My favourite story in Saul Bellow's latest volume of Collected Stories is "Him With His Foot in His Mouth". Its title, alone, is delectablełan appetizer, a taste of Bellow's career-long talent for playing both ends against the middle. In this particular case, for being a Jewish writer and not seeming like one. Or maybe that should be the other way around. (Which is another Bellow talent: to encompass contradictions rather than defy them.) Anyway, what you read is what you getłYiddish syntax upending a wholly American colloquialism, part straight talk, part kibbitzing.
Then there's the premise of the story. The narrator, Harry Shawmut, highly cultured and reasonably famous, is writing to a librarianł"Dear Miss Rose," the story beginsłto apologize for insulting her some 40 years earlier. He not only expects to be forgiven, he expects to be understood. In the meantime, his world has come crashing down around him. He's in trouble with the lawłconned by his brother into investing in a fraudulent businessłand living in exile in Canada. ("A foreign country in which my own language, or something approaching it, is spoken," he says.) In serious financial and philosophical trouble, Bellow's hero still finds time to make with the smart remarks. I hesitate to use the adjectivełnot to mention the exclamation markłbut how Bellovian!
I should probably add that I hesitate to confuse character and author, but who am I kidding? The problem with meeting famous writersłand, as a literary journalist for the last two decades, I've met a fewłis that it's far too easy to play connect the dots between their life and work, their person and persona. "The literary interview won't tell you what a writer is like," Martin Amis said once. But it will tell you enough to jump to the inevitable conclusion. The dots do line up, after all. Or, put another way, if it quacks like a duck, well...
John Updike, in person, is as polished as his prose, except for the occasional and famous stammer, a reassuring defect. Norman Mailer is combative but canny, an operator. Months after I wrote about him, he sent me a complimentary note and a photocopy of a caricature he had drawn of himself. Margaret Atwood is, like her novels, smart as a whip and bitter as aspirin. She warned me, schoolmarmishly, about giving away the ending to whatever new novel she had just written. Allen Ginsberg was in a hurry to change when we met in his hotel room before an interview, and so he dropped his pants in front of me rather than step into the bathroom to change. What did I expect from the author of Howl? Reticence?
From Bellow I expected high-mindedness. I showed up for our interview in 1990 prepared to be in over my head. Think of the fat philosophical novels łThe Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Humboldt's Gift, Mr. Sammler's Planetłand Bellow's best work, his great work, dare I say it, is as full of big ideas as literary ones. His fiction has always leaned more towards advice than artifice.
Which was fine by me. We had an hour scheduledł he was in Montreal, his birthplace, to deliver the keynote address for Jewish Book Monthłand I planned to ask some very big questions about love and death and the human condition. What was I looking for? Some kind of promo of Bellow's favourite themes, his greatest hits: the difficulty of living a good life or the decline of Western civilization would do for starters.
In "The Bellarosa Connection", which also shows up in Bellow's new Collected Stories, the narrator recalls a time when people like him, self-taught philosophers, theorized about everything. "Ring anybody's bell, and he'd open the window and empty a basin full of thoughts on your head." Well, that's just what I wantedłto be drenched.
Instead, what I got was an occasionally cranky and frail looking 75-year-old in a fedora and an oversized red bow tie. An old Jewish man, in other words, which is, I'm discovering, what all Jewish men, no matter how assimilated their lives, how worldly their achievements, turn into, if they're lucky. But it wasn't just my petty observation about his big anachronistic bow tie preventing us from discussing civilization's decline or how to lead a moral life, it was the clock: Bellow, the moralizer, had double-booked. We had only a half hour to talk; to make matters worse, he couldn't hear me. A maid vacuuming the carpets forced us to relocate to another corner of the hotel lobby where a new problem arose: a speaker was playing Muzak above Bellow's head. An orchestral version, all strings and flutes, of the Beatles' Yesterday, if I remember correctly.
Life is always conspiring to imitate art and it occurs to me now that our meeting could have beenłshould have been?ła scene right out of some soon-to-be-written Bellow novel, the next Herzog or Humboldt's Gift in which the narrator's pursuit of some higher truth is repeatedly interrupted by lowly human shenanigans. The difference, in this case, was that Bellow, unlike his heroes, wasn't playing ball. He wasn't engaged, just annoyed. Or maybe he just no longer had the patience for shenanigans. Besides, the Muzak, which I'd barely noticed, was driving him nuts. Maybe it was, for him, a symptom of decline, after all, a symbol of a society that had gotten so noisy no one, himself especially, was able to hear themselves think. It may have also been an indication, for him, that it was time to stop trying to make them.
"The status of literature and the status of the individual are losing ground today," he finally pontificated, after we'd moved to a quieter place. "Serious damage has been done. Is it irreversible? It's hard to say... But there is a sort of destruction of human capacities now which is disheartening and dangerous." Which is when the reporter from the Globe and Mail showed up and I made my leave.
* * *
Saul Bellow once said that he's been busy since he was circumcised and who can argue. He not only won the 1976 Nobel Prize for literature, and changed the course of 20th century literature, making American writing more Jewish, if you want a for instance, and Jewish writing more American, he'd also been married five times and, a couple of years ago, at the age of 85 fathered a child. Never mind the Nobel, put this guy on a Wheaties box, give him a Viagra ad. Even so, when I met him 12 years ago he was already scaling back. All he wanted to talk about was "the little books" he was writingła consequence of the marketplace, the decreasing attention span of readers, and, last but hardly least, his own advancing years.
He was coming to terms with the fact that a big ambitious novel required a kind of stamina he no longer had. Instead, he was devoting himself to novellasłlike A Theft and "The Bellarosa Collection". (Another novella "The Actual" came out in 1997 but isn't included in the Collected Stories.) This self-imposed humility for a man with Bellow's presumed ego was extraordinary and impressive, a nod to the game of literature, like an aging slugger learning to lay down a sacrifice bunt. (The full-length novel Ravelstein, published in 2000, is disappointing, slight and a bit of a shambles, the exception proving the rule Bellow had set for himself.) If he could no longer be great, he would be good.
Damn good, as the stories in this new book show, especially the later stories like "Him with His Foot in His Mouth", "The Bellarosa Connection", and "Something to Remember Me By", all written in the 1980s and early 90s. Bellow has frequently referred to his fiction as "higher autobiography" and all his lead characters now carry with them their creator's current complexes. Bellow is like an old kid with a brand new set of toys. His heroes are self-deprecating snobs, wise and cranky, compassionate and impatient: Polonious with self-awareness, the Sunshine Boys with Brains.
Novelists aren't like painters. They don't have their blue periods or their pink ones. They just get older and better and then older and not as good. Bellow's long career has managed to follow this trajectory and defy it at the same time. If he wrote short stories in the 1950s and 60słsome of them like "Mosby's Memoirs" and "Leaving the Yellow House" are included in this latest collectionłas a kind of breather between his big Bellovian novels, his more recent short fiction has extended his reputation. Here is proof, if it's still needed, that he is both great and good. ņ
Joel Yanofsky is a journalist and novelist. He lives in Montreal.