April 6th, 2005


Saul Bellow, 1915-2005

I was 15 when my mother took me up to McGill University to see Saul Bellow speak. We were a two-person culture club in those days, my mother and I, combatting the boredom of life in a Montréal suburb with trips to art movies and literary events in our dark blue Volvo.

It was 1975. Bellow still had black hair. He'd just published Humboldt's Gift, his thinly-disguised account of his relationship with the poet Delmore Schwartz, and he was preparing To Jerusalem and Back, his non-fiction account of several months spent in Israel. At that point I hadn't read any Bellow, but I would. In fact, Bellow would become my favourite North American writer. In the 80s I devoured Herzog, Humboldt's Gift, Dangling Man, The Victim, Seize The Day, The Dean's December and To Jerusalem and Back one after the other. After initial attempts at tightness, existentialism and poetic economy, Bellow let everything billow and spill. His books sprawled like America itself does. Appetite for language, and through it life, sprang from every page. Someone in The Dean's December is described as having "a parboiled face". A tree in Dangling Man is "a diagram of itself".

Bellow in his books is sociologist, gossip, scrupulous inquisitor of his adopted culture (he was born in Lachine, just outside Montréal, but adopted Chicago as his home), historical painter, commentator, journalist, wry comedian, flowing poet... He restores some of the urbanity, invention, liveliness and humour of the 18th century novel. He's as chatty and witty as Lawrence Sterne. He's cosmopolitan and intelligent, with good object relations and an ear always cocked to his "primitive prompter", the automatic word-deliverer in his lower cortex, the instinctual poet. Like his famous character Herzog, Bellow is looking always for the "five cent cigar, the five cent synthesis" that will make 20th century America click into meaning.

Bellow was born Solomon Bellows, to immigrants of Russian extraction. You catch some of the Yiddish energy of Isaac Bashevis Singer from him, and there's something of Woody Allen there too. The Associated Press says "The classic Bellow narrator was a self-absorbed intellectual with ideals the author himself seemed to form during the Depression." Being a self-absorbed intellectual myself, I fell profoundly under Bellow's influence in my own "depression years", my early 20s, when I assumed I would become a novelist. He was my next stop after Kafka and Brecht. What I found valuable in his work was the lack of a division between intellectuals and the daily American life he described. I guess the effect of the Depression was super-flattening:

"There were people going to libraries and reading books," Bellow told The Associated Press in a 1997 interview. "They were going to libraries because they were trying to keep warm; they had no heat in their houses. There was a great deal of mental energy in those days, of very appealing sorts. Working stiffs were having ideas."

My big anxieties in those days (and eventually they led me to choose pop music over literature as a career) were of being cut off from the mass of humanity and from "objects". I was much given to poring over books by the Object Relations school of British psychoanalysis--Fairbairn, Guntrip, Klein--for whom the big first object was the breast and the bigger second object the world. Bellow seemed to correct my natural tendency to asceticism. He showed that an intellectual could be appetisingly worldly, and that language used concretely, intelligently and passionately was a bridge to life, to inclusion, to involvement.

And so I worked on never-to-be-finished novels with Bellowesque titles like Pang's Compass, or wrote journalism for the music press under the Bellowesque pseudonym "Lee Citrine", or sang in my Complete History of Sexual Jealousy (Parts 17-24) about "the dangling men you know you'll never go to bed with..."

Saul Bellow, who died yesterday sharp as a pin and perhaps "serene", might be the closest I've come, personally, to having a pope. A humanist pope, a pope whose church is life itself, and people, and the world. Like popes, great novelists never really die. They just enter the canon.