Missing Bellow

A family story

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.

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.

As the years had worn on, as I slunk from adolescence to young adulthood, as I accepted the fact that I was not Saul Bellow, I had begun to think differently about the mission of fiction, or at least my own writing. Storytelling in particular seemed to have been neglected in American realism, of which Bellow was the champ. Realist writers were committed to representing the middle range of experience, the mundane daily existence that virtually all of us endure most of the time. "What happens next?" was not a question the arch-realists wanted their readers to ask, because the answer was assumed: "What happened the day before." Melodrama, coincidence, extreme events, were not, therefore, the proper centerpieces of fiction, and the plots of Bellow novels like Dangling Man, The Victim, and Seize the Day were clearly not intended to increase a reader's heart rate. But I was spending my days as a prosecutor in Chicago, living in a world animated by a constant struggle with the transgression of norms. And I was repeatedly struck by the spell that came over a courtroom when the critical witness in a criminal case took the stand to offer his account of how evil had happened. There was a lesson there to me. Our lives may be ensnared in a web of dailiness, but our imaginations are not. There is something essential in our fascination with crime and the law's struggle to impose reason on impulses that have proved ungovernable for some. Of such reflections was my first published novel, Presumed Innocent, born.

When Presumed Innocent appeared, in 1987, it changed my life. I went from being a prosecutor cadging moments to write on the commuter train to the author of a novel that was both at the top of the New York Times best-seller list and hailed on the front page of the Times Book Review. More than one person pointed out to me that Saul Bellow was no longer the only hot literary gun in town, which I regarded as laughable. I put few contemporary writers in Saul Bellow's league, and I certainly would never make such a claim for myself. I was sure that Bellow would condemn Presumed Innocent for what it was confessedly meant to be: a work committed to the tropes of popular fiction with a plot whose events were anything but routine.

Nonetheless, the novel made me a local celebrity, with the attendant duties. Late in 1991 I signed a form letter from Chicago's largest literacy organization, asking hundreds of authors across the country to donate books for a fundraising auction. I did not even know who was on the mailing list, and I was therefore astonished when, in January of 1992, I found a note from Saul Bellow in my law office in-box. He had scratched his home address at the top of the page, commented on American illiteracy rates, and promised to send a book to the auction. Then he added, "I read your first novel with admiration and pleasure. The new one I haven't caught up with yet."

"The new one" was my second novel, The Burden of Proof, which had also been reviewed on the front page of the Times Book Review, albeit sourly. Nonetheless, the book had prolonged my fifteen minutes, landing me on the cover of Time, and had remained No. 1 on the Times best-seller list for eleven straight weeks in the summer of 1990.

I wrote back to Bellow at home, and enclosed a copy of Burden, telling him how thrilled I was to know that my work had come to his attention. I realize in retrospect that when a Nobel Prize winner bothers to send you a handwritten response to a form letter, and takes the trouble to give you his home address, he's not trying to remain remote. The logical thing would have been to propose lunch or a cup of coffee, and deliver my second novel in person. But Bellow for me was a figure steeped in symbolism, and I suppose I could not bring myself to think of his realm and mine converging in real life.

I was excited nevertheless to send him the book. Although I had occasionally imitated authors I admired, I had never tried to write like Bellow. But some of his diction and, more, his irony have stuck to me forever, in the way the lessons of youth always do. The internal chats of Sandy Stern, the protagonist of The Burden of Proof, palely echo several Bellow characters—something I had been aware of when I wrote, and which others had occasionally commented on. I hoped Bellow would recognize the homage and be flattered.

Thus I hardly got what I expected when Bellow sent a typed letter to my home eleven months later. He apologized for not acknowledging my gift earlier, which he blamed on "a succession of stunning deaths." One of those certainly was that of Allan Bloom, the author of The Closing of the American Mind, with whom Bellow had taught for more than a decade at the University of Chicago, and who had passed away the month before. Then Bellow continued,

I think I told you how much I admired Presumed Innocent. Of course your first book was particularly attractive. I have always succumbed happily to the terrible weight of criminality, investigation, and prosecution—especially on our own Chicago turf. The Burden of Proof could not match the attractions of its predecessor. I always hate to write critical letters and avoid them. I especially hate getting them myself. Because of my advanced age, there always seems to be an element of speaking de haut en bas. I shun that kind of thing and I would be terribly sorry to be seen by a colleague as anything but a fellow writer. I preferred your first book to your second, it's as simple as that. Now I shall look forward to the third. I apologize for what may appear to be impoliteness and send my best wishes.

Thirteen years later, I still don't know exactly what to make of this letter. It goes without saying that a simple thank-you note, especially nearly a year late, would have sufficed. I did not request or need this candid putdown, and I have never quite understood why Bellow would say he avoided critical letters and then drop this one in the mail. Nonetheless, if I were more secure, I might have recognized this blast from the mountaintop as entre to a personal relationship founded on my acknowledgment that, whatever the whirling of literary fashion, Bellow was the master—ground I will always willingly concede. After all, I didn't like Bellow's novels equally either.

But at that point I heard his message as unambiguously harsh. It did not help, of course, that this response out of the blue was the kind of gratuitous knock my father had regularly delivered when I was least suspecting. Reading the letter was a blow to the noggin, as Bellow might put it. Who looks a gift horse in the mouth like that? "De haut en bas" indeed. What was French for "jerk"?

I decided then that I was finished with Saul Bellow. I never wrote back, never sent the third novel he claimed to look forward to, never communicated again.

A year later Bellow was gone—wooed away by John Silber, the president of Boston University. Chicagoans were stunned when Bellow's intention to leave the University of Chicago was announced, in the spring of 1993, but I imagine the deaths that Bellow complained of in his letter to me had made Chicago seem a haunted place.

About a year later, the summer after Bellow took up his duties at BU, a prominent cultural journalist from Germany arrived to interview me in connection with the German publication of my third novel, Pleading Guilty.

"I met Saul Bellow last night," my German visitor told me when our meeting began. I assumed that he had used his journey to Chicago also to interview Bellow, who was still turning up in the city now and then. But no, the encounter had been purely fortuitous. The German had gone into the Berghoff, a fabled Chicago eatery, and there in line in front of him, also alone, was Saul Bellow. The reporter recognized him, and they had a pleasant conversation. The Berghoff stands directly behind the Federal Building, where I had worked as an assistant U.S. attorney for eight years, and I had probably eaten a hundred meals in the place. The irony of this European's wandering in once and meeting Chicago's most celebrated literary citizen gave me a pang. Should I perhaps reconsider, I wondered, and seek out Bellow while he was around? But again I decided no. The memory of his letter remained fresh, and coming of age in the literary world I had learned more than once that some authors are better read than met.

Now and then in subsequent years I encountered friends of Bellow's whom I'd amuse with the tales of our near midair collisions. Several offered to arrange a meeting. I suppose that if I'd bumped into Bellow in the Berghoff, as the German reporter had, I would have been thrilled, but I was unwilling to initiate a meeting, feeling that I would somehow be a supplicant. This was a psychodrama of my own authorship. But it remained imperative to me to say I didn't need that.

And so Bellow's passing was an occasion for mourning. The door was closed. My father, too, has been gone for several years, and I experienced again a bit of that startling absence. Reading the obits that mentioned that Bellow had attended Tuley, the mental crossing gates finally lifted and I realized that my relationship, such as it was, was with two men, not one—a harmonic that undoubtedly complicated my few personal dealings with Bellow, but which, I also realized, dramatically heightened my stake in his books and my appreciation of them. Lying in my Amherst dorm rooms, Bellow's novels seizing me by force, I felt as if I were somehow reading the secret story of my own life. And I suppose I was.