SAUL BELLOW and JANIS BELLOW
Janis Bellow on Saul Bellow
That look on Saul’s face as he extends an arm to pet Moose lets you know a wicked zinger is on the way: “The handsomest Bellow”, or “He looks like the maitre d’ in a fancy joint”. Blue-ringed brown eyes expand, and in context, in the moment, the ordinary becomes funny, eccentric, extraordinary.
With the harvest moon to blame for tonight’s insomnia, I lie here, trying to remember how it was done. I’d gush, “Oh look at that little slip of a moon”, and he’d toss back “Ah, yes, God’s hangnail”, or, Me: “Look at that beautiful moon over the water”, Saul: “The night’s vaccination mark”, and, Me: “There’s a full moon tonight”, Saul: “Full of what?” The tempo lags when you lack the electric immediacy of provocation and reply.
I’m in an enviable position—luckier than most who find themselves inhabiting both sides of a bed. I can turn a switch (drown the moonlight) and read one of his books. Night tables piled high, garners rich with fully ripened grain. I reach for “Something to Remember Me By”. An old man, Louis, narrates the story of a day long ago in dreary, somber Depression-era Chicago, a wintry day in which “there were no sights—more of the same and then more of the same”. Odd that with this emphasis on how “there was little to see, almost nothing . . . ” Louis’s story should become an instruction manual about how to see, and for me, a reminder of how Saul saw. It’s about his seeing. The capacity to translate nothing into something often rides on the dolphin back of Saul’s comic genius. But sometimes a simple simile will do. When Louis tells us that in a Chicago back alley, “There would have been nothing to see . . . a yard, a wooden porch, a clothesline, wires, a back alley with ash heaps” we almost believe him. Then our young narrator (who has followed a woman into a strange apartment, and awaits her, naked on a grimy cot) transforms this bare sight: “What I saw of the outside were the utility wires hung between the poles like lines on music paper, only sagging, and the glass insulators like clumps of notes”. The moment’s music ends here, because for all his erotic fever (“we had such major instruments to play”) Louis never gets beyond a look at his love object. But “a look” misleads, because synesthete Louis has already feasted on his floozy—more fragrant than seen—“green banana”, or the scent of the box of chocolates after the chocolates have been eaten—and more tasted than either viewed or sniffed—with her “salt, acid, dark, sweet odors”.
We relax into the comedy, relish the simile’s surprise, the synesthesia stretches us, and slowly we immerse ourselves in a seeing where there is nothing to be seen. Saul has just begun. When his Louis announces, “I saw and I saw and I saw”, his awareness takes us beneath “apparent life” and into “real life”, and “beneath each face”, to see “the real face”, until we have passed beyond the visible world, and into another. Though readers balk when a modern writer dips a toe in strange metaphysical waters, we’re already in deep, and treading furiously. For Saul, the world itself prompts this vision. The challenge to capture the high specificity of the object with an infinite articulation of your own, is, in the Bellovian universe, “tacitly given by the phenomenon itself”. The “exquisite notation” that Saul, like his Louis, found himself unable to resist, is a response to “an eccentric urge swelling toward me from the earth itself”.
Lights out. When Saul was in the world I had access—borrowed access—to his metaphysics. Steeped as I was in his “singular sense of what it is to grasp specific instances”, it never occurred to me that he might pack up his certainty about the world beyond, and the inevitability of reunion with those we love, and carry away these “strong impressions of eternity”. In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, “the living speed like birds over the surface of a water, and one will dive or plunge but not come up again and never be seen any more”. When it was Saul’s turn, he simply disappeared, taking with him what I knew of soaring.
— Janis Bellow