Saul Bellow

Edited by Andy Ross

The Novelist

Ruth R. Wisse

I first got to know Saul as a reader, but he came often to Montreal, the city where I grew up, and I felt I knew him far better than I did. He was my favorite novelist, which meant that I occasionally sparred with him mentally the way his character Moses Herzog does in the letters he writes to Nietzsche and Heidegger. The sparring continued when we became friends.

At the start of our friendship, I challenged Saul's soldierly commitment. During a weekend in 1984, a formal dedication of the Saul Bellow Library was to be followed by a celebratory luncheon. I was a speaker at the luncheon and slipped Saul a note sharing with him my disappointment about his resignation from the Committee for the Free World. The Committee's monthly bulletin Contentions drew a bead on writers and columnists who argued that our political system was founded on oppression, that its freedoms were a sham, and that our prosperity depended on the exploitation of poorer nations. Saul Bellow had been a charter member of the Committee's international board. I had just heard that he resigned from the board in protest against an issue of Contentions criticizing certain of that year's literary prizes for honoring political rather than literary merits. This was ironic, as Saul insisted on the preeminence of the writer over the warrior. His idealization of the writer's task was the bedrock of his literary ambition.

Saul married Janis Freedman in 1989 and they moved to Boston soon after Len and I did, in 1993. Their marriage seemed to me to be Saul's homecoming after a lifetime of search. A fellow Canadian, Janis shared his passion for literature, his comfort in being Jewish, and his concern for Israel at a time when that was becoming more important to him. There was no couple in Boston with whom Len and I felt more at home.

By the time he moved to Boston Saul had long since made up for the lapses of his youth. He grasped political realities as clearly as anyone I knew, even as he did not care to be a political player. Blessed with genius that came from beyond the summons of the will, he trusted the realm of the spirit more than us plodders who make do with what wisdom and knowledge we wring from mere experience. He was the only adult I knew who spoke seriously about the soul.

Every time I taught his work, I invited him to be a guest of the class, and he always came. The students were curious and deferential. He flinched only from questions that pried into the mysteries of composition, but otherwise enjoyed telling about himself, people he knew, and books he liked. "What else but a Jew could I be?" he would say to students who asked about being a Jewish writer. It was the impulse to classify rather than the label itself that bothered him. He didn't fit any classification.

The Husband

Janis Bellow

When I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I began working for Saul as a secretary. As the years went by and our connection changed, I let go of the more unpleasant end of the correspondence and hung on to the precious file of letters to friends and writers. We carried that around wherever we went. Responses would spring into his mind as we were driving or walking and he'd start talking. It would begin as my handwritten mess and then I would type it, he would mark it up, retype it. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters.

He didn't give a damn about what he called posteriority. He never wanted to save copies of his stuff. I don't think he was kidding when he writes in one of his letters that Isaac Rosenfeld's burning his early letters saved him from future embarrassment. He really didn't have that hoarding tendency. I guess it's lucky that I did. I felt that these things were precious and I didn't feel comfortable until I had taken the letter he had written, stapled it to the letter he was answering, scribbled the correspondent's name on the upper right hand corner, and filed it away.

Saul paid attention to the person he was speaking to while dictating and he was always trying to amuse me. He'd look up and he'd want to see if I was smiling or laughing. If I didn't understand a word he would translate it for me. He was educating me, and if we'd been talking about something at great length this was a further elaboration, and so with some of the letters I felt he was speaking to me. If he was very worked up and angry about something he would want me to understand. Our conversation could very well ignite a roaring fire.

He was direct. There was nothing he wouldn't say and not just in a letter to another writer but in company or among colleagues, or to students. He had a clean, pure, open way of being in the world. There might be consequences for speaking his mind, but he always said exactly what needed to be said. But writing was the most important thing to him and this is precisely the moment where he most needed to speak his mind.

The Father

Richard Kreitner

Greg Bellow was born in 1944, the same year that his father Saul Bellow's first novel was published. Greg knew his father longer than did any of his brothers, or his father's five wives. After his father's death in 2005, Greg, a recently retired psychotherapist, wrote out his own story. His memoir inadvertently presents a case study into many of the questions Bellow explored in fiction, to a rather different effect.

The eldest son once told his father he simply couldn't approach his books as literature. He calls Humboldt's Gift "a novel permeated by death consciousness" and says the protagonist of Henderson the Rain King "chooses a life path that brings him into contact with suffering and death". Greg writes that his father's "deepest desire was to keep his thoughts and his feelings strictly to himself" as if Bellow did not spend his life sharing those thoughts and feelings with millions of readers. Saul reserved for art what his eldest son sought from him in life.

The son perceived an opposition between young Saul, the politically radical, amorously multitasking free spirit who raised him, and old Saul, the reactionary, race-baiting friend of authority who animated the latter half of the life. Greg witnessed Bellow's supposed conversion to the unfashionable conservatism that remains the unspoken reason his books aren't read much in America today. The line between public and private is quite blurry, Greg concludes, neglecting to note that a main theme of much of Bellow's work is that this is not such a good thing.

Saul used literature to access what Augie March calls "the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy". Greg preferred psychoanalysis, for which his father had only disdain, saying Greg had made a career out of his own childhood misery. Greg suggests that his father disliked his expertise in psychology because he "anticipated that I'd use my understanding of him in a public account" yet criticizes his father's use of people he knew in life as thinly veiled characters in fiction.

Bellow's fame exploded after the publication of Herzog in 1964. By the time the newly rich writer moved into a fancy co-op on Lake Michigan, Greg was already opinionated enough to dislike the rooms "filled with fancy furniture and modern art". He says he "found the trappings of wealth in their new apartment so repellent that I complained bitterly to Saul", who replied that he didn't care about the new shiny things so long as he could still write.

AR Martin Amis befriended Saul Bellow. Saul wrote a good phrase for the cover of Martin's novel The Information.