- Saul Bellow's Enigmatic Love
On a summer afternoon I approached the old farmhouse where I was scheduled to meet my teacher, Saul Bellow. He sat on the porch in a rocking chair with a book in his lap. I was nervous about how he would respond to my stories. What else could I do but trip on the wooden stairs? He looked up and grinned in sympathy.
He was fresh from a great novel's success. The Adventures of Augie March had just won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize, and I wondered why he would bother coming here to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont to teach. He was handsome as a movie star. Large brown eyes, wide mouth, head thrown back to enjoy his own laughter—an image familiar now from book photos. But then! He gleamed. The presence of "Saul," as we students democratically called him, added a giddiness to the already over-excited atmosphere, the boundless aspirations of writing students.
Those in the know that summer said Saul was recently divorced. So was I, as it happened, but I was not gleaming. I had come to Bread Loaf in the hope that someone would lift my disillusion by telling me that my writing, at least, was good.
Saul opened my folder, studied it again for a second. There was no other chair. I sat on the porch steps to wait for his comments.
At dinner the night before, I had had to pass him to get to my place. He shoved his chair from the table and said, "I seem to recognize you." I was pleased but blank. "Must be racial memory, then," he said, amused.
Who could tell if he was parodying himself, me, the remark, or all three? His books were full of comedy. At the same time, every moment was weighted with significance. The hero's glance took in the random world and transformed it into one where light, falling on a house, a wall, a hillside, spoke of cosmic matters. Material things and events could be more than one knew, Bellow's novels told us, and his heroes all searched for that "more." He had a mystic's awareness of hidden matters, and a skeptic's humor about his avidness for them.
Saul looked up from my folder.
"Something's wrong with your stories," he said. He recognized whose work I had been reading, and told me to lay off Henry James. [End Page 157]
"The trouble is you're not writing in your true voice. Listen to yourself when you fight with your mother."
The trouble was that when I fought with my mother, she_was the one who spoke in her true voice. I argued in fancy language designed to drive my mother mad. He leafed through my manuscript again while I brooded that probably my mother should have been the writer.
I instantly knew he must be right, though. When it came to voice, there was no mistaking Bellow's. Much was made of the "breakthrough" voice of the new book. As far as I was concerned, all his works were written in one voice that transcribed the world into Bellow-sensibility, as if it were a key in music.
I had submitted two stories for his criticism. The first was called "Love Trip." A man and woman travel together until the time comes to part. The woman, as I not very originally wrote, was shaken by sobs.
"Do you understand why she's crying?" Saul asked.
How could he not know? "Because it's ending," I assured him. "The love trip is over."
His next words stunned me. "No, it's because she doesn't love him enough."
The story I had submitted was more or less autobiographical, a piece ripped from my young twenties, fresh and bloody. And now Saul was telling me the female protagonist didn't know herself, didn't know that she was crying because she didn't love enough, and that was why the story, and the relationship in it, didn't work.
I had just completed my master's degree at Columbia University, then rife with "New Criticism" theory...