Thursday, November 19, 2020

Saul Bellow calls up our courage

Saul Bellow and Richard M. Daley, 1989 (Sun-Times files)

     I am an American, Northbrook borne—Northbrook, that virtuous village—and since being carried here by indifferent fate, have suffered a few knocks, none too hard and most of my own infliction.
     I am also on vacation this week. But rather than leave you stranded, I'd like to rescue a digression from yesterday's column, on cowardice and our craven Republican non-leaders, that ended up on the cutting room floor. Not that there is a cutting room—a movie term—though in my world there is certainly much cutting and many floors too.
     I had an interesting conversation with Chris Walsh, head of the Boston University College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program, ranging from Dante to Kipling. He floated an idea that I thought was very trenchant, one that did get into the column:
     "Before you accuse somebody else of cowardice, think what your own duty is, what you should do, out of excessive fear, out of complacency, or love of security."
     And then he did something extraordinary, particularly among academics: he applied is own advice to himself, speaking of "a sense of my own failures, from excessive fear" offering up "a more prosaic fact"—he was going to write his dissertation about Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road," but was dissuaded by his first reader, Saul Bellow.
     "Bellow said I would get bored and grow to hate the guy," Walsh said.
     That's the sort of stray detail that catches the eye of a professional journalist. I sought elaboration. Walsh explained that he was Bellow's assistant for the last five years of the novelist's life.
     Here my interest grew focused and practical, almost mercenary. Bellow has a cameo in the new book I'm working on, and I couldn't resist doing a little fact-checking. Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976 and, as per the James Atlas biography, the next year when the Nobel was handed out, by necessity to someone else, Bellow was depressed because he could not win it a second time. That seemed to speak to the essence of the man.
     "Was Atlas being fair?" I wondered. "He presents Bellow as something of a cocksman. Bellow was also very unfair to his friend, Sydney J. Harris in 'Humboldt's Gift.' The colostomy bag."
     Harris was a Daily News columnist I admired, with a lying-under-cherry-trees, thinking-about-stuff style not unlike my own, or should I say, my style is rather an echo of his. Bellow depicts him wearing a colostomy bag, a not-subtle, almost cruel comment on the quality of Harris' writerly output. They were friends from childhood. Harris was a proud supporter of Bellow's. It seemed unkind of Bellow to depict Harris churning out shit.
     Walsh told a story about the book coming out, and Bellow asking his latest wife—he had five—not to read it, and asking Walsh not to read it. I noted that he did not contradict the account. Bellow was a jerk averse to the hard truth about himself, at least when presented by somebody else.
     In the spirit of loathing cowardice, conquering fear and banishing complacency, I should probably admit that I didn't read Bellow as a young man. I was an aspiring humorist, and preferred writers who were funny (James Thurber, Kurt Vonnegut) or eccentric stylists (Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Elkin) or tortured Germans (Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann). 
     To me, Saul Bellow was John Cheever with a circumcision, the John Updike of Maxwell Street. I read "Humboldt's Gift" only because part of it takes place at the Division Street Russian Baths, which, as a former card-carrying member, I was writing about in my Chicago book. I think I just read the parts that took place in the baths. 
     The only reason I eventually read "The Adventures of Augie March"—and I am half horrified, half proud to admit this—is my older son shamed me into doing so. He read it, and would taunt me by periodically firing the famous first line, "I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago that somber city" in my direction, a shot over my bow, until I broke down and read the thing, just to make him stop.
     It's good.
     Chris Walsh and I got to discussing Bellow's work, briefly.
     "It seems to me he is totally passé," Walsh said "He's virtually disappeared. It's a shame, because I think he's worth reading."
     "The wrong race," I observed, quietly. In the 1950s, Jewish writers were the Other. Now we are the Man.
     When Walsh mentioned the need to confront one's own cowardice, and ask what is not being done out of fear, I of course silently wondered what I wasn't doing, out of love of security, but should do. Since were were talking politics, my thought was that firing these columns into the night sky and watching them pop and sparkle for a moment against the swirling darkness is about the best I can do, and anything more—go to Washington, protest the existence of Donald Trump by solemnly setting myself on fire in front of the White House gates, like those Cambodian monks during the Vietnam War—would be not bravery but overkill.
     Although ... there is one thing. While on the topic. I met Saul Bellow once. I've never mentioned the details before for reasons that will be clear. But as Napoleon said, if you're going to take Vienna, take Vienna. In 1989, I was a general assignment night shift reporter, and began work at 5 p.m. My old college roommate, Didier, was in town, and we were celebrating each other's company by passing the hours at a beer hall on Roosevelt Road famous for its 100 types of beer. We didn't hit them all, but certainly tried. He introduced me to the glories of Belgian beer. The nickname of Chimay Ale in Belgium is "Death." It is an apt nickname.
     I was supposed to start work at 5 p.m. At some point I realized I was smashed and tried to call in sick to the city desk, which I guess is a kind of responsibility. It didn't work. You can't call in sick, the eternally patient city editor, Steve Huntley explained, you need to get over to Saul Bellow's condo at Hyde Park. He's going to endorse Richard M. Daley for mayor.
     The fire bell rings, the horse stirs from the straw. That's professionalism. So I went, and was there, and have the haziest memory of the event, viewed through the dark lake of Chimay sloshing around inside me. The resultant article turned out fine, they always did. I came away with a dim impression of Bellow—that he was a racist, endorsing Daley as a bulwark against Black people invading Hyde Park. Daley won. Bellow fled Chicago anyway, heading toward the East Coast and his rendezvous with Walsh. When I got out of his condo, I couldn't find my car, and had to search for it a long time, almost frantic, practically calling the car's name aloud. That's the strongest memory of that visit, and not a good one. 


  1. An interesting read, thanks. The Roosevelt Road beer hall sounds like The Weinkeller in Berwyn, now long gone, sad to say.

  2. That sounds right. Long tables, every single type of beer.

  3. "John Cheever w/a circumcision." Brilliant! I enjoyed Augie March, tried Humboldt twice, never reached the end. Discursive in a way I didn't relish. Thank you for mentioning Vonnegut in a positive light. He's turning out to be one of those writers one is supposed to "get over," like Salinger, once you "mature." Critics rarely credit comedy. Which is lame. I say "Jailbird" is THEE Great American Novel oc C. 20.

  4. Not to quibble, but aren't you from Ohio?

    1. C'mon guys, I sometimes wonder why I bother. Read the opening again, for comprehension.

    2. I got it right away, thanks to finally having read "Augie March" when I was around sixty or so. Loved it--for its urban grittiness. It's set in a tough town (Chicago) in tough times (the Depression). Tried other works by Bellow, but didn't finish them.

      Maybe you can try doing the style of James T. Farrell next, even though you're not an Irishman. He's probably my favorite Chicago author. I read some of Farrell's novels in my teens, after finding my parents' yellowing copies of the Studs Lonigan trilogy in the basement.

      At the age of fifty, I attempted to find and binge-read everything Farrell ever wrote. All 54 of his works. Didn't even come close to achieving my goal. Too much urban misery and pain. All that Hibernian binge-drinking and carousing and self-destruction and mental anguish. Too many sodden (rather than sudden) deaths. Too many sad rides home on the streetcar, from too many Irish wakes. Maybe that's why he's almost forgotten these days.

      Cleveland's vast library system owns most of Farrell's books, and I tracked down still others in other systems, including the ones from his radical leftist days in New York, and the obscure novels he published in his geezerhood. I finally gave up my quest as a sorry task, maybe hlfway through it. Not the most uplifting sort of pastime, especially during Ohio's long gray winters, which are already depressing enough.

      Still, for anyone who wants to learn more about the often-woeful racial and ethnic history of Chicago, and especially about the working-class South Side Irish community, his novels are must-reads. If you can handle all that cheerless snowy-day-in-February despair.

  5. Bellow was a jerk averse to the hard truth about himself, at least when presented by somebody else.

    Aren't we all

  6. A delightful post. Never made it to, nor heard of The Weinkeller, but I'd have liked to. I enjoy many, many kinds of beer, but don't like Belgian very well, alas.

    My wife, a much more perceptive critic than I, was impressed by Augie March. I managed to slog my way through it, but it didn't encourage me to delve much further into Bellow's oeuvre. "It's good." That covers it succinctly and accurately enough for me.

    As for being averse to the hard truth, "a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest." Having been written over 50 years ago, that line describes the current conundrum of America about as well as any.

    Unlike usually, I don't quite get what the Jackson Pollack painting is doing atop the blog today, but it calls to mind this recent cartoon:

  7. Your last two sentences were the best! Laughing out loud, indeed...

  8. Mentioning two of my favorites, Harris and Vonnegut in the same column, excellent.
    You may even remember that I told you you reminded me of Sydney a while ago. Your response, "High praise indeed!" Yes it is.
    Not many like you guys.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.