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By William Kennedy
I met Saul 45 years ago in Puerto Rico when I was managing editor of a new daily newspaper, the San Juan Star, and 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 about 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 for literature, and how some people were badmouthing it. Saul agreed that some worthy writers never won it and some not-so-worthy did; then 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; and 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 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 . . . ”
Full article available in Salmagundi No. 153-154.
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