I met Saul 45 years ago in Puerto Rico when I was the managing editor of a new daily newspaper, the San Juan Star, and I was also writing a novel in my spare time, of which I had none. Saul was in the middle of Herzog and also teaching fiction writing for a semester at the University of Puerto Rico. I applied and was accepted. He later told me this was the last writing course he ever taught; and it was the only writing course I ever thought of taking. Saul dealt with students individually, half an hour or more of conversation at the Faculty Club every other week, about six in all. I showed him two chapters of a novel in progress and he thought it was fatty, clotty, imprecise, and verbose. Otherwise he liked it. I wrote the fat, clot, imprecision, and verbosity out of it and a month later he liked it so much he thought it was publishable. He was wrong, but I invited him to dinner anyway and told him my beautiful wife, Dana, would cook. He became competitive and said he too would bring a beautiful woman, and he did and later married her, which is another story. My wife did cook, but she decided I should charcoal-broil the steak. I could not get the charcoal to ignite, for it was fatty and clotty, and Saul, who was hungry, became restive and snarly. When the steak, a great steak, finally arrived on his plate, his demeanor again became civilized and we got to be friends.
I moved my journalistic life and my novel writing from San Juan to Albany, and in 1964, when Saul was to publish Herzog, I interviewed him at home in Tivoli in the Hudson Valley in the old, Dutch mansion he used as a setting for Herzog. I remember one prophetic line of conversation I didn’t use—about the Nobel Prize in Literature, and how some people were badmouthing it. Saul agreed that some worthy writers never won it and some not-so-worthy did, and then he said to me, “But we’d accept it if they gave it to us, wouldn’t we, Bill?” I, who had yet to publish any fiction, said of course we would. And of course he did in 1976, explaining at a later moment that it was “one of those greatest-show-on-earth things, and why should I be too good to take part? So I clowned a bit and turned a few somersaults.”
At Tivoli, we also talked about realism in literature, and about departing from it—a prime example of such departure being his novel Henderson the Rain King, which at the time I was reading over and over. He cited Waiting for Godot as another. He added what would be a recurring theme in later conversations: “I think we must trust the intuition of the artist when he departs from realism, and we must remember that the business of the artist is to illuminate and not to inform—so much realism has become just so much information.”
Herzog went on to win the National Book Award in 1965 and, in a conversation I had with Saul in Vermont in a much later year, he recalled his encounter with Louis Fischer, who also won the National Book Award that year for his biography, The Life of Lenin. The two writers exchanged inscribed books and Fischer wrote in his: “To Saul Bellow, for deeper thought.” Saul remembered thinking: “What’s deeper about this?” and then he answered his own question:
Fischer meant his book had bigger status than mine, that he was writing about the great disasters of the 20th century… but I was only writing about private life…. The intellectuals say that true events are the public events…. Let’s think big. Let’s not think about these schnook professors (like Moses Herzog) with their cuckoldries and broken hearts. Let’s think about Lenin who didn’t want any heart in the revolution….
Saul moved back to Chicago after Herzog and I didn’t see him again until 1981 when I went to Vermont to interview him for a national magazine. He was 66, had just finished a draft of his ninth novel, The Dean’s December, and was with a new wife. He greeted Dana and me in front of his old farmhouse wearing a polo shirt, cardigan, baggy trousers, and jogging shoes in which he didn’t jog, but which he elevated when he stood on his head, his covert way of getting perspective on the world.
The plan was for us to talk through the afternoon and then for the four of us to go to dinner with novelist Bernard Malamud and his wife. We did talk for hours, far too much to summarize, but one theme surfaced from our old conversation about Herzog: the tension between fictionist and non-fictionist. Saul had just abandoned a journalistic book about Chicago. He had been writing of criminal detention, judges, conditions that breed crime—and all of that, he said, “was a subject of some kind of poetry, not a factual account…. You’d have to do it with a show of objectivity; and in the end it would be all dead.” He mentioned Rilke, “who wouldn’t discuss the Great War with anyone… because [it] could only be done in newspaper language, and he felt this gave him a foulness in the mouth, and you could only betray experience this way.”
As the dinner hour approached, he said he didn’t want to be late for the Malamuds. The destination was a month-old restaurant, Le Petit Chef near Wilmington. Saul brought a manuscript of The Dean’s December for Malamud, who said he’d read it soon, but he was into a third draft of his new novel, God’s Grace, so, “Don’t push me on it,” he said.
“It’s okay,” said Saul, “As Mae West said, “I like a man who takes his time.”
The owner of the restaurant, Betty Hillman, stopped cooking when she heard Saul was on the premises and came to say hello. She shook hands with Malamud, thinking he was Saul; but Malamud said that was all right. Once, when Saul won a literary prize, Albany’s Times-Union ran Malamud’s photo with the story.
In 1987, Betty Hillman came to our table again to greet another celebrated diner, Jack Nicholson, who was in Albany shooting the film from my novel Ironweed. Jack had told me he held the option on Henderson the Rain King, to write and direct it, with maybe Lee Marvin or George C. Scott playing Henderson. He said he’d never talked to Saul but would like to. So, I called Saul and he said sure, and Jack showed up in my driveway in a white stretch limo and he, Dana, and I rode, Beverly Hills style, into the woodsy back roads of Vermont. Saul later wrote:
The limousine could not make the narrow turn between my gateposts. Silent neighbors watched from a distance as the chauffeur maneuvered the long car.… Then Nicholson came out, observed by many. He said, ‘Gee, behind the tinted glass I couldn’t tell it was so green out here.’ He lit a mysterious-looking cigarette and brought a small pocket ashtray, a golden object resembling a pillbox. Perhaps his butt ends had become relics or collectibles. I should have asked him to explain this, for everything he did was noted and I had to answer the questions of my neighborhood friends, for whom Nicholson’s appearance here was something like the consecration of a whole stretch of road.
Jack and Saul got on well and Jack now remembers it as one of the great days of his life. They talked about filming Henderson, but no script was ever developed and Jack said Saul’s agent dropped the option.
The visit resonated as local gossip for years. At Saul’s surprise 75th birthday party that his wife Janis gave at Le Petit Chef, Betty Hillman took the floor to celebrate her honored guest, and then she added: “You should’ve been here a few years ago when we had Jack Nicholson, a real celebrity.” In a later year, I stopped at the restaurant but the waiter said there were no tables. “Look,” I said, “are you sure? Remember Jack Nicholson having dinner here with Saul Bellow? I arranged that.” The waiter nodded and said, “Bring Nicholson back and we’ll find a table.”
Because Saul supported my work, on one occasion in a way that changed my life, people sometimes asked him to react to what I wrote, and in my old files I found a quote he gave to a reporter who was writing about me. I don’t think these remarks were ever published.
“Writers,” he said, “are sometimes persons of no character, socially speaking”—you can see he had me in mind—but he carried on, as usual, into a larger dimension—let me repeat the sentence:
Writers are sometimes persons of no character, socially speaking, but they should always be persons of character on the page; which is to say, they should have something strikingly original to say and they should have a marked idiosyncrasy which is noteworthy. They must persist, and they shouldn’t give up readily. They must want to make themselves known and go on record. The world has to be outwitted, and they should know how to impose themselves; yet their insistence should not be merely cranky or psychopathic. They should have something real to insist upon.
Saul really wasn’t talking about me at all, but about his own homegrown strategy for being a writer. I never outwitted the world. But if I did insist upon anything, I suppose it was the life of the family. Saul also remarked on this; he wrote me about one of my novels:
I’m glad you turned again to the family theme. I’m tempted to speculate that our family-less, out-of-the-void colleagues are anti-family on grounds of ideology (some from the Marx, some from the Existential side). That’s okay for people who really come out of the void (South Bronx, or the slums of Rio) but for the majority it’s an affectation—a put-on.
For the likes of us, with powerful early connections—well, we can say no to those connections—but whether it’s yes or no we have to live with them openly. Joyce, who was so cold to his Dublin family (perhaps to his Paris family as well) has Bloom pining for his dead little boy, his suicide father. Cruel and kinky-real, but not without curious feelings. If Joyce had been born in the fields, under a cabbage leaf—as Samuel Butler would have preferred to enter life—there would have been no Ulysses.
And if Saul Bellow had been born under such a leaf we might not have Augie March or Herzog and the rest. But he wasn’t, and we do have those books, a great insistent gift. Nobody insisted like Saul. He lived at the pinnacle of insistence, all by himself.