The last few days, I’ve been boxing up some of my books in preparation to donate them to a good cause, about which more will be said when the appropriate time comes. Among these books are nine editions of The Pushcart Prize, which I’ve been buying and reading in part every year since 2000. (I haven’t gotten the 2009 edition yet.) When I went to put the 2008 edition in the box, I decided to have a glance at the table of contents, where I noticed a piece that somehow escaped me last year: “A Genius For Grief: Memories of Saul Bellow,” first published in News from the Republic of Letters, by novelist and longtime San Francisco resident Herbert Gold (usually associated with the Beats).
Check out some of these wonderful passages:
He enacted his inner life for his public on the stage he carried everywhere. Women loved him; men found him demanding but ingratiating. He managed to enlist the world in the narrative of his disasters. Later, Herzog, drawn partly as an act of revenge after one of his marriage and friendship convulsions, would depict a beloved protagonist in a state of despair. Herzog ranted comically and proceeded from the melodramatic scenes with his wife to episodes with women eager to offer nursery solace. Such a scenario is unreal to experience — when mired in despair, most of us are not beloved — but Saul’s star turn, dominating his own theater, helped to make it seem possible in his special case. […] Saul’s prose style married classical elegance to Mark Twain and the pungency of street speech; Yiddish played stickball with Henry James. […] His fate as a writer was to insist that words matter, his own most of all; suffering matters, his own absolutely; and he was able to enlist an audience in his struggle to survive, marked and measured by the works in progress which devoured his life.
An amusing story:
Until I came to live in San Francisco, our friendship went through ups and downs, with periods of intense intimacy; that is, Saul confided his troubles, I listened and felt warm about being invited in. Occasionally he stayed with me in New York and gave me the difficult gratification of hinting that I stood between him and some desperate act at the high window. These threats didn’t interfere with his intent sessions bent over the notebooks with their ruled lines upon which his fountain pen tracked his imagination and indignation. I learned that folks don’t usually kill themselves in the middle of composing the suicide note.
More than fifty years of friendship and non-friendship include too many harsh memories. They begin, after gratitude, with that ordinary puzzlement that a writer and man who inspired part of a generation, altered the tone of a literary period, wrote with such grace, nonetheless lived his life with flaws both large and petty, like other people. The flaws seemed to be magnified by the fineness of his achievement.
Gold ends with this fine passage:
He helped to create a new permission not only for Jewish writers, but also for others previously exiled to an odd regionality without regions — Blacks, Latinos, second and third generation immigrants, founding sons of not founding fathers. Like all artists, his personality was stuffed with surprises, and not always delightful ones; like all human beings.
When the days and nights end for a writer, something keeps going on if he has shed his magic light and darkness upon the miracle of life. “The death of the poet is kept from the poems.” And Saul Bellow struggled to leave us a record of days and nights which would not disappear after his troubled and fortunate time on earth.
The full essay is very much longer and very compelling, with many wonderful anecdotes and many more passages like the above. It can be found in The Pushcart Prize XXXII (2008).