I never met Saul Bellow. Billions who walk the planet—Bantu tribesmen and Brazilian rose farmers and factory workers in Guangdong Province—could say the same thing if they had an inkling who Saul Bellow was, and so could millions of the late novelist's admirers who relished his work but never really imagined that their paths might cross his. But in my case this non-event occurred by choice. Over the decades I had a glancing, minimal relationship with Bellow, awkward and comic in some of its dimensions, but I ultimately opted not to seek the great man out, a decision whose complex meanings seem to have come into focus for me since Bellow's death, in April of this year.
When I first began reading Bellow's work, in 1966, as a freshman at Amherst College, it was as if a hand had reached up and dragged me into the pages. My ambition was to be a novelist, and I read all contemporary fiction intently, a detective looking for clues. But Bellow overpowered me in a way no other writer had. I remember hiking through the snow with missionary determination in November of 1969 to get a copy of The Atlantic—where Bellow's only novel published during my college years, Mr. Sammler's Planet, was first serialized—the day it reached the stands.
To say merely that I read and re-read all of Bellow does not come close to portraying my fixation. I studied Bellow like Scripture, reflecting on every word, sometimes picking out a favorite paragraph and musing on it for an hour, even sometimes running my fingertips across the words as if they were in Braille. How did he do that? I always wondered. How did he manage to pipe the sound of an entire human chorus through his powerful voice? How could he sing the scales, as it were, in different pitches, with an effect of such eloquence and comedy? One of the most insistent messages in Bellow's gloriously varied rhetorical style—which effectively fused the argot of Chicago tough guys with the high-flown oratory of a professor, often in the same sentence—is that the power of ideas reaches into and enriches everyday life, a lesson of unique timeliness for someone in the middle of a college education.
With a fan's typical ardor, I collected gossip and trivia about Bellow, and cross-examined anyone I found who knew him. It was a quest: I just had to understand everything I could about this man.
In retrospect I see other motives for my fierce attachment to Bellow's work besides a deep literary appreciation. Saul Bellow was not merely the Great American Novelist of my formative years, the usual straw-poll winner when critics were asked to name our leading living author, but also, like me, a Chicagoan and a Jew. The astonishing commercial success of Herzog, which was published in 1964 and spent forty-two weeks on the New York Times best-seller list (it also garnered a fistful of literary prizes, including the National Book Award), made Bellow the intellectual prince of my celebrity-starved home town, where national success in the arts almost always comes only to those who have abandoned America's shoulder-chipped Second City. And that titanic civic pride was magnified intensely in Chicago's large Jewish community, where Bellow had come of age and where many people could claim, with justification, to know the models for various Bellow characters.
But not even Bellow's local fame fully accounted for my attraction. Saul Bellow, it turns out, grew up in the same Humboldt Park neighborhood as my father. They were rough age peers (Bellow was three years older), with striking congruences in their biographies. Both were the children of immigrants. My father as a young boy was known as David Turowetsky, and Bellow was Solomon rather than Saul. Each was the baby of the family, and both were sometimes scorned by their difficult fathers. My dad lost his mother at the age of four; Bellow's high school years were haunted by the lingering illness of Liza Bellow, who died only a month after her son graduated from Tuley High.
That high school, Tuley, was the same one my father attended. Because my grandfather did not want his motherless son on the streets, he pushed my dad into summer school, which led him to graduate from Tuley at the age of fifteen, in January of 1934, only one year after Bellow. (In those years the Chicago public schools allowed grade-schoolers to start in January, and winter graduation classes at Tuley were nearly as large as those in June.)
This is not to suggest that my father and Saul Bellow were good friends. According to my dad's closest pal in those years, Irving Pesock, my father and he had only limited interaction with Bellow's circle—the self-styled "intelligentsia," as Pesock refers to them, who wrote for The Tuley Review. I remember my father mentioning occasionally that in high school he had known Sydney J. Harris, one of Bellow's dearest high school chums, who went on to local renown as a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. Most likely, given the evidence, my father and Bellow enjoyed the marginal acquaintance that comes from the brushing of shoulders in the cafeteria and the gym that would be routine in a school of roughly 1,200—the kind of contact that gives one the right to declare later in life, "Oh, yeah, I knew that guy in high school." I remember excited talk in my house about Herzog. But I cannot establish at this point that my father even connected the world-famous novelist with Solomon Bellow.
That hardly mattered to me, because while either man was alive, I drew no conscious connection between Bellow and my father. I was enough of a Bellow aficionado that I sometimes surprised my friend Jim Atlas, the author of the most acclaimed Bellow biography, with the minutiae I had scraped up—details of love affairs, favored restaurants, his course of study in school—yet I somehow avoided recognizing that Bellow and my father had grown up blocks from each other and walked the halls of the same school at the same time.
One of my favorite psychological maxims, which I attribute to the psychoanalyst Myron Gunther, is "Every adolescent needs an adult to help him grow up, and it can't be a parent." My father was an excellent physician whose rough charm many people savored. But he was a tough dad. Like many men of his generation, he was mystified by his emotions; they controlled him, but not in ways he could anticipate or name. Toward me I felt some clotted yearning. Having lost his mother at such an early age, my father needed a great deal from my mother, and inevitably treated his children as rivals at times. He was an obstetrician-gynecologist. While that may signify more mother issues (as my psychiatrist aunt once pointed out), to his son the principal meaning was that he worked constantly. I had little time with my father and was hungry for his approval, which was seldom expressed. More often I was subjected to sharp sarcasm at the evidence of any shortcomings.
As a result, by the time I was seventeen I had concluded that I did not want to grow up to be my father. I spurned the idea of medical school—his hope for me—and instead, in a clever strategy of divide and conquer, absorbed my mother's ambition to be a novelist. It was a calling more in tune with my rapturous fantasy life and my endless love affair with narrative of every kind, whether in comics, TV, movies, or books. But having rejected my father's example, I still faced the question of how to become a man.
Thus enter Saul Bellow. As a boy who wanted to be a novelist, I couldn't have found a better idol than Bellow, who cast his enormous shadow over the world I came from. Bellow was a writer, a wild success, and a genius. In a few words, he was just the guy I wanted to be. Or was he perhaps the man I wished my father was? Or both? This kind of self-analysis can be a trap when it tries to become too precise. Suffice it to say that to me Saul Bellow was a very big deal. He was the articulate voice of my father's often opaque sensibility, and an interpreter of my father's world in the very terms, literary ones, I hoped to make my own: How could I not have been hooked, especially by Seize the Day, which I was assigned as a college freshman? The novella centers on poor Tommy Wilhelm's doomed struggle to win approval from his unforgiving doctor-father. I see all that now. But I recognized none of it then.
In September of 1970 I arrived as a writing fellow in the vaunted Stegner Program at Stanford, and ended up spending the next five years there, two as a fellow and three as a lecturer in the Creative Writing Program. In the Advanced Fiction Writing seminar, where fellows and graduate students read and discussed one another's work, I spoke of Bellow constantly. My passion was not widely shared. The workshop's most sophisticated thinkers about fiction—Chuck Kinder, Bill Kittredge, Raymond Carver—were drawn to a cooler, more minimal style. And Wallace Stegner, who today has his own coterie of those who regard him as the best novelist of his era, resented Bellow, seeing him as the designee of what Stegner called "the Partisan Review crowd"—the Jewish intellectuals who dominated the literary world and who had treated Wally with far more indifference than he deserved.