The Right Coast

April 11, 2005
Saul Bellow
By Maimon Schwarzschild

Nice piece by David Brooks on Saul Bellow, who died last week.
[C]ontact with European seriousness only made [Bellow] more acutely aware of his own Americanness, as it has with so many others. While admiring the intellectual aristocracy of Europe, he grew up on the streets of Chicago, a full-bore democrat. Attracted by the [Old World] hierarchies of the best that has been thought and said, he still had that American instinct to take any hierarchy and -- Marx Brothers-style -- ridicule it to smithereens.
Read the whole thing.

Actually, Bellow was born in Montreal, where he lived till he was nine years old -- when he and his parents crossed the border illegally and settled in a poor neighbourhood of Chicago. Bellow's character Herzog also grew up in the slums of Montreal. As Brooks says, Bellow was drawn both to European high culture and to "America's leveling democratic shtick". Canada, and especially Montreal, is also sharply pulled both ways: if not to European high culture, at least to a European sense of hierarchy and limited possibility in life. At any rate, Canada should be prouder of Saul Bellow than of it's Liberal government, whose pervasive corruption over the past several years seems to be worthy of Jacques Chirac himself.

I had an (indirect) encounter with Saul Bellow when I was seventeen years old. I was in high school and applying to the University of Chicago, where Bellow was a member of the faculty's mandarin Committee on Social Thought. A friend of my family's knew Bellow, and wrote asking whether he would support my application for admission. A note came back from Bellow -- duly sent along to me -- saying he didn't think he had any influence with the undergraduate admissions office, but if I wanted to join the Committee on Social Thought perhaps he could be helpful. I brightened when I saw this, and said "Great! Will it be easier to get into the University of Chicago if I join the Committee on Social Thought?" Someone had to explain gently to me that Saul Bellow wasn't really offering to help me join the most prestigious faculty club at the U of C.