Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Writers at Work: Saul Bellow

Writers at Work: Saul Bellow

Source: Janis Bellow, Preface, Saul Bellow: Collected Stories

Most mornings we linger. Work will wait. We tour the "giardino" and see which flowers have appeared. This June there is a white anemone of which Saul is enormously proud (there's never been another before or since—the moles seem to get at the bulbs). The giant red-orange poppies are budding, the peonies will flower this year in time for Saul's birthday, and there's one early bright purple cosmos blossom. We admire a fat sassy snake curling among the wild columbines. "The whole world is an ice cream cone to him," Saul laughs as he disappears into his studio.

Everything must be taken up nimbly, easily, or not at all. You can't read Saul without being aware of the laughter running beneath every word. He has always been playful. Now he is also firm and spare. There is also the matter of taste. Sometimes a detail is borrowed because the flavor is right (like Charlus and the telephone in the narrator's mansion—never mind the anachronism). Saul generally steers clear of puzzles and riddles. Lovers of word games must look to Joyce or Nabokov for the serious pleasures of the anagrammist. What we find instead is Stendhalian brio—laughter, whimsy, lightness of touch. Odd, perhaps, that I should speak of laughter in considering what is essentially Saul's darkest look at one of the century's most serious subjects [his story "The Bellarosa Connection"]. But "Bellarosa" wasn't born in anger. Everything that moved Saul deeply at that time found its way into the novella, and what moved him deeply, no matter how serious, was a source of energy and ultimately of pleasure. That was a time when we were often up toward dawn—discussing the story, his memories of New Jersey or Greenwich Village, and most often the history of the Jews. But perhaps because we were young lovers then my memories of that spring are anything but dark. Saul was writing this powerful, even horrible book with intense heat and joy, dipping into his brightest colors.
That's not to say that the writing always came easily or that the work went on uninterrupted. By early June Saul had begun turning the yellow pages into manuscript. I remember hearing the sound of the typewriter one morning, and feeling a thrill that his breakfast forecast--"I think I've got something here"--was being realized. He was working in the house, and when I took him his tea, I stood by and listened for another volley of staccato fire. Saul hunts down his words with the keys of his Remington. He revises as he types, and spots of silence are followed by these racy rhythmical bursts. He looks forward to this cup of hot tea with one round slice of lemon floating on top. The proper drink for a European Jew on an overcast day, Saul first observed when he visited the empty Jewish quarters of Polish cities. The lemon stands for the sun; the sugar and caffeine give the jolt you need when the surge from your morning coffee subsides. How he was managing to write at all was fairly mysterious, since he would accept no protection from distractions. And there had been many: a visit from a neighbor; phone calls from an agent, a lawyer, a friend (I could always tell from the roars of laughter when it was Allan Bloom on the line). After each interruption the study door would close and the wonderful ack-ack-ack of the typewriter would begin again.

[...]Saul never takes it easy when he is overworked and beginning to feel run down. He continued to ride his mountain bike, to chop up the fallen limbs of an apple tree, to remove boulder-sized rocks from the garden, to carry in logs for the morning fire. I was convinced he had a horseshoe over his head that spring. He tripped while cutting brush and scraped his face; he had a gashed shin to show for a tumble from his mountain bike; his eye was bloodshot; there was a bleeding nose. Of course he worked the morning of the nosebleed, lying down on the futon in the studio whenever the bleeding started, and then getting up to scrawl out a new paragraph.

When he hadn't returned for lunch, I carried a bite out to him and found him typing vigorously, his face and his T-shirt covered with blood. Composing for Saul is an aerobic activity. He sweats when he writes, and peels off layers of clothing. When he is concentrating particularly hard, he screws up his left eye and emits a sound that's a cross between the panting of a long-distance runner and a breathy whistle: "Windy suspirations of forced breath."

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