Bellow and Me

Arthur Miller, Gloria Steinem, Frederick Exley, Susan Cheever, Martin Amis, Norman Mailer and others recall their encounters with the Nobel laureate.

Topics: Books,

Bellow and Me

William Phillips, editor
Cocky and self-assured

It was a charmed circle. But perhaps the most charmed was Saul Bellow, the only one who got as far as a Nobel Prize. He always thought of himself as a maverick, a loner, not a New Yorker; whether this self-image was literary or personal I cannot say, perhaps a bit of both. But we did think of him as part of the new alignment of writers, and there was a good deal of affection and respect for him …

We met about the time his first story, “The Mexican General,” appeared in Partisan Review in 1942. Here was a fresh talent, exhibiting a remarkable control of tone and subject …

Bellow must have had early on a strong sense of being set apart. I recall once when he was visiting us for a weekend at our summer place in New Jersey, we were sitting outside, talking, and our landlord who lives next door began to mow the lawn. The noise of the mower interfered with our conversation each time it came close to us, as it moved in a narrowing circle. Saul became irritated and said quite matter-of-factly to me that we should tell my landlord to stop mowing: it simply did not occur to him that we might move …

He was cocky and self-assured, almost relaxed, which might have been the other side of his person. But except for occasional episodes of suspicions, when he questioned someone’s loyalty or attitude toward his work, Saul was extremely sweet and gentle, and, when he felt at home, extraordinarily charming … (1942)

From “A Partisan View: Five Decades of the Literary Life,” by William Phillips (Stein and Day, 1983)

Alfred Kazin, literary critic
Sense of destiny

I met Saul Bellow, who was just in from Chicago, and who carried around with him a sense of his destiny as a novelist that excited everyone around him … As I walked him across Brooklyn Bridge and around my favorite streets in Brooklyn Heights, he looked my city over with great detachment …

He seemed to be measuring the hidden strength of all things in the universe, from the industrial grime surrounding Brooklyn Bridge to the prima donnas of the American novel, from the last effects of Hitler to the mass tensions of New York. He was measuring the world’s power to resist him, he was putting himself up as a contender. Although he was friendly, unpretentious and funny, he was ambitious and dedicated in a style I had never seen in an urban Jewish intellectual; he expected the world to come to him. He had pledged himself to a great destiny. He was going to take on more than the rest of us were. (New York, 1943)



From “New York Jew,” by Alfred Kazin (Knopf, 1978)

William Barrett, editor
Edge of the circle

It was Saul Bellow who was the past master of protecting himself in his relations with the group. Whenever he was in New York, he made contact with the Partisan Review circle, but he did not let himself get entangled in it. He needed to observe the New York intellectuals, to be stimulated by them, and learn from them what he wanted — that was his job as a writer, and Bellow was a full-time writer. But he always moved at the edge of the circle. He was wary and guarded — above all, guarding the talent and concentration of his vocation. At the time he was gestating “Augie March,” and when the book came out I immediately recognized the hero as one part of himself that Bellow carried openly before the world. He was the kid from Chicago, carrying a chip on his shoulder, and ready to show these Eastern slickers that he was just as street-smart (intellectually) as they were … his manner was civilized and gentle; but the chip of self-confidence was there on the shoulder just the same. And Bellow never faltered in his single-minded dedication to his muse; the solid body of work he went on to create is to be admired as, among other things, a triumph of character. (New York, mid-1940s)

From “The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals,” by William Barrett (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1982)

Irving Kristol, editor and critic
“What kind of writer?”

Writers for Partisan Review — [included] wonderful stylists like Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy … but I sensed that they were not suitable models for me. They were out of my class, as it were. I recall a conversation I had with Saul Bellow … I had then joined my wife in Chicago, where she was doing graduate work at the University of Chicago and where I was waiting to go into the Army. Saul and I were friends and neighbors. He was just publishing his first novel, and I was writing occasional book reviews for the New Leader … I confided to Saul that I thought I had the potential to be a writer. He looked at me suspiciously and asked: “What kind of writer?” (Saul has always been convinced, as most novelists are, that the world does not need more than one novelist.) I thought for a moment and then said briskly, “Well, good enough to write for the New Yorker.” He roared. At that time, we intellectuals did not think too much of that slick magazine. (mid-1940s)

From “Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea,” by Irving Kristol (Free Press, 1995)

Ernest Sirluck, academic
Mailer opposite

Richard Stern … was put in charge of the [University of Chicago's] visiting-writers program, many of whom I therefore met. It was … through Stern that I met Saul Bellow, a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and deliberately remote from the English department. Bellow was as contained and civil as [Norman] Mailer was wild, and I was delighted to come to know him. (early 1950s)

From “First Generation: An Autobiography,” by Ernest Sirluck (University of Toronto Press, 1996)

Irving Howe, editor and academic
Translating Singer

Eliezer [Lazer] Greenberg … a Yiddish poet living in New York …

We became partners in the editing-and-translating Yiddish business …

I inveigled Saul Bellow, not quite so famous yet, to do the translation [of Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Gimpel the Fool"]. Bellow had a pretty good command of Yiddish, but not quite enough to do the story on his own. So we sat him down before a typewriter in Lazer’s apartment on East Nineteenth Street, Lazer read out the Yiddish sentence by sentence, Saul occasionally asked about refinements of meaning, and I watched in a state of high enchantment. Three or four hours, and it was done. Saul took another half hour to go over the translation and then, excited, read aloud the version that has since become famous. It was a feat of virtuosity, and we drank a schnapps to celebrate. (New York, 1953)

From “A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography,” by Irving Howe (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982)

George Weidenfeld, book publisher
Self-absorbed

Thanks to Sonia Orwell, Saul Bellow came to us. We [Weidenfeld and Nicolson] published “The Adventures of Augie March,” one of the most important American novels of the postwar period … It was praised by the critics and sold very well. Bellow often visited England and we were at one time quite close, though I found him too self-absorbed. Mordantly witty when he wanted to be, he could also be self-pitying and irascible, particularly towards those who hurt his vanity. Whenever we met he seemed to be between wives or love affairs. During those bouts he sometimes behaved outrageously, thinking his distress excused everything. But he could also be manifestly charming. He was a difficult author, but Barley Alison, our editorial director, was slavishly devoted to him, and when she left to start her own imprint at Secker & Warburg, Saul Bellow went with her. (London, 1954)

From “Remembering My Good Friends: An Autobiography,” by George Weidenfeld (HarperCollins, 1994)

Norman Mailer, novelist
No major novelist

Saul Bellow knows words, but writes in a style I find self-willed and unnatural. His rhythms have a twitch. There were some originalities and one or two rich sections in “Augie March” (which is all I know of his work) but at its worst it was a travelogue for timid intellectuals and so to tell the truth I cannot take him seriously as a major novelist. I do not think he knows anything about people, nor about himself. He has a whacky, almost psychotic lack of responsibility to the situations he creates, and his narrative disproportions are elephantiastical in their anomaly. This judgment is not personal, for we met only once, under easy circumstances, and had a mild conversation which left me neither remembering nor disremembering him as a man. (New York, mid-1950s)

From “Advertisements for Myself,” by Norman Mailer (G.P. Putnam’s, 1959)

Alberto Moravia, novelist and journalist
Great neurotic

In 1955, I went to Washington, where I was invited to a dinner by some professors …

I left for Chicago with Saul Bellow … It was an excellent trip; we stopped at Buffalo to see Niagara Falls …

A very keen intellectual who, however, didn’t talk about literature but rather about commonplace, normal things. He also seemed to me a great neurotic, of an undefinable kind …

Saul Bellow is someone I’m very fond of for various reasons. First of all, because of his books, always extremely readable, and some of them beautiful, which afford an image of the society of the United States seen by someone who belongs to it. The novel of Saul Bellow I prefer is “Seize the Day,” the brief and moving story of a father and a son. The second reason I’m fond of Saul Bellow is something a Roman like me can’t overlook: he resembles a cardinal or a bishop. He has that foresighted benevolence and also that sardonic prudence. I know he disapproves of my writing about sexuality, but this is logical in a great prelate.

From “Life of Moravia,” by Alberto Moravia with Alain Elkann (Steerforth Press, 2000)

Arthur Miller, playwright
Roaring at the stillness

I had come here to live out the six-week residency required for the otherwise easy Nevada divorce … Saul Bellow, with whom I shared an editor, Pascal Covici of Viking Press, was in Nevada for the same reason, and Covici has asked his help in finding me a place to stay. Bellow had taken one of the two cottages facing the lake. I took the other. He was then working on his novel “Henderson the Rain King.”

Surrounding us was a range of low, iron-stained mountains perpetually changing their magenta colors through the unbroken silence of the days. Saul would sometimes spend half an hour up behind a hill a half-mile from the cottages emptying his lungs roaring at the stillness, an exercise in self-contact, I supposed, and the day’s biggest event. He had already accumulated a library here large enough for a small college.

Once a week we would drive to Reno in Saul’s Chevrolet to buy groceries and get our laundry done. No car ever passed us during the forty-mile trip, and we overtook none. It was a fine place to think, if you dared, plenty of space in which to hope and privacy to despair … (Pyramid Lake, Nevada, 1956)

From “Timebends: A Life,” by Arthur Miller (Grove Press, 1987)

Wright Morris, novelist
Liberating laughter

I stepped into a shop near Thirteenth and Fifth … to look at a large table of book remainders. Another browser stood across the table from me. We edged slowly around it, clockwise, then glanced up at the same moment, to smile at each other. I had seen his face before — but where?

“You’re Wright Morris?” He asked me. How flattering I found that. “I’m Saul Bellow,” he said, and offered me his hand …

With his “Augie March” money, Bellow had bought property up the Hudson River near Bard College, where he sometimes did some teaching. He suggested I pay him a visit …

It flattered me, on some of my visits to Saul, that he would read to me from whatever he was writing. I was mistaken in thinking it favored me — he shrewdly used many friends in this manner — but I would guess only the two of us laughed so hard we would have to break off the reading and wipe the tears from our eyes. “Henderson the Rain King” left us both in stitches. I loved the way Saul enjoyed his own talent, and his sensible acceptance of criticism. Many years later, when he wrote me to say that in the past we had had the best of each other, it was the liberating laughter he had in mind, and he was right. When we were out of our minds with laughter, the ties that bound us were at their strongest, the latest in hammocks creaking and tilting as we guffawed and hooted. Halcyon days! (mid-1950s)

From “A Cloak of Light: Writing My Life,” by Wright Morris (Harper & Row, 1985)

William Kennedy, novelist
Knowing American society

I’d first met Saul Bellow, the American Nobel Prize laureate, in San Juan in 1960, when he was a visiting professor at the University of Puerto Rico and in the middle of writing “Herzog.” He’d had valuable things to say about what I was then writing and had also made some observations that stayed with me: that character was the single most important element in determining a writer’s worth; that a writer shouldn’t be parsimonious with his work but “prodigal, like nature,” which used billions of sperm when only one is needed for creating life.

Also, and most remarkably, he said that “most American writers don’t really know much about American society, for they’re used to viewing it from the point of view of the innocent or the underdog. And the sources of real power in American society will never be revealed to innocents or underdogs.”

From “Riding the Yellow Trolley Car,” by William Kennedy (Viking, 1993)

John Cheever, novelist and short story writer
Stranger on a train

Saul Bellow blows in [to Yaddo, the writers' colony] at half past eleven. The fine, pale face, the uncommonly large eyes with their startling show of white — and for me, as often for a stranger on a train, a deep and sometimes troubling sense of kinship as if we had, somewhere between Montreal and Chicago, between Quincy and Rome, shared the burdens of a self-destructive uncle. This is not a friendship or acquaintanceship; but when he comes across the hall to say good-bye my instinct is to hold him back, to plead with him to stay, although I never seem to have much to say to him. He has nearly finished another novel, and I have not. (Saratoga Springs, Ny., 1961)

From “The Journals of John Cheever” (Knopf, 1990)

Frederick Exley, sportswriter and novelist
Distraught and cornered

I at last got to meet Bellow at a cocktail party at a chic apartment on Chicago’s north side … the apartment turned out to be on about the hundred and nineteenth floor, and it had floor-to-ceiling spotless glass walls making it seem as if one could take one petite step off the end of the rich wall-to-wall carpeting and come, whoooosssssh, face to face with his Maker. An upstate yokel, and a raving paranoiac into the bargain, I got instantly dizzy and fled immediately to a couch where I found myself seated next to Bellow’s date. By the time I had a couple vodkas and with them the courage to maneuver, other guests had begun to crowd Bellow. He looked distraught and cornered, and when at length I got to him to do my “eloquent” number I found that all I had to contribute was some idle and horseshit literary gossip. (mid-1960s)

From “Pages From a Cold Island,” by Frederick Exley (Random House, 1974)

Gloria Steinem, feminist
Childhood haunts

I was clearly trying to learn from other writers by choosing them as subjects for [magazine] profiles … Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March” was the only novel that captured a certain crazy American class mobility I also had experienced while growing up in the Midwest with many books and show-business pretensions, but in either a housetrailer, or a house with rats and no heat. So I spent a memorable day following Bellow around as he revisited his childhood haunts in Chicago … (1965)

From “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions,” by Gloria Steinem (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983)

Susan Cheever, novelist and memoirist
“I have suffered”

We used to go to parties at Jennifer Hill’s apartment …

Jennifer’s apartment was grand and grown-up, and we stood in the wallpapered rooms as the evening settled down over her twelfth-floor gardens and drank scotch … I met … Saul Bellow, who wore a little hat and radiated sexual energy. “I have suffered,” he said, and then he laughed as if nothing could be funnier. (New York, late 1960s)

From “Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker,” by Susan Cheever (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

Herbert Mitgang, literary journalist
Youthful

A tough man to interview is Saul Bellow, who usually avoids ink-stained wretches. Your pencil can’t keep ahead of his mind; even in conversation, his sentences are enlivened with a quote from Rousseau here, a reference to a Beethoven symphony there.

Feet up, we were sitting on the terrace of his apartment thirteen floors above Lake Michigan, somewhere between Evanston and Chicago. He wore a relaxed air and clothes to match, slightly elegant even when casual, a blue polo shirt with white collar, brown loafers and inflammatory red socks, a man of at least two tones. Bellow looked as youthful as when we had last talked in New York, one eye peering intently, the other skeptical or twinkling, wisdom showing more than age. (1980)

From “Words Still Count With Me: A Chronicle of Literary Conversations,” by Herbert Mitgang (W.W. Norton, 1995)

Martin Amis, literary journalist and novelist
Omniscient tortoise

Mr Bellow was identifiable, in the anteroom of the Arts Club, not by certain signs of decay but by his dapper, compact figure and by his expression — one of courteous vigilance. I clutched a copy of “The Dean’s December,” Bellow’s latest novel, which I was re-reading. ‘As you see,’ he said, when we filed into the dining-room, ‘it’s not an arts club at all.’ Indeed, the snazzy private restaurant was one of the many examples I encountered of Chicago’s flirtatious or parodic attitude to high culture. ‘There’s a Braque, a de Kooning, a Matisse drawing. But it’s just a lunch club for elegant housewives.’

Bellow is sixty-eight. His hair is white and peripheral but the eyes are still the colour of expensive snuff. Generous yet combative, the mouth is low-slung, combining with the arched brows to give his face an animated roundness. In repose the face is squarer, harder. He looks like an omniscient tortoise. (1983)

From “The Moronic Inferno, and Other Visits to America,” by Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape, 1986)

Dana Cook is a Toronto freelance editor and literary ambulance chaser. His collage portraits of Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson, Saul Bellow and Hunter S. Thompson have appeared previously in Salon.

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