A Conversation with Saul Bellow
When Saul Bellow died in April, it was inevitable that I would think back on our one and only meeting, which was the occasion of the interview reprinted here. Doing so, I have realized, hardly for the first time, what a capricious editing system the memory is. Never mind my enormous admiration for Bellow and for his contribution to our literature, and never mind the subjects we covered and my poorly concealed excitement about getting him to field my questions for the public record, what I retain now, eight years after the event, is a dominant impression of courtesy, of a sweetness and decency of the sort that one could not always attribute to the various Bellovian protagonists—Henderson, Herzog, Charlie Citrine, Dean Corde . . . This man sat quietly and listened; he waited to be sure I was done with my question before answering, and though there were several occasions where he could have easily taken the high road, correcting me or being dismissive of my naiveté, he never did. I naturally thought of Pound’s line about the old men with their beautiful manners, how “they will not come again.” I’m gratified now that this should be the impression that outlasted the others, for it confirms for me that decency is the natural expression of a great spirit, and Bellow was nothing if not that.
(The following interview first appeared in AGNI 46.)
I interviewed Saul Bellow on March 21, 1997, in his office at Boston University. We sat together in a late afternoon gloom in which the only incongruous thing was my daughter’s bright yellow tape recorder. I had left my questions at home, trusting that there would be enough associative branchings, trusting that if I did not force the issue at every turn we could have something more like a conversation than an interview. Bellow, I think, would have obliged. But as I look back over the transcript of our exchange, I cannot but be struck at my determination to lead the novelist toward some recognition of my own prejudices.
Bellow, I would note, was relaxed, responsive, and unfailingly courteous. He did warn me at the outset that he had recently had dental work done and that too much talk was painful. We had not yet reached the hour mark when he took advantage of a long pause to conclude.
Leaving his office, I had the feeling—not all that common—of having been to that virtual “other place” that is the point of conversation. I held the tape recorder to my ear, reversed for a few beats, and then pushed the button. Yes, it was there—faint, marred by whooshing sounds from traffic down on Commonwealth Avenue, but apparently intact.
I rode down the elevator. When it stopped, just before the door opened, I thought as I always do—following Bellow’s own Charles Citrine—”My fate!” The doors opened, as they usually do, on the nothing new—only slightly changed now, reframed, by the mind’s little trick.
Sven Birkerts: I’m not a dreaming literalist, but I had a very busy dream last night in which you and I were in some seaside town carrying on a conversation—and I woke up with the feeling that we had already talked.
Saul Bellow: Well, if you believe in reincarnation, we may have had our conversation already.
Birkerts: I had a first question that came to me as I was driving over here. I wondered if you had ever had the self-congratulatory thought that you had lucked out and gotten in under the wire as a writer of fiction, had been born into the last great era of possibility for the novel?
Bellow: Well, that you should think that is only natural. Of course I’ve thought that. I don’t like to live in a historical scheme of any kind . . . . I’ve always protested when someone says “first feudalism, then capitalism . . .” I don’t take to it very kindly because it really doesn’t tell me anything. I see now that this has been applied to the kind of writing I’ve done all my life—fiction. “It’s over,” and so on . . . . The novel has been outflanked, outclassed, or it’s historically inappropriate. I hear this from writers.
Birkerts: Do you think this is because of a media shift, the fact that we’ve hit yet another watershed, and that there’s no going back now that the electronic demon is here?
Bellow: It isn’t just the electronic demon, it’s also the question of whether it isn’t the novelty which is temporarily too enticing to reject—so everybody gives himself to it, people stop reading . . . . But of course these things go in cycles. I don’t “believe” in history, but I’ve seen cycles myself. No, I don’t believe in historical analysis in the hands of amateurs. I don’t know if anything has ended. To say that it has ended means that the chronicling of the inner life has come to an end.
Bellow: Or is in the hands of psychologists. I shudder at how the inner life would fare in psychologists’ hands. I don’t knock films or television shows, but they nail you down to a kind of externality. Nothing is going to be communicated which demands a softer approach—or let’s say a more insidious approach—into the soul. These conditions can sometimes be reflected in movies or television, but they’re not always suited to that. People like to think that they’ve captured what is widely accepted in public—and profitable.
When I hear these historical analyses made, I remember that I’m Jewish and that we’ve survived all kinds of challenges, so why not this one as well?
Birkerts: I don’t think that the novel will become extinct, but it might become a hermetic discipline, which would certainly change its status.
Bellow: Well, that’s true, but think of populations of 260 or 270 millions—not counting Australia, England, Canada, and other places. If there’s even 1/10 of 1% of that number reading it would still be a much larger public than Swift or Fielding had. Of course they had a very highly educated public—we don’t have that anymore.
Birkerts: I suppose, though, that their smaller percentile put a whole different pressure on the system. Maybe that’s at the root of the complaint I hear from fiction writers. It’s not that they don’t have readers, but that they don’t feel—
Bellow: That they’re swinging society by the tail.
Bellow: Well, it’s partly because they’ve abandoned certain kinds of subjects and that they’ve taken to posturing and the postures don’t wear very well. How could they?
Birkerts: I wonder if in some significant way the life of the novel doesn’t depend on its ability to keep bringing across the experience of the cultural moment. Only in the last two decades have we slipped into a period where most of what people do—most of the transactions a fiction writer would have to work with—have become so indirect and mediated and resistant to dramatization.
Bellow: That’s something you’ve got to face, of course. The fact is that movies have captured all the obvious forms—movies and dictators between them—so that as democracy advances, its advance has very questionable effects on the various arts . . . . This is the promise of the Englightenment, that man will conquer nature and there will be an abundance for everyone and freedom and the privilege of privacy and so forth. They’re guaranteed a comfortable existence in privacy, and free to make choices which suit their own disposition. That’s what’s happened here. It hasn’t happened all over the world, but it has happened in all of the industrially advanced countries. People speak of hunger still in the US—they say the process has not advanced, not as yet. Well, of course we know that. But on the other hand, if you’ve visited underdeveloped countries, you know what the differences are . . . so, there are these many things to think about.
Birkerts: Do you find yourself reading certain novelists who might be called novelists of ideas? I’m thinking of Milan Kundera and Don DeLillo—writers who set up structures that allow them to put ideas into play.
Bellow: Kundera is a dude. I take him to be a kind of dandy—an apparently new, but really quite old, type. That is to say, he’s an Eastern European who is crazy about France and Paris and the dernier cri. He does it more or less successfully, but I don’t really take much interest in it. I read DeLillo’s White Noise. I liked it. I thought it was very good.
Birkerts: Do you feel that in some deeper sense you had a choice in the matter about becoming a writer of fiction?
Bellow: (after long pause) Let me being with a bit of autobiography. I grew up in the Depression, before radio had advanced very far, before television had appeared at all. People were much more bookish then, and there was a quite highly educated literary public. There were lots of magazines—I mean literary magazines, whose editors themselves were writers. And libraries were full of people trying to keep warm, and they were reading all kinds of books. There were discussing them, too. You’d go out on the library steps in a city like Chicago—or New York for that matter—and you’d see groups of people actually arguing about ideas . . . . It’s much less common now, notwithstanding the growth of the universities. It was a really democratic phenomenon. That is to say, people of all classes participated in this. There would be working stiffs—of course tough guys wouldn’t do this sort of thing—and it was all right for lower middle class citizens and even proletarians and members of “minorities” to talk about public questions and literary questions. And you could sit around in cafeterias and over your nickel cup of coffee and could have a conversation lasting far into the night.
When I was in high school it seemed to me that this was an ongoing and very important concern of Americans all over the country, that they were reading and writing and that it was a permanent condition. As a child of immigrants I had no reason to think otherwise. This was America. America had an ongoing and permanent literary life.
Well, I turned out to be wrong, but it was an accident that I proved to be wrong because it was there, and it was there in all modern countries, not just in the United States . . . . We were reading the French and Japanese and Germans and Spaniards—as well as Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, and Wallace Stevens. All of that was going on at that time. There was a certain familiarity with important political figures. It was all a great stimulus, a huge lark. Everybody took part in it and nobody dreamed that it was so close to what we now take for granted—it’s all but extinct. Well, in a way it is and in a way it isn’t. You still have a minority everywhere in the country interested in poems and novels.
Birkerts: Has nurturing and developing the fiction writer’s imagination finally given you the best life?
Bellow: Oh! There is not such thing as a best life!
Birkerts: You mean in an absolute sense, or in terms of a personal sense of self-congruence—
Bellow: No, I mean under the present circumstances, when everyone is so mixed up, topsy-turvy and confused. It would be a mistake to put such questions, or to say, “Well, civilization may have been going to hell all the while, but for me personally . . .” ( laughs) You avoid that kind of thing. It’s false. What would be closer to a real statement would be hard to understand—at least I don’t have the skill to tell you what I mean by it—but you become a writer because you are convinced that you have a grip on reality of a certain distinctive kind. It belongs to you and to others who share such a recognition. When I say ‘others,’ I’m referring to the last few centuries. And what does it mean? It means that you came into the world in total ignorance, wailing and wetting yourself, and all these strange phenomena are there and gradually they emerge from a buzzing blooming confusion. They take shape and have a distinctive character. Well, some people live with such basic experiences of the soul and some don’t. the ones who do identify or recognize it are artists—whatever else they may be. I can say of them that they are born participants, or born communicants.
Birkerts: And some people remember via language, while other people retain it visually or—
Bellow: Right. And it’s tremendously important because it’s your natural judgment on your surroundings and your existence and the existence of those close to you that tends to get wiped out in civilized countries—maybe among savages it gets wiped out, too, but they probably have a better chance to hang onto it than we do.
But the mysteries are very real and you continue to protect them as mysteries. It’s very clear. It’s very clear in any number of writers who tell you so themselves. A Tolstoy, for instance. Or Baudelaire. He says: “When you’re up against it, just remember your childhood.” In other words, imagine existence as you originally grasped it.
Well, that’s not a gift that can be dismissed very easily. But it involves you in something else—people speak of it as ‘alienation,’ a term I dislike because I’m not alienated from this reality we’re talking about. But I became aware that this was being left behind by my own generation, by my brothers, cousins, friends, classmates, and so on . . . . It recedes, it doesn’t die out. And one proof that it doesn’t die out is that when you publish something people recognize the presence of this reality. But if I say something about this in a classroom, I don’t expect to be understood. I am always fond of giving the example of Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Illich.” When Ivan Illich begins to think about his life his first thought is of that proposition from the logic book: “Caius is a man; all men are mortal; thus Caius is mortal.” He disputes it. Did Caius have little Ivan’s ball? Was he ever given this delicious ball I owned with red and blue stripes?
For an example of what he means he goes back to an early experience. So, then, life has a flavor, a taste, an odor, a color, a fragrance, a way of persuading you that you are seeing reality.
Birkerts: Has your sense of the mysteries always been that they are near, or are they something you feel close to and which then recede?
Bellow: Well, I recede from them when the business of life drives me away too far, as it does most people most of the time. That keeps you on your toes—wary.
Birkerts: Would you say that in the deepest throes of composition, or in the meditation that leads to composition, you are closest to these mysteries?
Bellow: It depends on what you’re doing or what stage you’re in. It confirms what Kafka said—that it’s a form of prayer. In other words, sometimes you’re praying from the whole heart and sometimes you’re not. Of course, it’s slippery and evasive and there’s no guarantee that you’re going to keep your grip . . .
Birkerts: Over the course of a long life is there a sense of ascending plateaus, where at least you know where and how to make the connection, or are you always equally rolling the dice?
Bellow: If I want to do the same old thing, it’s easy. If I want to do something altogether new, it becomes harder. I could go on writing the stories I’ve been writing during the last few years. They have a certain charm and they’re true as far as they go. They’re just not enough.
Birkerts: Where is the wheel pulling then, if it pulls away from that?
Bellow: If just you and I were having a conversation, I’d be willing to talk about this, but if it’s going to be in print I don’t want to . . . because it’s too close to—
Birkerts: I understand. Well, I was wondering, too, about what happens in the process of writing when you are at a certain level of linguistic immersion . . . . I guess I’m asking about inspiration.
Bellow: That either comes or it doesn’t come. If you’re an old pro it doesn’t have to come. You can do it. I mean, you can will it to be done, and do it, and most people will not know the difference. But I’ll know the difference. That’s the harder way, not the easier way by any means. The easier way is to be turned on. But when you’re turned on you never know exactly what’s going to happen.
It isn’t quite as simple as it all sounds. What I’m really trying to say is that it’s something like a flowering. That you’ve been thinking for decades about something and it has never occurred to you that that something is a story. One day it becomes clear. That’s the moment. It takes some luck and some ability to grasp your opportunities.
Birkerts: It also takes having lived long enough so that you can have the glance back that discloses the outlines of a story where formerly there were none. Where circumstances have become stories.
Bellow: I could name you the stories that became—they’re easy to write. That’s the best sort of writing.
Birkerts: I was wondering. It almost sounded like you were going to give them a lower mark for being easy to write.
Bellow: No, no, no, no. What I’m trying to say is that willed stories are much harder because you don’t have the cooperation of the facts. But the facts are never raw facts—they’re facts that have been treated for decades by you without your being aware.
Birkerts: If you could take an intelligent, eager young individual who is still very malleable and who came to you and said, “Direct my reading, either so that I may become the writer I want to become or so that I may have the best equipment for living in a world as it is and as it threatens to become,” what kind of reading program would you design?
Bellow: Well, I’d certainly start with 19th century Russians, and with certain 19th century Americans, and then a few Frenchmen and a few English writers.
Birkerts: Why the 19th century in particular?
Bellow: 18th, 19th . . . . Well, because that’s the beginning of the modern experience, which seems to be coming to a bad end (laughs). But at the moment it doesn’t look like a good end . . . . I keep writing these essays about distraction. One could write an encyclopedia about distraction. One of the distractions is thought, thought itself. Even good thought, even what we call advanced thought is a distraction because it takes us away from our phenomenal surroundings. And the novel can’t live when it’s divorced from these phenomenal surroundings. It can be divorced from anything else. So, the chairs and tables in Kafka are Kafka’s chairs and tables, but they’re chairs and tables just the same.
I’d say the second step would be to find (with luck) some advanced conversation on these topics. I was lucky. I had it. I had friends like Isaac Rosenfeld in Chicago, and others—most of them dead now—friends in New York also, people like Delmore Schwartz and certain members of the Partisan Review gang—that is, grown people who rated these things highly and took them seriously. Unless you get that from somebody it’s very hard to get yourself started.
Birkerts: I think that’s why the book, Humboldt’s Gift, is so particularly important to me. It is filled with—it is—the best imaginable conversation. And it manages to be that in a way that includes both extremely ethereal notions and street gangsters, and does so in a single voice which doesn’t seem to slip out of the groove . . .
Bellow: —low sex—(laughs)
Birkerts: I think that this was the novel that opened up a spectrum of possibility for voice in the novel, and I don’t see it being followed up. And maybe that’s because you had a particular range of experience that was your own that allowed you that mix. This is something I know I’m starving for as a reader—intelligent, contemplative prose, but also with real chairs and real tables and comic energy. I wonder why we are not throwing up more writers who can do this, or who appear to want to—
Bellow: For one thing, there’s a greater passivity now; there’s a lack of independent development in people. They take their images from the news. Wherever you look now there are Clinton types and—what’s our Vice-President’s name?—Al Gore types, Republican types and Democrat types . . . there are Trumps and Murdochs, and so on. Moreover, you see kids, little boys, practicing the jeers of their television heroes—they shape themselves on such models. It’s a strange conformity to what’s thrust at them; they adopt it and adapt it and play with it. There are millions of Woody Allens in the country—you have to hide from them—(laughs)—you have to hide from the original as well . . .
Birkerts: Earlier you named distraction—would you add irony to that particular sauce?
Bellow: Yes, you know, comic effects. Comic effects are the ones that in this democracy are the most accessible, the daily events are—I’m speaking very generally now—transmitted in comic form. Because it’s harmless, non-threatening. What it means is that there’s a kind of emptiness at the center of life—which Walt Whitman and Emerson predicted—nothing to form your life on, or by. I saw an article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal about a new book made up of letters written by people in the service on both sides during the Civil War. Those young soldiers are—or were—very serious. I mean, you see that they really were gripped by political questions, ready to lay down their lives for them. You ask yourself why that great seriousness didn’t persist. Walt Whitman in Democratic Vistas said in effect: If the poets don’t take charge here, then the bankers and the manufacturers will take charge. He didn’t know that they would all be wearing Adidas (laughs).
Birkerts: My question would be, then—and I agree that there is this sense of an empty core—whether there might not be a kind of backdraft effect like what you can get in a burning building. Hasn’t this created an extraordinary appetite for news of inwardness?
Bellow: Well, that’s true. The game—or dance—is not necessarily over. Because the majority of the population in all countries through the centuries has been dismissed. Peasantry—you knew you could rely on it for certain things, but mentally and spiritually it was a void, and the same with the proletariat, until Marx came to the fore . . . . But it’s not as if there was no life without the participation of the majority of the population. We have a feeling that in a democracy the majority has a right as well as the power to fill up the floor space. Which it has done because it’s also the market. But you mustn’t despair because you don’t have that kind of support that at ideal moments people had—it’s just not here at this moment.
Birkerts: Is Delmore Schwartz still an extraordinarily vivid presence to you?
Bellow: Yes, because I actually saw him at that moment described in the book, in total ruin—and he had been moving toward ruin for a long time.
Birkerts: Eating the dusty pretzel on the curb . . .
Bellow: That was the image of his destruction.
Birkerts: And would you say that the image has stayed as the front image—that you have to move it aside to get at the other ones?
Bellow: (pause) He’s somebody who lost his life in that struggle. I could say he’s among the honored dead. He didn’t make it through. he wasn’t savvy enough, for all his preoccupation with jobs and money. He loved the melodrama of rank, sex, career, but he didn’t understand the underlying principles. He was not a good psychologist.
Birkerts: For all his psychoanalyzing . . . (pause) What do you read nowadays, when pleasure dictates?
Bellow: Well, I did a strange thing. I went to the Brookline Library and looked up a writer named Altsheler. Altsheler was a writer of the boys books that I liked when I was a kid in Chicago . . . . I went through the entire shelf. He wrote about the frontier and the struggles with the Indians. He seems to have known a lot about the Iroquois—he even knew their language it turns out. Marvelous writer. I ordered up a lot of them from libraries all over the area. The latest editions of the books are around 1920 or so . . . . In the late 20s I was reading them—
Birkerts: What’s that like?
Bellow: Well, of course they’re foolish to read now. But I can see why they were terribly attractive. They were about freedom, strength, ingenuity, patience, learning the lore of the forests, going it alone with only your gun, and bow and arrow, or a knife, a few fishhooks in your pocket, escaping from terrible dangers . . . shades of Fenimore Cooper. I read these books when I’m in the pits, when I can read nothing else. I resist newspapers, even good newspapers. I mentioned the Wall Street Journal, but I only read the op-ed stuff in the Journal . . .
Birkerts: How about these 19th century novels? Do you yourself go back to them?
Bellow: By special arrangement I do. Because I’m teaching here and there are books I’ve assigned in the course I’m giving. I’m giving a course called, “The Ambitious Young Man,” so I’ve got Pere Goriot, The Red and the Black, Great Expectations, now Crime and Punishment.
Birkerts: Great topic—
Bellow: The Great Gatsby, and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie to satisfy the natural desire for American books about rising and falling, I have read these authors again and again. I have to say they stand up remarkably well.
Sven Birkerts is now editor of AGNI. (5/2005)