Today, June 10th 2015, would have been Saul Bellow’s 100th birthday. In celebration of his of his life, we reached out to Beena Kamlani, Bellow’s editor, to reflect on the writer’s life and influence.
Bellow @ 100: Some Reminiscences and Thoughts
To read Bellow is to be struck. As by a meteor, a thunderbolt, or something from some indefinable source. You are suddenly in possession of knowledge that comes from elsewhere—as if gifted. Stunned and blessed—how often does this happen to us in our lives? I speak from experience. I read him when I was eight. The book was Herzog. We preferred to read because TV in Bombay, India, was grainy and unpredictable. From the Hardy Boys to Enid Blyton, from Jane Austen to H. Rider Haggard—there was nothing that was considered unacceptable, and nothing that turned us off. But the world opened up for me when I came to Herzog. For it spoke about things no one had ever spoken about before. Its openness bowled me over.
I was eight. It was a hard book to read as a child. The intellectual discourses in the letters Moses Herzog wrote were confusing and frustrating, for one didn’t know any of the references. But its truth was unassailable. Perhaps a child can grasp such things more easily than an adult for here was Moses remembering his childhood, the youngest in a family of four children, an immigrant family struggling to make it in immigrant Chicago, describing the helplessness of a child who sat in full knowledge of the struggles and challenges that faced them. These challenges colored his experience of childhood. Persistent failure rubbed shoulders with success; dashed dreams and thwarted ambitions made near impossible lives already brought low by sickness, the deaths of close family members, and sheer survival. Simple existence had to be constantly redefined, rearticulated, reimagined.
In our family, too, there were deaths, divorces, and the effects of failure. Illness and sudden loss were common. Mourning bore witness but the questions multiplied. No one said a word in the mistaken belief that children ought to be protected from the truth. But there, in the kitchen of Moses Herzog’s home on Napoleon Street, in immigrant closeness and proximity, there are no secrets and the children come to know everything because it’s happening in front of them. It is the source of his intimate knowledge about a child’s world, filled with uncertainty, frustration, knowledge that is useless in the present but becomes part of our psychic calibration later, and the constant threat of abandonment. “We were like cave dwellers,” Moses says. We, too, become cave dwellers with him as we hear his pain about losing a beloved wife to a best friend, about the terrible longing for his daughter, and listen to him rage in loneliness against the world. There is the unforgettable scene in that kitchen when Father Herzog comes home robbed and beaten after a bootlegging expedition. “’Sarah!’ he said. ‘Children!’ He showed his cut face. He spread his arms so we could see his tatters, and the white of his body under them. Then he turned his pockets inside out—empty. As he did this, he began to cry, and the children standing about him all cried. It was more than I could bear that anyone should lay violent hands on him—a father, a sacred being, a king. Yes, he was a king to us. My heart was suffocated by this horror. I thought I would die of it. Whom did I ever love as I loved them?” Beckett, writing about Proust, said, “Yesterday is not a milestone that has been passed, but a daystone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably part of us, within us, heavy and dangerous.” In Herzog, Bellow shows us how to record our pasts, how to transcribe them, how to live with them, even when they threaten to wreck us.
Bellow concerned himself with what affected people, in the way they lived their lives, and in the way they dealt with the struggles of the heart. He had a real feeling for it, which is why his work leaves such a mark. He taps corresponding notes in another’s life. He is able to articulate what we know but cannot decipher for ourselves. “Every writer’s assumption is that he is as other human beings are, and they are more or less as he is. There’s a principle of psychic unity. [Writing] was not meant to be an occult operation; it was not meant to be an esoteric secret.”
Memory becomes the key to unlocking those crossover truths from writer to reader. You not only become a cave dweller in that kitchen but you also recognize the truth of what’s happening when the older Moses takes you into the kitchen of his home where these struggles took place. You trust the sensibility and the mind of the older Moses, remembering, seeing his family again, and as a reader you find equivalent emotional hotspots in your own life, hotspots that take you right into the heart of Saul’s work.
In the world I grew up in, girls are handed knowledge in breadcrumbs. It is a privilege, a gift. Boys can expect it by the sackful, for it is necessary to live life, to bring forth families and to support them. What Bellow does is to hand us all this gift.
When I was working with him, every night, weary with the challenges and exhilarations of the work, we would wind down for the day and hand the manuscript to his wife, Janis, for safekeeping. He had gone, as usual, close to the fire, and it had taken a lot out of him. We worked on hard copy, and it was the only extant copy of the manuscript. The vault she placed it in was none other than the freezer, for this is the last place to be attacked by fire. That act of reverence and preservation was necessary—for the present, yes, but also for posterity. For those words, cooling in their frozen vault, would become jewels for readers in the future, illuminating and warming them as we ourselves had been.
Years later, I told him I’d read him when I was eight. “It was Herzog,” I said. He looked at me incredulously. “You don’t say!” he said. Then he put his fingers on the table where we were working and playfully drummed them against the wooden surface. “And here we are!” he said.
Browse through all of Bellow’s work here.