I judged all modern prose by his. Unfair, certainly, because he made even the fleet-footed—the Updikes, the DeLillos, the Roths—seem like monopodes. Yet what else could I do? I discovered Saul Bellow’s prose in my late teens, and henceforth, the relationship had the quality of a love affair about which one could not keep silent. Over the last week, much has been said about Bellow’s prose, and most of the praise—perhaps because it has been overwhelmingly by men—has tended toward the robust: We hear about Bellow’s mixing of high and low registers, his Melvillean cadences jostling the jivey Yiddish rhythms, the great teeming democracy of the big novels, the crooks and frauds and intellectuals who loudly people the brilliant sensorium of the fiction. All of this is true enough; John Cheever, in his journals, lamented that, alongside Bellow’s fiction, his stories seemed like mere suburban splinters. Ian McEwan wisely suggested last week that British writers and critics may have been attracted to Bellow precisely because he kept alive a Dickensian amplitude now lacking in the English novel.
But nobody mentioned the beauty of this writing, its music, its high lyricism, its firm but luxurious pleasure in language itself. Like all serious novelists, Bellow read poetry: Shakespeare first (he could recite lines and lines from the plays, remembered from his school days in Chicago), then Milton, Keats, Wordsworth, Hardy, Larkin, and his old friend John Berryman. And, behind all this, with its English stretching all the way back into deeper antiquity, the King James Bible. Nobody mentioned the way Bellow could describe a river as “crimped, green, blackish, glassy,” or Chicago as “blue with winter, brown with evening, crystal with frost,” or New York as “sheer walls, gray spaces, dry lagoons of tar and pebbles.” Here is a paragraph, one of my favorite in all Bellow, from the story “The Old System”:
On the airport bus, he opened his father’s copy of the Psalms. The black Hebrew letters only gaped at him like open mouths with tongues hanging down, pointing upward, flaming but dumb. He tried—forcing. It did no good. The tunnel, the swamps, the auto skeletons, machine entrails, dumps, gulls, sketchy Newark trembling in fiery summer, held his attention minutely.... Then in the plane running with concentrated fury to take off—the power to pull away from the magnetic earth, and more: When he saw the ground tilt backward, the machine rising from the runway, he said to himself in clear internal words, “Shema Yisroel,” Hear, O Israel, God alone is God! On the right, New York leaned gigantically seaward, and the plane with a jolt of retracted wheels turned toward the river. The Hudson green within green, and rough with tide and wind. Isaac released the breath he had been holding, but sat belted tight. Above the marvelous bridges, over clouds, sailing in atmosphere, you know better than ever that you are no angel.
I suppose there must be people—as there are people left cold by Mozart or Brahms—who are untouched by such a passage, though I pity them. Bellow had a habit of writing repeatedly about flying, partly, I used to think, because it was the great obvious advantage he had over his dead competitors, those writers who had never seen the world from above the clouds: Melville, Tolstoy, Proust. And how well he does it! In sentence after sentence the world is captured with brimming novelty: Newark seen as “sketchy” and “trembling in fiery summer”; the jet “running with concentrated fury to take off” (a phrase that, with its unpunctuated onrush, itself enacts such a concentrated fury); New York, which, as the plane tilts, “leaned gigantically seaward” (say the phrase to yourself, and see how the words themselves—”leaned gi-gan-tic-ally sea-ward”—elongate the experience so that the very language embodies the queasiness it describes); the dainty, unexpected rhythm of “The Hudson green within green, and rough with tide and wind” (“green within green” captures very precisely the different shades of green that we see in water when several thousand feet above it); and finally, “sailing in atmosphere”—isn’t that exactly what the freedom of flight feels like? And yet, until this moment, one did not have these words—the best words, the right words in the right order—to fit this feeling. Until this moment, one was comparatively inarticulate; until this moment, one had been blandly inhabiting a deprived eloquence.
How, exactly, does one thank a writer for this? Fifteen years ago, at the age of 24, when I was working for The Guardian in London, I did so the only way I knew how: I arranged to meet Bellow and interviewed him for that newspaper. Over the years, I wrote about him again and again and visited him whenever I could. By happy accident, I co-taught a class with him at Boston University. My daughter played with his; our family became close to Bellow and his wife Janis, and to his devoted assistant, Will. I accompanied him on the piano when he played the recorder. It was a delight to talk to him about literature, to make him laugh—he would throw his head back and give out a distinctive chortle, “ha, ha, ha, ha,” each laugh separately articulated—and to laugh with him when he was making a joke.
But I cannot say that I truly knew him (partly because I knew him only in his old age); and, in some ways, the human distance was of my making, not his, for my literary gratitude was literally unspeakable, and floated massively above us. The prose was what I truly knew before I knew the man, and always I felt magically indebted in his presence. Like anyone, writers, of course, are embarrassed by excessive praise, just as readers are burdened by their excessive gratitude—one cannot keep going on about it. And, eventually, it is easier to turn the beloved literary work into a kind of disembodied third party: to admit that the work itself exceeds the writer, that it sails—sails in atmosphere, indeed!—away from the writer and toward the delighted reader. In the final year of Saul’s life, as he became very frail, I would read some of his own prose to him; something he would doubtless have found, as a younger man, mawkish or cloying or tiresome. It did not feel any of those things, as Bellow sat there in forgetful frailty; rather it felt as if I were gently reminding him of his own talent and that he was grateful for this, and perhaps grateful for my gratitude. But, in truth, I could not thank him enough when he was alive, and I cannot now.