Last night, Housing Works’s bookstore hosted a “Bellow Slam,” in which several prominent authors read their favorite passages. As Saul Bellow is this publication’s patron saint—the name of Tablet Magazine’s parent organization, Nextbook Inc., is taken from the great novelist’s line, “We are always looking for the book it is necessary to read next”—and as the shop is mere steps away from our office, the 15-degree windchill was not sufficient deterrent. Housing Works is a nonprofit that fights AIDS, which means its bookstore is among the only that sells books but gives condoms away at the door. I think Bellow—whose gift was to negotiate the gulf between the mind and the body, and who anyway, as his friend Richard Stern once said, had “only two hobbies: Philosophy and fucking”—would have appreciated this.
The evening was sponsored by Penguin Classics and emceed by
Nina Baym Beena Kamlani, who was Bellow’s editor for his last few books (he died in 2005). It was the typical crowd: Girls who probably work in publishing stood in a corner sipping red wine and acting like they belonged, which they did; two people sitting next to me discussed grad school admissions. Most were probably Bellow fans, making me the odd man out: I’ve never got Bellow (and yes, since you were about to ask, I have read Herzog, as well as several others). His rhythm hasn’t flowed for me as it has for some; his genius hasn’t appeared before me as it has for others.
And on its face, it was five typical readers, four novelists and Kamlani: Gary Shteyngart (a contributing editor); Francine Prose (a contributor); Joshua Furst; and Joseph O’Neill. But though all read the same author, they read him in five different ways, almost as five different characters: The neophyte, the socialite, the admirer, the lecturer, and the sentimentalist. I’ll explain this, I swear.
First, after Kamlani’s introduction, was Shteyngart, the diminuitive, jester-like, calmly wise Russian Jewish novelist. He played the neophyte. “Since Valentine’s Day is coming up, I’m reading a dating scene from Herzog,” he announced. And he proceeded to read a rather funny, at times risqué exchange between Moses Herzog and a woman, Ramona, whom, let’s just say, Herzog knows to be wearing black lace underwear. As Shteyngart articulated Herzog’s fascination with the fact of his own erection—“good currency anywhere, accepted by the Bank of England”—Shteyngart did the opposite of become the character: He almost sounded like one coming across the character, or the writer, or even the English language, for the first time. Here he was helped by his faint accent, which was compounded by his exaggeratedly Slavic take on the pronounciation of “Ramona,” which was compounded further still by the exoticism of Ramona’s “French-Russian-Argentine-Jewish ways.” Shteyngart is of course no naif, even if he plays one on YouTube. Rather, he was bringing the listeners along with him in a rediscovery, and I heard a music in Bellow I had never perceived before.
Next was Francine Prose, who I am pretty sure was the tallest of the five readers, even if you spotted Joshua Furst his cowboy boots. She sounded savvy and looked statuesque, like a sophisticated Parisian. She played the socialite. In what initially seemed like a daring gesture, she chose to read from Bellow’s essays on other authors: An excerpt from one on the poet John Berryman, and then one he wrote when his friend John Cheever died. The match was perfect: Prose tossed off the proper nouns in top cocktail-party form, and Bellow’s, well, prose assumed the most poetry it would that night.
Next was Furst, playing the admirer, who announced he would be reading from Henderson The Rain King, the weird 1959 book with crude African stereotypes and a famous Counting Crows song loosely based on it. Why this one? “Because it’s his problem book,” Furst explained, to which Prose, from her seat, scarcely more than muttered, “They’re all problem books.” In many ways Bellow’s most exotic book, it sounded downright simple in Furst’s earnest reading. He seemed almost in awe of the words, so impressed and so careful not to step on them; it seemed to me that this was the reading Kamlani, sitting in the front row, looking up, enjoyed the most.
Then came O’Neill, who played (and who was the lecturer), who I expected to have an Irish accent but really had more of an English one (the narrator was the “nuh-RAY-tur”). He read from one of Bellow’s last novels, More Die of Heartbreak, and he was the only reader who interrupted himself, which he did periodically: “Classic Bellovian … anyway”; a laugh, and then, “sorry.” It was a mistake, but it was a mistake that O’Neill learned with the rest of us, and during the second half of his reading, he didn’t stop himself, and just let Bellow speak for himself, or through his nuh-RAY-tur: “I could adore long-legged girls, but they aren’t my real preference”; “Edgar Allen Poe and the retarded girl he married.” We learned, with O’Neill, that Bellow, like Hemingway, has to just come out, and you have to just take it as it is. The lecturer is the only character unfit to read Bellow, but to this lecturer’s credit, he realized the error of his ways well before it was too late.
Finally, Kamlani closed things out by reading the conclusion of a story, “Something To Remember Me By.” Her reading of a tale all about nostalgia was itself nostalgic, almost whimsical: A lullaby. The sentimentalist may be my favorite reader of Bellow. It is possible I will have to give him a second chance. Trying Bellow out merely as myself—as only one reader—is really not the way to do him justice.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.