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The Novelist

Friends and Politics, Part 1: Saul Bellow. The Nobel Prize-winner and I shared a love of literature and of Yiddish, but our friendship was tested by decades-long disagreements over politics.

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Ruth Wisse and Saul Bellow at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal, winter 1969. (Courtesy Ruth Wisse)
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On March 26, 2005, while my husband and I were out of town, Saul Bellow left a message on our answering machine—speaking deliberately, as if determined not to be misunderstood: “I want to leave a message for Ruth. There is no more war. The war is ended. This is Saul Bellow speaking. No war. It is all over. No further war.” End of call.

There followed a second message, this one from Janis Bellow, explaining that Saul had insisted on phoning us that morning. He was feeling a little better, as we could judge for ourselves if we wanted to come over to pay them a visit. When Len, my husband, and I stopped by later that week, we found Saul uncommonly serene. He sat in the hospital bed that had been set up for him, stroking Moosie the family cat and letting the conversation flow around him rather than through him (as had always been the case before). He was slow to respond when Len tried to engage him on familiar topics, like their native Montreal and family members whom we knew in common. As his message had signaled, Saul was now hors de combat. I realized that Janis was about to lose a husband, their daughter a father, and I—with humble respect for the differences—a comrade-in-arms.

Though Saul was disoriented during those last weeks of his life, his telephone message followed logically from conversations we had been having as long as we had known each other. Like most people, I had first gotten to know him as a reader, but thanks to his extended family in Montreal, he came often to the city where I grew up, and the brief contacts I had with him over the years allowed me to feel I knew him far better than I did. He was my favorite novelist, which meant that I occasionally sparred with him mentally the way his character Moses Herzog does in the letters he writes to Nietzsche and Heidegger. The sparring continued when we became friends, but by that time we were on the same side of every struggle that mattered. It was not surprising that he should have called to tell me he was about to exit the field of battle.

***

At the start of our friendship, I challenged Saul’s soldierly commitment. The first time was during a spectacular weekend in the spring of 1984 that was orchestrated by Guy Descary, the mayor of Lachine, a small city near Montreal, who had happened upon “Lachine” in a roster of Nobel Prize winners, and decided to name the new library of his suburb after its most famous native son. In a bid to attract full press coverage—he was considering a run for the Montreal mayoralty—Descary arranged a formal dedication of the Saul Bellow Library, to be followed by a celebratory luncheon at the Lachine waterfront. Montreal and its suburbs remain divided into fairly separate ethnic blocs, so that a special excitement accompanies events that draw its various communities together. Here was a French mayor honoring an English writer who made a point of staying in touch with his local Jewish family. Saul invoked Yiddish, English, and French during the ceremonies, demonstrating the mayor’s contention that “Saul Bellow never forgot his roots.”

I was one of many speakers at the luncheon in Saul’s honor, of which I best remember Elizabeth Spencer’s reminiscences about the time she met Saul in Paris in 1949, when he was there on a Guggenheim Fellowship. The breezy young man she described was still recognizably there as the guest of honor, enjoying the array of local notables, literati, and members of family paying tribute to his talent and charm. More than on the talks, however, my mind was fixed anxiously on the note I had slipped to Saul before we sat down to the meal, whose contents were quite at odds with the reverential tone of my public remarks. Although I knew he did not take kindly to criticism and feared that I might blow my chance of ever getting to know him better, I had felt compelled to share with him my disappointment about something he had recently done—or rather, undone.

My remonstrance had to do with his resignation from the Committee for the Free World—an organization Midge Decter had founded several years earlier “to conduct a battle of ideas in defense of Western values and institutions” by taking public positions for American victory against Soviet influence in the Cold War. To this end, she drew together thinkers from Europe and North America who recognized the danger of Communism, some because they had once been forcibly subject to Communist rule and others because they had at one time “said the blessing over poison”—the Canadian poet A. M. Klein’s description of those who had voluntarily joined the Party. Midge deemed that no less threatening to our democratic societies than Soviet missiles or OPEC cartels were the compatriots among our academic and cultural elites who “blamed America first,” to use the phrase made famous by Jeane Kirkpatrick at the 1984 Republican National Convention. The Committee’s monthly bulletin Contentions drew a bead on writers and columnists who argued that our political system was founded on oppression, that its freedoms were a sham, and that our prosperity depended on the exploitation of poorer nations. Saul Bellow was a charter member of the Committee’s international board, which also included Raymond Aron, William Barrett, Paul Johnson, Leszek Kolakowski, Tom Stoppard, and George Will.

Rather, Saul had been a member. I had just heard that he resigned from the board in protest against an issue of Contentions criticizing certain of that year’s literary prizes for honoring the political rather than literary merits of the winners—two of whom were Bellow’s friends. Contentions called their work “snooty, mindless, and altogether conventional attitudinizing” (Gore Vidal) and evidence of the “exhaustion of serious fiction as a vehicle for significant comment about human affairs” (Stanley Elkin). As we now know from his published letters, Saul asked that his name be removed from the masthead not because he disagreed with these judgments but because the “reviews were in such bad taste that it depressed me to be associated with them.” He continued:

I have for some time been struggling with the growing realization that a problem exists: About Nicaragua we can agree well enough but as soon as you begin to speak of culture you give me the willies…. [Where] there are politics there are bedfellows, and where there are bedfellows there are likely to be fleas, so I scratched my bites in silence. Your Special Issue, however, is different. I can’t allow the editors of Confrontations (sic) to speak in my name, or with my tacit consent as board-member, about writers and literature. When there are enemies to be made I prefer to make them myself, on my own grounds and in my own language. Le mauvais gout mène aux crimes, said Stendhal, who was right of course but who didn’t realize how many criminals history was about to turn loose.

Had I seen the letter, its wit would not have charmed me. So he had “scratched his bites in silence” instead of appreciating the political energy Midge was organizing on our behalf! Weren’t those many criminals that history was about to turn loose reason enough to support the Committee’s work? Given that he understood what was at stake in the Cold War, I was dismayed that he quit the battlefield for what I considered a slight to his vanity.

***

If you are amused by this account of internecine conflict among intellectuals determined to bring down the Soviet Empire, don’t expect a self-mocking disclaimer from me in this quarrel long since resolved. Since I don’t write for The New Yorker, I don’t feel obliged to be ironic when speaking of the free world. Which is not to say that I fail to appreciate some ironies of this little episode: Saul was valuable to the Committee precisely because he insisted on the preeminence of the writer over the warrior. His idealization of the writer’s task was the bedrock of his literary ambition, and that ambition, fully realized in his work, made him far more precious to the Committee than lesser writers (like me) who soldiered better. Those most valuable to a cause may be least willing to submit to its discipline. On the other hand, Contentions had set out to depoliticize literature by highlighting political considerations that had determined literary awards. If the editors were right, Saul would have forfeited his chance of ever winning one of those prizes had he remained on the Contentions masthead. Thus, his political calculations may have run up against their commitment to purer aesthetic and literary judgment. Irony indeed.

Saul and I never did thrash this out. When Len and I joined him for dinner the following evening with the poet Louis Dudek, we talked for hours without mentioning my note. I sensed that Saul did not want to discuss it, and that our acquaintanceship would flourish on his terms or not at all. In agreeing to subordinate public to private objectives, I was making the same kind of calculation of which I was accusing him in quitting the Committee, but I hoped that it would someday allow me to take up the subject with him again.

There was only intermittent contact between Saul and me in the years that followed. That changed when he married Janis Freedman in 1989 and when they moved to Boston soon after Len and I did, in 1993. Their marriage, which was treated as a May-December curiosity—31-year-old student-assistant marries famous novelist-professor—seemed instead to be something entirely different to me: Saul’s homecoming, after a lifetime of search. To be sure, he had found in Janis a lovely young wife, but she also gave him the unconditional love of the mother he had never ceased to mourn. A fellow Canadian, Janis shared his passion for literature, his comfort in being Jewish, and his concern for Israel at a time when that was becoming more important to him. For these and many other reasons there was no couple in Boston with whom Len and I felt more at home. Often Saul and I slipped into Yiddish, which he could no longer speak with his brothers, by then deceased. We were all landsleit, a term I had always associated with immigrants from Europe, but one equally suited to the reunion of us Canadian Jews on American soil.

One of the few subjects Saul and I continued to disagree on was anti-Semitism. As a teenager in Chicago he had heard the anti-Jewish diatribes of Father Coughlan, also a former Canadian, and Saul was convinced that the same hostility still festered in America under a civil surface. I was confident that American democracy was by now too substantial to allow any politician to win office on a platform of anti-Semitism—which was my criterion for code red. My apprehension was trained wholly on the threat from Arab and Muslim aggressors and secondarily on their deputies among our academic elites. In worrying about America, I thought, Saul was mistaking prejudice, which was nasty but not necessarily lethal, for the murderous politics of Jew-blame that leaders used to manipulate restive populations. He, in turn, thought me naïve to discount the potential of plain old Jew-hatred in our midst.

Saul’s political hard-headedness on these issues made me wonder how, during World War II and into the 1950s, he could have ignored the Jewish struggle for survival in Europe and Palestine. When I put the question to him in 1991, he said, “America was not a country to us. It was the world.” I took this to mean that while he and his friends were being drafted into the army, becoming writers, getting married, and trying to earn a living in the throes of the Depression, they were fully absorbed with the challenges of their lives, not with the lives and deaths of co-religionists overseas. I could not imagine this kind of detachment until it occurred to me that his Jewish counterparts in pre-war Europe—say, at the Lublin Yeshiva (founded in 1930) or Vilna’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (founded in 1929)—likewise felt that “Poland is not a country to us. It is the world.” And Jewish Trotskyists, of whom he had been one, were probably equally delusional on both continents.

Ruth Wisse with Saul Bellow at Bellow's home, 2001.Ruth Wisse with Saul Bellow at Bellow’s home, 2001.

Janis Bellow

But why belabor this? By the time he moved to Boston Saul had long since made up for the lapses of his youth. He grasped political realities as clearly as anyone I knew, even as he did not care to be a political player. Blessed with genius that came from beyond the summons of the will, he trusted the realm of the spirit more than us plodders who make do with what wisdom and knowledge we wring from mere experience. I once told him that he was the only adult I knew who spoke seriously about the “soul.” This seemed to surprise him coming from someone who kept a kosher home and blessed the Sabbath, but it is possible to obey God and thank God without hankering for the afterlife—as Saul did—and without leaving politics to an unseen agency. I think that Saul held with his eponymous Mr. Sammler that a good man meets the terms of his contract, “terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As we all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.” I happen to love that homespun kaddish at the conclusion of one of my favorite novels, but its sentiment is not mine. My view is rather that in their hearts most people don’t know, and because we don’t know, the Torah was given, reportedly, through Moses at Sinai, so that we may learn good from evil from a legal tradition scrupulously studied and painstakingly transmitted.

***

Though I am tracking here only the part of our friendship that prompted Saul’s parting message to me, I can’t leave out the joy of most of our time together. Every time I taught his work, I invited him to be a guest of the class, and he always came—even when he eventually needed an aide to help him into the building. The students were curious and deferential. He flinched only from questions that pried into the mysteries of composition, but otherwise enjoyed telling about himself, people he knew, and books he liked. He loved to recall his childhood in Lachine, where the kids spoke French, Ukrainian, Yiddish, and the English they were beginning to pick up in the street. His protestations about being called an American Jewish writer seemed irrelevant when he described putting on the ritual fringes that were part of his childhood morning routine or studying parts of Genesis he learned in cheder. “What else but a Jew could I be?” he would say to students who asked about being a Jewish writer. It was the impulse to classify rather than the label itself that bothered him. He didn’t fit any classification.

I had no trouble imagining the fun he and Isaac Rosenfeld had in their teens doing translations of T.S. Eliot and Milton, singing macaronic Yiddish and English songs, and playing verbal chess. Sometimes at the dinner table he would ask Janis to join him in a raunchy Yiddish ditty he had taught her. In Saul’s rendition of “Der Rebbe Elimelekh” (itself the Yiddish adaptation of “Old King Cole”), the merry rabbi at the conclusion of the Sabbath sends not for the fiddlers and drummers with whom he fiddles and drums, but for the shikselekh with whom he shiksels. He had the rabbi frolicking with gentile girls in a verbal construction of his own making. When he’d finish the song, Saul would throw back his head and have us all laughing with him.

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Allan Nadler says:

Thanks, Ruth, for a wonderful piece, and especially for bringing back fond memories of that amazing ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the Lachine Municipal Library in 1984. (I was there, I suppose representing the Shaar Hashomayim). Thanks indirectly to Bellow, I discovered North America’s finest urban bike path: the 20 kilometers from Old Montreal all the way to the coast of Lachine, along the Lachine Canal.

Looking forward to part II.

Allan

Abu Ali says:

As a Muslim admirer of Saul Bellow and have no illusion that anti-semetism is product of Europeans. I wonder if Ruth is aware Arabs are semetic also, but what most disturb me Ruth wrote
“My apprehension was trained wholly on the threat from Arab and Muslim aggressors and secondarily on their deputies among our academic elites”

No wonder Jewish hatred toward Islam and Arab in particular is so high, recently I had discussion with Israeli Jew who was shocked the hatred and bias of American/Canadian Jewish liberals, as he told me ” they are worst Arab haters on earth” .

I hope Ruth does go out and meet so-called Muslim aggressors who live under occupation and subjugated by great and fair and democratic Israel.
Saul Bellow and many others never bought this injustice and I agree with him, make peace with neighbors, in order to live in peace.

Abu, I agree with most of what you said, except anti-Semitism was coined as a phrase to talk about the specific form of anti-Jewish sentiments expressed in Europe in the 19th century.

babawawa says:

I’m a bit confused by Abu Ali and his concern for Jewish Arab haters. Are you afraid to walk the streets of your city, Mr. Ali, like Jews in Paris, London, etc. are for fear of being beaten and killed for who you are? Jews are being assaulted by Arabs in nearly every major city and province in Europe, not to mention Canada, and you bring up Jewish hatred of Arabs as a real threat? There’s always a handful of Israeli Jews who are shocked by alledged Jewish hatred of Arabs but are fine with missles from Gaza. An Arab, semetic by virtue of being related to Jews, can very well be anti-semetic, as being anti-semetic refers only to hating Jews. Finally, Ruth can’t very well go out and meet the Muslim aggressors with the highest standard of living in the Middle East under the “occupation” because as a Jew, she would be murdered by them. The Arab world isn’t on fire right now because Arabs treat Arabs as well as Jews treat Arabs. It’s just the opposite. You are disingenuous and insincere in your outrage.

Mark says:

Like all great fans of great writers, I have a proprietary interest in Saul Bellow. When he’s spoken ill of, I speak up. Fortunately, defending Bellow is pretty easy, and this case is no exception. Prof. Wisse writes that Saul Bellow may have resigned from Contentions in 1984 out of “political calculations” that his membership might cost him literary prizes rewarded for politically correct positions, not aesthetic merit. According to Wisse, it was not Bellow the novelist and passionate lover of literature who believed in aesthetic evaluations of art, it was the political Committee for the Free World. “Irony indeed,” says Wisse.

No Bellow reader of any perception or heart could buy this line of argument, and it is simply sad, not ironic, that a literature professor at a great university could allege it. And apparently believe it. And express obvious glee at having finally turned the tables on Bellow and come out on top. She, like Bellow’s Henderson beating a child at checkers, shouts out, “King me!” But at least Henderson realized that his behavior was awful and “the little kids would be sure to hate me.” Wisse displays no such self-awareness in her supposed victory over the deceased Bellow.

So, to wrap this up. When Bellow abandoned Contentions in 1984 he had already won three National Book Awards and the Nobel. What prizes does Wisse believe the then nearly 70-year-old Bellow still had his eye on? And is Wisse suggesting that Bellow’s life-long defense of literature as a realm apart from politics was a ruse or a stratagem? When in 1963 he wrote, in the Introduction to Great Jewish Short Stories, “In literature we cannot accept a political standard,” was he merely plotting to win a prize?

In Humboldt’s Gift, Citrine says of a critic’s talents, “Can the deaf tune pianos?” Wisse’s article offers a clue as to who Bellow might have had in mind.

Earl Ganz says:

Wonderful Mark. I glad you said it. I couldn’t have said it as well.
Prof. Wisse is dancing on Saul Bellow’s grave. Someone ought to get
her to tell the world how she became such a grand Harvard Professor.
With friends like her Bellow needs no enemies.

philip mann says:

Hi Dr. Wisse

I took one of your courses in McGill,about `72. One of my more enjoyable experiences there. It seems the years have been kind to you.

Be well.

will says:

war, soldiering, battles, danger, enemies, the use of literature to a cause, discipline to a cause, [betrayal to a cause], drawing beads on writers and columnists, Arab and Muslim aggressors and their deputies among our academic elites.

omg!!

is it a wonder that bellow got the willies?

Mark says:

Thanks, Earl. Wisse’s argument seemed so flimsy, and so undeservedly triumphant, I couldn’t believe she let herself get away with it. We all write things we wish we hadn’t. I am reading her book, The Modern Jewish Canon, and I like it. I’m reminded of a Bellow line (I’m always reminded of Bellow lines). Wisse may have had a moment like the one where Humboldt says to Citrine, “You seem like a pleasant ingenu, until your touchiness is touched.” (from memory only) Apparently, her touchiness was touched.

Here’s a recent review of Saul Bellow in New Criterion by Joseph Epstein.

http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-long–unhappy-life-of-Saul-Bellow-6495

That’s a big ugly chip on your shoulder, Ruth. These “Friends and Politics” essays read like one big, embarrassing, self-conscious attempt to shrug off that chip and then stand up straight, shifty-eyed, unsuccessfully pretending you never knew it was there in the first place. Read the comments from these thoughtful readers, and try to step back enough to recognize what it is that appalls us about your small-minded generalizations, your racist insistence on conflating nationality and religion, your bitter refusal to recognize any wrongdoing at all on Israel’s part. Anyone familiar with the word-arts of Bellow, Podhoretz and Howe would know these views of yours must have hurt them, made them cringe, especially when coming from someone whom they considered a friend, and intellectually capable of being, well, more human.

After all, this is what friends do when they see potential for goodness in others; they keep trying to set an example. Your claim to have reconciled with Howe after his insult about your Commentary article is belied by your self-serving recounting of the incident, and the same is true of your smarmy post-mortems on Podhoretz’s super-rational questioning of Jewish survival and intermarriage, and on Bellows’ view of anti-semitism. Saul asked you to put down arms, but you would not show him enough respect to end the war. No, you don’t know what it is to make peace.

I’ve said that least 1224362 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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The Novelist

Friends and Politics, Part 1: Saul Bellow. The Nobel Prize-winner and I shared a love of literature and of Yiddish, but our friendship was tested by decades-long disagreements over politics.

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