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.