Interview by Robert Sward
This interview took place at the University of Victoria, Canada – 1982.
Saul Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec in 1915. He attended Protestant schools in Montreal until at the age of nine he moved with his family to Chicago. He studied at the University of Chicago and received his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University with honors in sociology and anthropology. He has taught at New York University, Princeton, the University of Minnesota and the University of Chicago.
Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man (Avon) appeared in 1944. He received a National Book Award for three of his subsequent novels. The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog and Mr. Sammler’s Planet (all Avon). Humboldt’s Gift (Avon), published in 1975, was awarded the Pulitzer prize. In 1965 he became the first American to win the International Literary Prize, awarded to him for Herzog. In 1968 he was awarded the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, the highest literary honor France accords to a non-citizen.
I first met Bellow in the early 60s at the University of Chicago, about the time of the publication of Herzog. Nearly 20 years later, on a visit to Victoria and compelled by a reading of Bellow’s latest book, The Dean’s December, I sought him out once again, this time in his modest office in the University of Victoria’s Clearihue, Building. Our conversation focused on the new novel.
The Dean’s December, Bellow’s first fiction since winning the Nobel prize, counterposes two societies, that of Bucharest, Rumania and Chicago, Illinois. Through the eyes of the protagonist, Albert Corde, the dean of students at an unnamed Chicago college, both cities exhibit the symptoms of societal breakdown. Corde has traveled to a barren, bureaucratic Bucharest with his wife Minna to offer support and comfort at a time when her mother is dying. There he muses on his own life in Chicago, describing in some painfully eloquent passages Chicago’s street life.
Bellow and I spoke for an hour, until interrupted by the light knock of a student at the door. As I rose to leave, I was struck by the resemblance of Bellow to his creation, Albert Corde. Bellow too had the face of a man who seeks to trace or find “the human motion of character”; a man who, it seemed to me, had written a novel which, for all its bleakness, was an affirmation of humanist values.
Sward: I like your phrase, “Truth should have some style.” Yet The Dean’s December has been criticized as a novel of ideas. Do you think the reception this book has had suggests readers are reluctant to accept novels of ideas or novels that have been labeled by reviewers as vehicles primarily for the author’s ideas?
Bellow: Readers don’t like to be disturbed. They don’t like either their habits or their expectations to be frustrated. But I think anyone who reads this as a book of ideas misses something; misses the emotion with which those ideas are presented and the passion behind them. This is for me a very intense book. It’s not just a treatise. The opinions themselves would be meaningless if they were not passionately expressed or dramatized. And I would be the first to to be leery of abstractions in a novel if they were nothing but abstractions. Writing of this sort is writing which is meant to be passed through the soul, not just absorbed idly, superficially. If you see it in that perspective, I don’t think you can take The Dean’s December as a book of abstruse half-truths. That’s a lazy view of the book. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s attached to all sorts of human disasters. The reviewers are missing or evading the point.
Sward: Some readers of earlier books of yours feel that there is a bleaker view of life dominating later books like The Dean’s December. The question arises, to what extent does this reflect your own world view?
Bellow: A writer is a sort of medium. He doesn’t decide in advance exactly what he is going to do. Only a commercial writer sits down with a set purpose to write a book that reflects attitudes that the public desires. If you know in advance what you are going to write, then you are a commercial writer. Or if you know in advance what you are going to paint, you are a commercial painter, a poster man. I am not a poster man. And when I begin to write I don’t know what is going to happen. In my own writing I’m a historian, a chronicler in a sense.
I know there are lots of people who think that’s a mantle that I have no right to wear. I don’t know how they decide who has the right. Many of them, when they read Mr. Sammier’s Planet, decided I was a reactionary old stinker. Well, it is not for me to tell them what to think. But I’m free to say that this is merely ideological classification and reflects an unwillingness to read as closely as is necessary. People are in a hurry to pigeon-hole you because they don’t have the time to deal with you as an individual. They are much too busy.
One needs one’s routines in order to survive the attacks of chaos and panic that beset everybody. So I don’t actually blame people trying to find a rubric if it is going to help them. But if it just strengthens prejudice, then it is a threat to culture and art.
Sward: I haven’t seen a single review of The Dean’s December that picks up on the book’s humor or wit.
Bellow (agreeing): Corde doesn’t yield willingly to some deeply depressing circumstances. Corde is obviously a man of wit, and wit is one of the assets he’s protecting. Wit itself is one of the rights of the civilized mind.
This is an odd moment in human history and much of modern thought is dead thought, repulsively and oppressively dead. The need now is for thinking that is so passionate it becomes vivid. I don’t blame people for not wanting to be bothered and if they’d rather have antics or copulation in the novel, well, the world’s so abundantly supplied with these things I can’t see why they’d object if I come up with something different. They’re welcome to their cakes. and if they’re willing to eat flat cakes and drink stale ale, there’s plenty around. But why should these people be affronted by a new kind of book? Why this outrage in many quarters? Why this outpouring of wrath? Why?
Should I tell you something personal! It took guts to write The Dean’s December. I knew in writing the book that I was challenging a great many taboos.
Flaubert said long ago that the new idea is always loathed. Now there are two possibilities. Either I haven’t come up with anything new or I have indeed come up with something new. There’s a 50-50 chance I have come up with something new.
Sward: In the February 1982 issue of Esquire, you stated that reporters and media people generally are far more interested in satisfying a demand for excitement than in experiencing and conveying human emotions and character. What does the media do and how do you distinguish between the work of a novelist and the work of a journalist? I might add that for me the central theme of The Dean’s December is what a human being really is.
Bellow: You’re quite right. And what it is possible for a human being to be in a time like this. I don’t think the media deals with questions of this sort. I think the media gives you the news of the day, not news of being. That is what a good novel. story or narrative poem should bring, news of being. The media gives you information or perhaps mis-information. We suffer from a glut of this kind of dramatized. selectively dramatized pieces of fact, hand-picked items of news. In this age of mass communication people are given the impression that they know what is going on. Well, the genuine word in the expression “mass communication” is mass. The second term, communication. is mis-leading. And we don’t know what is really going on. What we get from the mass media are the shadows of what is happening. Even the highly qualified experts, students of these questions, don’t necessarily or inevitably know what is going on. So what we are exposed to is an immense system of distraction leading to a sense of frustrated intensity and helplessness in the face of all these overwhelming events which artificially fill us. The news media are certainly not a source of clarity. They do not focus our attention on the true questions.
Sward: On the other hand, there are critics who would maintain that the novel is a dead form. How would you answer them?
Bellow: Well, all forms are dead until someone revives them. This is true of everything. This is true of religion, which if has no individual character is just there as the corpse of something that used to be. It must be brought back to life by exemplary persons who are able to take possession of it and renew it with their own energies and with their own spirits. Then it comes to life again. We are actually succumbing to an intellectual fashion when we talk about dead this or dead that. It’s true that many things die. We ourselves die every instant and are re-born. This happens continuously to us from the moment of birth. We die when we go to sleep and we are born again when we awake in the morning. If by death critics mean death beyond any possibility of resurrection, I don’t know. I don’t think they really seriously address the question of the death of a form.
Sward: Perhaps it’s a question of relevancy?
Bellow: Well, they can easily dismiss the novel as irrelevant. Depending on how distracted they are and what their need for big daily doses of intensity is. This is a problem that writers have faced for a very long time now. As early as 1830 De Tocqueville was very clear about this. It is the demand in a democracy for ever greater stimulants. This means that the quiet arts have no hope for success in these overdosed times. We are made so hyper by one crisis after another that it is very difficult to obtain the attention of anybody for any purpose. There is a big fight going on, a war of attention being waged in the consciousness of every human being. Everybody wants attention. Television wants it in order to sell commodities. Politicians want it in order to get votes. Partisans of this, that or the other special interest group want it for their own purposes. Lobbyists want it. Ideologists want it. Everybody wants it. So the human consciousness at present is a sort of battlefield. And you know what Tolstoy tells us about battles in War and Peace. Nobody really knows what is going on during a battle.
In the midst of this figurative battle someone buttonholes you and says, “You’re going to listen to me now.” This is really the test of an artist’s power, to compel the embattled and the distracted to listen. Nor is it simply a matter of getting ordinary attention. Attention of a certain quality is what you want. It’s a matter of detaining the person and saying, “I am talking up to you, not down.” Maybe that sort of attention is no longer there. But it seems to be there, because when I publish a book. I get lots of letters from people who have really read it and who tell me how it has stirred them. These readers are much more dependable than the book, reviewers.
Sward: You suggested in a recent interview that one cannot write a novel about how power works unless one deals also with the corruption of justice in politics and in the people at the top. What form might this take?
Bellow: I don’t really know. I don’t think American writers have really concerned themselves with these questions in the last two or three generations. I can think of very few American writers who have actually tried to deal with these themes, so there are very few examples of it. Mine is not a popular approach. What has been popular are the intensest kinds of subjectivity, eroticism, if not outright pornography, and violence. And a kind of comedy which I myself have practiced. I have no prescription now for now for how it’s to be done. But I think at times it behooves writers as people to think for themselves –for a change. We have been running in packs.
Sward: You were born in Quebec. If your family hadn’t moved you to Chicago when you were nine, your childhood background would have been roughly similar to that of Mordecai Richler. You might, in other words, have written about Montreal instead of Chicago. Would you care to speculate?
Bellow: What’s the point in speculating on what didn’t happen? I might have died, in which case none of this would have happened. I damn near died in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Ward H, in December 1923, where I was down with pneumonia and peritonitis at the same time, either of these capable of killing me. I must have been strong as a horse. Because I survived all that and came out of it. I was then eight years old, and made it. So, then, how do I know whether I would have been like Mordecai Richler? I really take exception to being lumped together with A.M. Klein and Mordecai Richler as if we were a troika of Jewish writers. I consider myself a Jew and an American who writes books.
Sward: During your time in Victoria have you been made aware of Canadian sensitivity to or lack of awareness of literature outside the borders of this country? High school and university English courses now preserve a large chunk of their curriculum for Canadian authors. No doubt that is as it should be. But it also means many students leave university with a minimal knowledge of world literature. Is this an obstacle to the development of writing in this country?
Bellow: No, I don’t think so. I think it is commendable that Canadians should concern themselves with their own culture and their own literature. I think they ought to recognize the disadvantages under which they labor. They have to disconnect themselves from a most influential super power, influential in every department of life, and the disseminator of things both good and bad, which Canadians very properly think they have the right to choose among and to make judgements about. They should fight for their independence. The question is, what is it that they are going to fight for? What is the strength of their own culture and their own power to resist those influences? The trouble is that most of the mass culture is from the United States and the other advanced and powerful countries.
The main influence in Canada when I was a boy was English. Montreal was a very British city and the French had segregated themselves out of it parochially, in their schools, their churches and their communities, so there were not friendly relations between the two cultures. I attended a Protestant school in Montreal until I was nine years old where we read British books and sang God Save the King and recited the Lord’s Prayer and all the rest of it. And even in the U.S. when I was a boy, it took me some time to become aware of the uniquely American cultural presence. It became more definite as I grew older. In the United States the British also enjoyed a monopoly over certain branches of culture. So we in America couldn’t ignore the English and French influence, and you in Canada can’t ignore the American influences.
Sward: You won the Nobel prize in literature in 1976. Has winning the prize changed your life or work habits or attitude toward writing in any particular way? Also, has the nature of the Nobel prize itself changed in recent years?
Bellow: I am not a student of the prize. I never knew much about it. I accepted it as I accepted other prizes I have been awarded. People exaggerate the PR power of Nobel awards and give them too much importance. It’s not the presidency of the United States or the Soviet Union, as some would appear to assume. Nobel prize winners are expected to be for all good things and against all evil. Secondly, although Christianity is not thriving in this secular society, we have carried over its martyrology to our cultural life and then fastened in the course of’ things on whoever appears on the horizon as a good candidate for martyrdom.
In addition, there’s the cliche that if you get the prize, you’ve shot your wad, which I resist as I’ve resisted so many other cliches. When T.S. Eliot got the Nobel prize I believe he complained it meant the end of his useful life as a poet. But then it was pointed out to me that Yeats did much of his best work after the award.
I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel, in this as in other areas. In the Freudian sense, I’ve been gathered to the fathers and the fathers have to be brought down. And in another sense, I’m subjected to the barrage the aged must endure in all generations: that is, “Down with the Gerontocracy!” I’m just me.
Copyright (c) 1984, 1998, 2000, by Robert Sward. This interview originally appeared in “Quill & Quire,” Toronto, Canada, June 1982, and was reprinted in ZUZU’s Petals Quarterly. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any manner without written permission from the author or his estate.