By then there was an unruly literary mob that wanted to knock Bellow off his throne. Published at the dawn of the era of political correctness, Mr. Sammler's Planet had shocked many readers, particularly in its portrayal of a regal black pickpocket whom Artur Sammler detects at work on the Riverside bus in Manhattan. The pickpocket, aware that he has been identified, follows Sammler home one day, forces the elderly one-eyed man against the wall in the vestibule of his apartment building, and then in warning exposes his flaccid penis, "a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing—a tube, a snake ... suggesting the fleshly mobility of an elephant's trunk." I give Bellow credit for his perspicacity in recognizing the lethal admixture of crime and sexuality that was already being adopted as an underground ideal of black masculinity, but it always seemed to me that the scene was fundamentally wrong—just not something that would happen that way—and that as such it opened Bellow and his book to the first real fusillades aimed at his world view. There is no more damaging charge against a novelist, especially a realist like Bellow, than the claim that he has got life wrong—especially when he can be characterized as a bigot, as Bellow was. On balance, though, I thought Sammler was magnificent, a stunning coming to terms with a world in which humankind was capable of both landing on the moon and perpetrating the Holocaust, and I was delighted when in early March of 1971 he—and I, in a way—were vindicated by his again winning the National Book Award. I was so pleased by this triumph that after several days of mental preparation I dared to write Bellow a congratulatory note. (Was it significant that my father was then enduring the first of his traumas over what was soon to become the hobgoblin of all obstetricians' lives: a medical-malpractice lawsuit?) I did not keep a copy of the brief letter I sent, but I considered what I would write for so long, and my involvement with Bellow and his work was so charged, that I still remember the critical line. "Despite your reputation for putative solemnity," I wrote, "I know you have a warm Jewish heart." Because of that, I said, I believed he might appreciate knowing how much his books meant to a humble graduate student in California.
Leigh Bienen today is a writer of short fiction and a lawyer and lecturer at Northwestern's law school, but years ago, before she was established in either career, she had been hired by Bellow after the publication of Herzog to help him deal with the torrent of mail the novel had brought him. This outpouring was invited not simply because Herzog had garnered a large best seller's audience but also because it was an epistolary novel, made up of Moses Herzog's urgent communications "to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his obscure dead, and finally the famous dead." I had taken it for granted that Bellow would spend the rest of his life receiving letters from people who, like Moses, felt inclined to toss off a few passionate lines—contentious and quarrelsome, or adoring, but always impelled by the kind of boiling emotions to which Herzog regularly gave vent. This expectation both gave me permission to write and assured me of no response. I knew that my message would be a teaspoon in the ocean of congratulatory mail that Bellow was likely to receive, having survived his usurpers.
Yet the next month, as I remember it, a blue air-mail envelope from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago arrived at my Palo Alto apartment. The one-page note was handwritten in a style, as one might expect of those who had the same teachers in penmanship, that, I now see, closely resembles my old man's.
"Sometimes I fear the warm Jewish heart' may be misleading," Bellow wrote, "i.e. that it does not give or receive the real facts. Which seem always worse and worse. But then it must in itself be a good thing." Epigrammatic and musing, the few lines were essential Bellow, especially the brief meditation about the "real facts," a preoccupation that was typical of his characters from Henderson the Rain King through Sammler and Herzog, all struggling to discern the true position of humankind in a universe made ever more chaotic by unruly human feelings. Leigh Bienen says that when she worked for Bellow it was not his habit to answer all fan mail, and generally his correspondence was typed. So something in my note must have moved him to dash off his quick reply—probably my choice of words about a "warm Jewish heart." In retrospect, of course, I wonder if I don't have my father to thank for Bellow's response: did Bellow recognize the last name my father had taken by high school?
In the summer of 1975 I left Stanford, and academic life, to enter Harvard Law School. It would require an essay longer than this one to fully explain that decision. But I was fascinated by the law and dreamed (stupidly, my lawyer friends told me) of both practicing and continuing to write.
A year later, on October 21, 1976, Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in Literature. By then my own literary career, largely stalled to that point, had made a surprising advance: I was then putting the finishing touches on One L, a memoir of my first year at Harvard, which had been commissioned by Ned Chase for G. P. Putnam's Sons. Even so, I was excited when a Stanford friend, Mike Rogers, called to ask me to interview Bellow for Rolling Stone. Mike, who had enjoyed great success as a novelist and short-story writer, had also become a magazine editor, and subsequently remained in the publishing world for many years. At that point Mike and his boss, Jann Wenner, had decided that the journal of American pop culture should include an interview with America's latest high-culture hero. And Mike knew no one better informed about Bellow than I was.
I started with a letter to Bellow's address at the Committee on Social Thought, which, unlike my fan letter, drew nothing in the way of a response.
Then a second request. And a third. Eventually I resorted to phone calls to Bellow's office, leaving unanswered messages with secretaries. Finally I went for the nuke of 1970s telecommunications: the person-to-person call. I would dash out of class to a pay phone in the basement of Austin Hall and tell the operator I wanted to speak to Saul Bellow. He was never available. But one day at lunchtime, when, I suppose, the secretaries were out, a surprisingly weak hello came from the other end after many rings.
Somehow I knew the gentle voice was Bellow's. I gave him no chance to speak, bursting forth. I can't recall exactly what I said, but I'm sure it's best summarized as "Please please please please please please please please please." How many interviews, I asked, could he possibly grant to someone who had not only read all his books but read each dozens of times? If I was not exactly Boswell, wasn't I the best he could hope for in speaking to the American masses in the popular press? This assumed a fact, as I was learning to say, that was not in evidence—namely, that Bellow had any interest in being understood by that audience on any terms other than the ones he had established in his books.
One of my favorite moments in Herzog comes when Moses Herzog has a fender-bender on Lake Shore Drive, in Chicago. The police officers who arrive at the scene are, in the parlance of the mid-1960s, "two big Negro cops." Revered and famous though Professor Herzog is, the cops examine his license and address him as "Moses." "There it was,' Herzog thinks, that note of deadly familiarity that you heard only when immunity was lost.'" It is a lovely little illustration of the mutability of power and the tyranny of petty bureaucrats (and a potent vignette about racial payback, since these middle-aged black cops have been relegated to traffic patrol).
Now, as I beseeched Bellow, and he began his demurrers, the operator suddenly broke in. "Wait a minute," she said harshly, "wait a minute." We had yet to establish that I had reached the proper person, as the call's terms required. And so she addressed the Nobel laureate just like the cops on Lake Shore Drive, albeit in a drilling Dorchester accent. "Wait a minute," she said again. "Is this Saul?"
How could he deny it? He had no more wish to continue this conversation than to use sandpaper as a face towel, but in a tinier voice than the one in which he had answered the phone, he submitted to petty authority. Yes, he reluctantly admitted, he was in fact the wanted man.
The operator left us, and our conversation lasted no more than another minute. I begged, and Bellow said no several times. He was polite, even kindly. He did not disparage Rolling Stone, or even me. He was, he said, just not interested in being interviewed yet again. He sounded beleaguered by the attention that had come with the Nobel. We hung up. It was, as it turned out, the only conversation I had with Saul Bellow in my life.
Bellow's magic did not work on everyone. As I pressed friends and relatives to read his books over the years, they often had a common complaint: nothing happens. This is a fair observation about Bellow's novels, whose plots can usually be summarized as follows: a guy wanders around. Bellow's protagonists think, they fulminate, they suffer, their brains speed them through life like meteors, but outside events provide only occasional propulsion. The action of these novels is for the most part routine. We read Bellow to find out about ideas, values, nuanced reflection—not what happens next.