‘Strangely Independent of Place’
Augie March, who turns 50 this year, starts his journey in Chicago. Bellow avoided it altogether while creating this legendary character, but no matter where he went, the city dominated his imagination.
In a public statement Mr. Robert Penn Warren recently observed that he liked to write in a foreign country, “where the language is not your own, and you are forced into yourself in a special way.” When I began to write The Adventures of Augie March I was living in Paris, where circumstances made me constantly aware that I was not a Frenchman. Americans at that time were forever being told what they were or were not. A friend of mine who blundered into his Parisian landlady’s apartment was told before he could excuse himself, “La France n’est pas un pays conquis, M’sieu.” He lacked the presence of mind to reply that he was not the American Army, either, but had merely been looking for the bathroom.
I was at that time writing in a tiny hotel room on Rue des Saints Pères. Across the street pneumatic drills were at work on the concrete of a hospital whose construction had been abandoned at the outbreak of the war. The noise did not disturb my thoughts; I lived in it like the salamander in the flames. The room below mine was occupied by an old Italian scholar, who was not much annoyed by it either. To protect his privacy I will call him M. Scaferlati. He had a large but frail body, an immense head of hair, feeble but severe-looking eyes, a small nervous laugh but a serious and learned mind. Most of the day he passed in bed drinking coffee and reading, favoring his left eye. M. Scarferlati was engaged in a study of heavy books at close range, the Merovingians.
While I was writing Chapter 1, M. Scaferlati had an accident as he was washing his feet in the sink. He was soaping the left foot when the bowl of the washstand broke and a chunk of it fell on the instep of the supporting right foot, inflicting a deep gash. It was a painful wound. He wrapped a large bandage around it and did not leave his bed for an entire week, a week spent in conversation. Among his acquaintances there were some who said he had wounded himself on purpose, from resentment toward a friend who had tried to get him a job. A strange theory.
When one of his American visitors remarked that I did not seem to be getting what I should out of Paris, M. Scaferlati wisely replied, “But it is only natural that while he is here he should be thinking of America most of the time.” Perhaps only a student of the Merovingians could be so discerning about the Chicagoans.
For it was Chicago before the Depression that moved my imagination as I went to my room in the morning, not misty Paris with its cold statues and its streams of water running along the curbstones.
After the theft of my typewriter from my room in the hotel I rented another place on Rue Vaneau, in the apartment of the French wife of a Swedish sea captain, a jolly woman who brought me coffee twice a day. She had once owned a bookshop, and hers was a literary house. For the fireplace she gave me, instead of ordinary wastepaper, copies of Le Rire for 1907 or thereabout.
Eventually Mme L. rented half of her apartment to me, and since I had by this time gotten used to writing away from home I found another room in the vicinity of St. Sulpice, a gloomy region of shops specializing in ecclesiastical goods. The book was writing itself very rapidly; I was coming to be strangely independent of place. Chicago itself had grown exotic to me, and I began to realize that it is characteristic of any prolonged strangeness that it gradually beings to consider itself the invariable normalcy.
A descendant of Russian-Jewish immigrants, I was writing of Chicago in odd corners of Paris and, afterward, in Austria, Italy, Long Island and New Jersey. To speak of rootless or rooted persons is all very well. No man needs to bother his head about the matter whose emotions are alive. We are called upon to preserve our humanity in circumstances of rapid change and movement. I do not see what else we can do than refuse to be condemned with a time or a place. We are not born to be condemned but to live.
In the spring of 1950 I began to travel southward with my family. One chapter of Augie—I then had the notion of calling it “Life Among the Machiavellians”—was written at Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg, the late Max Reinhardt’s baroque castle, while I was teaching in the American Seminar. Another was written in Florence in May, at various café tables. The late French novelist Bernanos once said that he preferred to do his writing in cafés and restaurants; he had a dislike for solitary labor. Of course one may argue that a novelist always has the company of his characters, or ought to have, but in my opinion there is nothing to be said in favor of a severe solitude.
In Rome I wrote every morning for six weeks at the Casino Valadier in the Borghese Gardens. In this marvelous place, overlooking the city from the Pincian Rock, I happily filled several student notebooks and smoked cigars and drank coffee, unaware of the close Roman heat as long as I did not move about. A waiter later told me that the poet D’Annunzio had enjoyed working in this same place. I didn’t know whether or not he was saying this to please me but it did rather tickle me to hear it. Latterly, reading Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann, I learned that the great poet had composed one of his tragedies in the Borghese Gardens. I am glad I was not aware of this historic fact at the time.
My old Mexican briefcase was growing fat with manuscript as we traveled. I wrote in all kinds of conditions, in hotels and eating places, on a rooftop in the town of Positano, south at Sorrento; at the Crystal Palace Hotel, London; in the apartment of my friend Lidov on West Ninety-fifth Street, in Forest Hills, in a cold-water flat on Hudson Street, in the Hotel Meany in Seattle, in a motel in Portland, Oregon; at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, in the Pennsylvania Station, in a Broadway hotel, in an office at the Princeton Library. The last two paragraphs I completed on a Viking Press typewriter. Not a single word of the book was composed in Chicago.
From the point of view of a Chicagoan, I suppose all these other places are foreign countries where, in Mr. Warren’s words, “the language is not your own and you are forced into yourself in a special way.”
Is being Jewish really “the least defining thing” about Dylan Ebdus? Or is it the underlying central thread in The Fortress of Solitude?