“What is imposed on us by birth and environment is what we are called upon to overcome.”
—Saul Bellow, “A Jewish Writer in America,”
The New York Review of Books (October 27, 2011), p. 28
[Excerpts from a talk Bellow gave in 1988]
Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination (1991) by Ruth Miller. I picked this up last month at a second-hand shop. I read another bio of Bellow about a decade ago, by James Atlas; this one focuses more on his work and how his imagination influences his writing. It captures a different side of the writer and his work. Reading Bellow, one can see that he was a complex intense man, who allowed his questioning restless mind to flow in to his writing; and, yet, he retained a fine measure of control.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum
Although Saul Bellow [1915–2005] is known as an American writer, and understandably so, he was born in Canada (in Lachine, Quebec, now a borough of Montreal); and when he was three, in 1918 (before the end of the First World War on November 11th), his family moved to the second floor of a duplex at 1092 St.-Dominique St., which was then in an area at the heart of the Jewish community in Montreal.
It was more than likely a cold-water flat with wooden floors, a long central hallway, large open rooms and high ceilings. This was on the same street on which my mother grew up, but this was a decade later and a few blocks north of Bellow’s family. Change was slow coming to Montréal, and remained so until the 1960s. I, too, grew up in a similar house, although on a different street and at a different time. Yet, some things remained.
Ruth Miller first met Bellow when she was a first-year student, taking a required English Composition course he taught at Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College, in Chicago, in 1938; she writes in the biography about the influence that his childhood in Montreal had on him. influences that, although nowhere near as important as of those of Chicago, have nevertheless informed his worldview and his work:
When I asked Bellow to explain to me what he wished to do as an artist, he answered with an anecdote about his childhood. As a boy, he said, he loved to sit alone on the curb, staring into the gutter. He would watch the iridescent colors shifting on the oil and water and he figured that the slop of St. Dominique Street gutter was reflecting the sunlight overhead. A small boy, just sitting there, he had emotional feelings, very powerful, of gladness and mystery, and he wanted to say something, to tell someone, about that. But there was no one to whom he could speak. (5)What was Bellow to do but give voice to his thoughts and write, making sense of his surroundings, with all the peril it entailed; that he was talented and earned success is a testament to both his gifts and his will to get out of the place that both caused him fear and joy. Where he would no longer be the outsider, l'étranger. Such is often the case when the individual, and the writer, tries to stay the course as a humanist. Eschewing political parties and ideologies as well as pretentious pieties is never an easy task.
Not to over-state things, but I remember as a young boy, around the same age as Bellow was in this anecdote, but more than 40 years later, on a street (av du Parc) that was not too far (not only geographically) from rue St.-Dominique, watching at a corner gas station (called Fina and now Petro-Canada) opposite Fletcher’s Field, the colors of the visible spectrum forming as gasoline mixed with water and washed into the sewers below.
I, too, watched with fascination and dreamed of beautiful things. The imagination can be a powerful motivating factor in the mind of the young. It can carry you far, but it also requires a good supply of energy and power. It is often the case, and this applies to me, that what one escapes from, in our desire to “overcome it,” becomes highly desirable after a long period of discovery and absence.