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Saul Bellow’s Life Is an Open Book

Times Book Editor

Saul Bellow’s new novella, “The Theft” (Viking: $6.95), is built in part around the feelings of a wealthy, elderly American woman for her European au pair: ". . .such a pretty child,” the older woman says, “and the Italian charm of her looks, so innocent--although innocence is a tricky thing to prove. You can’t expect her to forget about being a girl just because the surroundings are so dangerous.” Classically, it is Europe that represents experience, while America is innocence.

Is “The Theft” a kind of inversion of Henry James’ “Daisy Miller”? Saul Bellow was asked.

Bellow laughed. He was intrigued, mildly; hadn’t thought of that. Luigi Barzini, whose work he admires, calls America the indispensable school for Europe, he said. And then he recalled what young Gina’s reasons were for coming to America: to perfect her English and to study music. Yes, perhaps a partial inversion of “Daisy Miller.”

Bellow--in San Francisco to attend a symposium on his work at the University of San Francisco--was talking with an interviewer in the penthouse cocktail lounge of the Fairmont Hotel.

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Someone called out, “Saul Bellow.” Bellow looked up. “I don’t want to interrupt,” a young man said, blushing furiously. “I just want to say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Bellow, you’ve given us so much.’ ” He walked five steps away, then doubled back. “Please keep writing.” Bellow gave a barely perceptible shrug. “It happens--on occasion,” he said, half-apologetically, but a moment passed before he was quite himself again.

Talking Chicago

From Gina’s language study, talk turned to American dialects and to the linguistic change of heart that preceded “The Adventures of Augie March” (1953), which won the first of Bellow’s three National Book Awards. (He has also won two Pulitzers and the Nobel Prize.) Bellow’s brilliant evocation of the talk of Chicago--the 73-year-old novelist grew up on Chicago’s West Side--was a part of the success of “Augie March.” It was while writing that book, Bellow said, that he discovered for the first time how the talk of the city could be turned to a literary purpose. “ ‘I don’t give a care,’ they say in Chicago.” Not proper English, but Augie’s people wouldn’t say it any other way.

In a wide-ranging 1967 interview published in the Paris Review, the only such interview Bellow has ever given, he recalled the change of heart that led to “Augie March”: “Why should I force myself to write like an Englishman or a contributor to the New Yorker? I soon saw that it was simply not in me to be a mandarin. I should add that for a young man in my position there were social inhibitions, too. I had good reason to fear that I would be put down as a foreigner, an interloper. It was made clear to me when I studied literature in the university that as a Jew and the son of Russian Jews I would probably never have the right feeling for Anglo-Saxon traditions, for English words. I realized even in college that the people who told me this were not necessarily disinterested friends. But they had an effect on me, nevertheless.”

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“Yes,” Bellow said, a full generation later. “Yes. I was a little intimidated.”

Up From Intimidation

Bellow has always seemed to cut an incomparably wide swath in his fiction, to take the measure of all his characters, high and low, to know their words, their hearts, their categories, the location of the itches they are too embarrassed to scratch. Intimidation is not a word that would seem to apply to him, but he applies it himself. In the Paris Review interview, he did not name names or quote verses. In San Francisco, he did; and they seemed to be at the tip of his tongue. Decades later, the memory was fresh.

A bit later in the Paris Review piece, however, Bellow had said: “Puritan and Protestant America carries less weight in Illinois than in Massachusetts. But I don’t bother much with such things now.” In 1989, he bothers even less. Asked about the central relationship in “The Theft,” a love affair turned long-running friendship which, after all, is between a Protestant woman and a Jewish man, Bellow said, in effect: At this point, why not? The Protestant dominance in America ended in the 1960s; in 1989 America, individual Protestants and Jews relate perforce as individuals.

‘Do You Pray?’

The book of Bellow’s that dominated the 1967 interview was “Herzog” (1964). Speaking of that novel, Bellow said to interviewer Gordon Lloyd Harper: “Many people feel a ‘private life’ to be an affliction. In some sense it is a genuine affliction; it cuts one off from a common life. To me, a significant theme of ‘Herzog’ is the imprisonment of the individual in a shameful and impotent privacy.”

Bellow was asked whether “Humboldt’s Gift” (1976) was not the mirror image of “Herzog”; whether it was not, in other words, about the imprisonment of an individual in a shameful and impotent celebrity.

He agreed to an extent but insisted that one need not be famous to be undone by fame. Modern media--television, above all--have brought public life so powerfully and so distractingly into private life that people have begun to lose interest in themselves. They cease to take their own lives quite seriously--as if to say that nothing so evidently unworthy of public notice as the lives they are actually living could possibly count.

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The intrusion of public life into private life creates, as it were, an unrelenting noise, a noise that is inimical to art, and not to art alone. In 1967 Bellow said: “I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm.”

“Do you pray?” the interviewer asked Bellow.

“Yes, I pray,” he said, after a slight pause.

“How?”

He described two ways. One is a kind of checking in at “universe headquarters, at night, as I pull up the covers”; sometimes there is a petition, often not. The other way is meditative reading of the Pentateuch in Hebrew.

Bellow’s Hebrew is good enough that he can read “without looking up too many words.” His Jewish education--a wholly Orthodox one that began when he was 4--consisted mainly of translating the text aloud into Yiddish for a rabbi. At the suggestion that he had studied with a great teacher, Bellow smiled. “He wasn’t great.” Nonetheless the boy Bellow was, by the man’s testimony, “extremely interested” in Hebrew and in Judaism until the age of about 13. And then? Did it stop with his bar mitzvah? No, he said, what drew him away from it was “the pull of America,” or that pull in combination with some remarkable high school reading.

Park Bench Spenglerian

One hears Bellow described, sometimes, as a man grown pessimistic in his old age. But he was scarcely a conventional optimist even in his youth. He belonged to a three-member high school study group that met on a bench in Chicago’s Humboldt Park to discuss Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West.”

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He named the other boys in the group: the late Isaac Rosenfeld, admired in his day as a novelist and editor of Partisan Review; and Joe Polowsky, who grew up to drive a cab and wage a long, lonely campaign for improved U.S.-Soviet relations. Was Bellow a Spenglerian pessimist in his youth? No, “I was a Jewish-American-populist-liberal Democrat,” Bellow said, smiling at the memory. American notions seemed small swords to brandish against Spengler’s Teutonic ones, but Bellow and his friends brandished them with a will.

Pessimism was not the only problem Spengler presented to Bellow and his classmates. Spengler assigned the Jews en masse to the “magian” phase of world history, a phase allegedly superseded by the “faustian.” Magians, Spengler said, have no affinity with the modern world, a notion that left the young Bellow, aspiring as he did to be a modern writer, upset.

Spengler was wrong about the Jews, of course, almost comically wrong. And the memory of three boys arguing with his book on a Chicago park bench has something to do, Bellow said, with his own continuing allegiance to the cause of the small against the great, the private against the public.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Communist

“I was a materialist in the ‘30s,” Bellow said, a materialist because he was also a Communist, or at least an active sympathizer. He was such despite the fact that his father had fled the Russian Revolution. The Bellows pere et fils quarreled in the 1930s, though the elder man lived long enough (he died in 1955) to hear his son tell him he had been right.

What brought Bellow’s materialist/Communist period to an end? Though misgivings had come earlier, Bellow said, the Stalinist purges and show-trials at the end of the ‘30s broke the spell almost completely. For a time thereafter, he managed to think of himself as a Trotskyite; but this was a rear-guard action. When he learned how Leon Trotsky, before his fall from power, had abused Soviet writers and intellectuals, the break was complete.

And what lay between that loss of faith and the prayers of the present? Bellow spoke then of his now-abandoned belief in (and attempts to write) edifying fiction. “The Adventures of Augie March” must have been something of a break with the edification project, but the break was evidently not complete. “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” a later book, features a number of what might be called edifying digressions. Now, Bellow says, he has lost all faith and interest in that kind of literary venture.

Fighting the Phantoms

The 1967 interviewer had observed, “I was thinking that the recent deaths of Faulkner and Hemingway have been seen as creating a vacuum in American letters, which we all know is abhorrent.”

Bellow replied, “Well, I don’t know whether I would say a vacuum. Perhaps a pigeonhole.”

Asked whether he saw any empty pigeonholes in 1989, any tiny niches that an aspiring writer might hope to fill, Bellow returned to an earlier theme, the need to reclaim the dignity and centrality of private life against technologically magnified, aggressively projected public life.

He implied, however, that more was called for than a purely defensive mission. Science, politics, commerce--all proceed by the deployment of an extraordinarily confident but extraordinarily narrow and often humanly deformed expertise. Private life is not just to be defended against these forms of expertise but consulted for their correction, Bellow seemed to say.

In “The Theft,” Ithiel Regler is counselor to presidents and multinational corporations; this is, for both practical and emotional purposes, his entire life. Clara Velde, though she has a career, does not locate herself emotionally within it. She describes her routine early in the book: “I dream up projects for the children. I do the school bit, do the dentist and the pediatrician, plus playmates, outings, psychological tests, doll dressing, cutting and pasting valentines. What else. . .? Work with their secret worries, sort out their quarrels, encourage their minds, wipe tears. Love them.”

In a passage Bellow read aloud to the interviewer, Clara strings a line between that life of hers and Ithiel’s grander, more public life of official advising: “You couldn’t separate love from being. You could Be, even though you were alone. But in that case, you loved only yourself. If so, everybody else was a phantom, and then world politics was a shadow play. Therefore she, Clara, was the only key to politics that Ithiel was likely to find. Otherwise he might as well stop bothering his head about his grotesque game theories, ideology, treaties, and the rest of it. Why bother to line up so many phantoms?”

In 1989, as Saul Bellow sees it, a pigeonhole or two may be vacant for writers willing to stand up to the phantoms.

Inquire a Little

When the interview was over, Bellow rose, shook hands and walked toward the door. Ten paces away, he turned and called out, “Goodby. I will remember you.”

Charlie Citrine, Bellow’s protagonist in “Humboldt’s Gift,” says near the end of that book: “Inquire a little and I’ll tell you all.” Charlie is embarrassed that, once again, he has spoken too freely. Charlie would have been an easy mark in an interview, and no one knew it better than he did himself.

Bellow is like Charlie in one way: Willing to take any question, good at leading weak questions toward strong answers, forthcoming to a fault. And yet, at the same time, he is an impossible mark for an interviewer, an impregnable fortress. You can’t charm secrets from a man who has spent his own charm, and his life force, giving his secrets away. America’s most celebrated novelist is, in the end, an open secret or, as we might--in this context--better put it, an open book.


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