy to offend, at my age, and I don't think I was personally affronted -- that's not my style. The thing was offensive though. [And then he discusses the "You haven't got any balls -- you can't come!" insult with some irony, given all the accusations that he was a womanizer.] . . . . So I left the platform in defeat. Undefended by the bullied elders of the faculty. While your suck-up-to-the-young colleagues swallowed their joyful saliva. No, it was very poor stuff, I assure you. You don't found universities in order to destroy culture. For that you want a Nazi party.
Without wasting words or energy giving too many examples, please trust me when I say that if and when you read James Atlas's description of this event at San Francisco State, Bellow comes across as the villain and instigator of the squalid attack.
"Yet Bellow too had been provocative," writes Atlas . . . simply be being there, simply by choosing that topic to speak on, simply be being . . . old. Atlas quotes Kay House, a professor in the English department there, as saying "Somehow I felt he invited this by reacting very sharply to questioners. He lacked graciousness, courtesy or an attitude of sympathetic understanding."
This was one of Bellow's first encounters with the New Left where, as a victim of a premediated assault the victim -- if he in any way defends any aspect of what someone considers is the status quo -- invites the attack upon himself or herself. It wouldn't be the last such attack on Bellow.
This is one of the centers of Mr. Sammler's Planet -- the understanding that it's all right to tear down things, traditions, institutions, even entire cities (such as New York in the late 60's) and nations, but one had damned well better have some concept of what you're going to replace the torn down edifices with. Otherwise, Mr. Sammler understands, it's just cultural vandalism such as the civilization-weary Germans had practiced on such a grand scale.
The last lines of Mr. Sammler's Planet reflect this determination to resist mere self-destruction, spoken in the form of a prayer as 70-something Artur Sammler stands over the body of his beloved cousin in the morgue of a city hospital. The soft prayer is whispered to the corpse of this middle-aged cousin-- sentimental and family-obsessed physician Elya Gruner -- who'd rescued Sammler and his crazed daughter from the Displaced Persons camp in Europe and who had just died of an embolism:
Sammler in a mental whisper said, "Well, Elya. Well, well, Elya." And then in the same way he said, "Remember, God, the soul of Elya Gruner, who, as willingly as possible and as well as he was able, and even to an intolerable point, and even in suffocation and even as death was coming was eager, even childishly perhaps (may I be forgiven for this), even with a certain servility, to do what was required of him. At his best this man was much kinder than at my very best I have ever been or ever could be. He was aware that he must meet, and he did meet -- through all the confusion and degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding -- he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know. As all know. For that is the truth of it -- that we all know, God, that we all know, that we all know, we know, we know.
Those five "we knows" were, for me, equivalent in impact and importance to the "never, never, never, never, never" in King Lear. And perhaps more instructive.
I read Bellow's much longer and earlier book (1966) The Adventures of Augie March while I was in New Delhi in 1977.
The rest of the 10-week group Fulbright Fellowship of visiting educators had gone on to houseboats in Srinigar and left me in New Delhi since -- although I'd been very careful about what I ate and drank during my ten weeks in India -- I'd come down with some intestinal awfulness. The New Delhi doctor who visited me on the first day and who told the group leader that I needed to stay behind in the hotel while the group did the "vacation" part of the summer, laughed at another Westerner with his clichéd "Delhi Belly" and said that I'd be over it in three days. (Not quite accurate, since the symptoms have now lasted 33 years.)
But I'd bought a British edition of The Adventures of Augie March at a street stall in Calcutta and during my days and nights alone in New Delhi -- most of them spent with a fever that crested at 105 for a day -- I disappeared into the book.
It's early-Bellow style and what Atlas and others have called "an American bildungsroman -- a novel of education." More importantly, it was Bellow's first full-bodied outing in his self-proclaimed effort to create "fiction that is a higher biography."
Augie, with its huge cast of characters and indomitable narrative energy,is an attempt by Bellow to both emulate and extend the best sort of writing by the literary giants he most looked up to -- the ones Bellow called "the bedrock writers:" Tolstoy, Dickens, Hardy, Melville, Hawthorne, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, and -- perhaps above all the others -- James Joyce.
The novel is about, in Augie's own words:
. . . bigshots and operators, commissioners, grabbers, heelers, tipsters, hoodlums, wolves, fixers, plaintiffs, flatfeet, men in Western hats and women in lizard shoes and fur coats, hot-house and arctic drafts mixed up, brute things and airs of sex, evidence of heavy feeding and systematic shaving, of calculations, grief, not-caring, and hopes of temendous millions in concrete to be poured or whole Mississippis of bootleg whiskey and beer.
The first sentence of The Adventures of Augie March is, I believe, up there with the best five or six first-sentences in all of literature:
I am an American, Chicago born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
When I'd finished reading Mr. Sammler's Planet in that dark, arctic-draft, blue-burner, solitary winter of 1971-72, I'd astonished myself by quietly resolving to become a published writer myself.
This is the epigraph I chose for my first published novel, Song of Kali -- a book about Calcutta and about the worst sort of loss a man or woman or couple can survive:
. . . there is a darkness. It is for everyone . . . Only some Greeks and admirers of theirs, in
their liquid noon, where the friendship of beauty to human things was perfect, thought
they were clearly divided from this darkness. And these Greeks too were in it. But still
they are the admiration of the rest of the mud-sprung, famine-knifed, street-pounding,
war-rattled, difficult, painstaking, kicked in the belly, grief and cartilage mankind, the
multitude, some under a coal-sucking Vesuvius of chaos smoke, some inside a heaving
Calcutta midnight, who very well know where they are.
--- Saul Bellow
There's much more I could write about Saul Bellow and his books, of course, without turning myself into a Mark Harris driveling on about drumlin woodchucks, but I do want to keep this essay relatively brief so I'll touch on only one of his later books.
Bellow's 1975 book Humboldt's Gift is one of my favorites -- and perhaps, for various and subtle reasons, one of his most generous. I also suspect that Humboldt's Gift was the precipitating factor in Bellow winning the 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature (given in 1977.)
In his 70-minute acceptance speech, Bellow said:
Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them, and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center, humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom; the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul. If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is preempted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish.
I never really met Saul Bellow. I'd never thought about meeting him. We co-existed briefly in the age of the Internet, but of course I'd never thought of e-mailing him any more than I'd considered sending him a real letter in previous decades. Even after I became a published writer, I never thought about meeting him.
We didn't have a "relationship" simply because I'd read him for decades and because his books had been important to me. I was one of his many readers and that relationship -- at its best -- is usually the one-way street it should be.
But I was in his vicinity once.
In 1990 I was one of many dozens of writers invited to the Miami Book Fair. I had my own few moments on panels and doing readings, but the fun part was hearing other writers read and seeing Dave Barry again -- I'd met him at the Fort Lauderdale Conference on the Fantastic a year or two earlier and we -- along with Harlan Ellison, OMNI editor Ellen Datlow, and a couple of others -- had almost been thrown out of a nice restaurant for taking turns standing up and doing crucifixion jokes one after the other. ("Hey, I can see the whole city from up here.") The maître d’ quietly explained that it wasn't the jokes on Easter weekend that might be offensive to the other patrons; it was our sticking our arms out to the side as we stood and told them.
At any rate, Saul Bellow was reading on one of those nights and I arranged to go hear him.
The reading was originally to have been given in a small church downtown, but so many people turned up that it was moved across the street to a large synagogue. That seemed appropriate.
He was seventy-five years old that year, but he looked healthy -- even mischievously healthy and energetic. His voice was strong and it filled the large, formal space. Bellow was obviously an expert at doing readings of his own work and he seemed to be enjoying sharing the words from the marked-up manuscript he held in his hand.
The part he read was, I believe, a long excerpt from his novelette "Something To Remember Me By." All the usual Bellovian elements were there -- poverty, the Jewish family in its beloved apartment during a freezing winter, the brothers, detail upon detail from his childhood in Montreal and teenage years in Chicago.
The elderly narrator's name (yet another mask for Bellow) was named "Louie" and he was remembering his high-school years in Chicago. Bellow's voice, echoing in the synagogue, talked of Louie reading T.S. Eliot at the kitchen table late at night. We follow Louie as his part-time job has him delivering flowers to a wake and he's struck hard by the image of a dead girl -- about Louie's age -- laid out in a coffin.
Then Louie is delivering flowers in a doctor's office and there is another woman's body, a living one this time, on an examaning table. "The cells of my body were like bees, drunker and drunker on sexual hunger," reads Bellow in Louie's aged voice, remembering youth.
Louie is invited by the woman to follow him home and he does, but once there and undressed, Louie can only watch in horror as the woman tosses all of his clothes out the window to some male friend of hers waiting in the alley below.
Louie manages to borrow another woman's dress and tries to get home. Seeking refuge in a nearby speakeasy, the bartender explains things to him: "In short, you got mixed up with a whore and she gave you the works." The bartender will stand Louie carfare home if the boy will deliver a drunk from the speakeasy to his home address.
The punchline of the story was "Instead of a desirable woman, I had a drunkard in my arms."
The applause was loud and long and there was a standing ovation.
Afterward, I went out the back door to wait for my ride back to the hotel where the Book Fair authors on my level were staying. I'd been told not to go hunting for a cab because that part of Miami was a very high-crime area and it was too risky to walk the streets at that time of night. The problem -- I thought as the back door of the synagogue locked behind me -- was that the people picking up the authors might not have got the word that the talk had been shifted from the small church to the synagogue across the street.
Out on the small alley platform at the rear of the synagogue, Saul Bellow and about five members of his retinue -- including the Book Fair chairwoman who'd introduced him that night -- were also waiting. Bellow had put on a porkpie hat and a sort of madras jacket over his cashmere cardigan sweater. His shoes were tasseled.
The younger people in his retinue were nattering and nabobing around him in a huddle and I stepped as far away as I could on the back porch, feeling sure that Saul Bellow's personal transport wasn't going anywhere near the hotel I needed to get to. I wondered if I should walk around the synagogue, try to get in the front door, and find a phone.
"Did they forget you, too?" Bellow asked me.
"I hope not," was all I managed. Suddenly I was struck by the downtown Miami view from this synagogue's alley-facing backporch. The tall modernist buildings were outlined in blue light. For some reason, red and blue lasers were flicking and stabbing up between the buildings. Two helicopters flew over together, navigation lights blinking in unison with the lasers. The Miami monorail was humming by on its raised pedestals.
Without thinking, I said to Saul Bellow, "It looks like the future, doesn't it?"
Bellow paused a second before turning back to the four women with him, looked at the skyline, and said, "It does. Not the future that I waited for, but a future.Someone's future."
Then his ride came down the alley -- a Dodge Silhouette van, futuristic for its day. The van wasn't going to my hotel, but the driver used his walkie-talkie (this was before ubiquitous cell phones) to call for another car to pick me up.
James Atlas's biography of Saul Bellow does end on a nice grace note.
In 1997, Bellow appeared on a BBC TV show in which he was interviewed by his young friend and surrogate son Martin Amis. The younger writer asked the 82-year-old Bellow, "How do you feel about death?"
As part of his answer, Bellow reads -- in a far more quavering voice than I'd heard seven years earlier -- a page from his new novel-in-progress:
What I have to say, all I have to say, is that I count on seeing the dead -- my dead. When I die they will be waiting for me. I don't anticipate, nor do I visualize any actual settings. I can't tell you what my father will say or my mother and brothers and friends. Very possibly they will all tell me things I badly need to be told.
The last scene of the BBC show is shot by the window of a coffee shop in Boston. Amis asks Bellow if he believes in an afterlife and the older writer pauses for a long moment before answering:
Well, it's impossible to believe in it because there's no rational ground. But I have a persistent intuition, and it's not so much a hope because it would be better to be blotted out entirely -- call it love impulses. What I think is how agreeable it would be to see my mother and my father and my brothers again -- to see again my dead. But then I think, 'How long would these moments last?' You still have to think of eternity as a conscious soul. So the only thing I can think of is that in death we might become God's apprentices and have the real secrets of the universe revealed to us.
For some of us who read him over the decades, Saul Bellow already was one of God's apprentices -- at least here on Earth, here on Mr. Sammler's and Mr. Bellow's Planet -- and he did indeed reveal some real secrets of the universe to us.