I've often written about how I like old book stores and how much fun it is to run across something I've never known before. But I like best those used-book stores that keep old magazines lying about and offer those for sale as well. Without such a place, I would never have caught up with novelist Herbert Gold's tribute to the late Saul Bellow, which appeared in the September 2005 issue of Commentary. I have no idea how I missed it but I did, and I'm very happy it didn't slip away forever.
Gold is a writer who was praised early in his career (in the mid-1950s and '60s) as another talented Jewish author with the possibility of a stellar career. Then his star lost a lot of its luster for a reason I've never been able to surmise satisfactorily. His career since then has had its ups, though mostly downs, but I was never so struck by the quality of his prose than I was when I read his piece on his fellow Jewish novelist, titled "In Bellow's Company."
It was in postwar Paris (from 1949-1951) that the two first ran across one another. There were many aspiring young American writers living in the city of light back then, but there were only two artists who had any real stature, according to Gold: Richard Wright and Bellow. By then, the young Chicagoan had published two novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), was a regular contributor to Partisan Review and also had a Guggenheim fellowship tucked in his pocket. The rumor going around was that he would be the next great American novelist after Hemingway and Faulkner. He was then writing – and sometime reading aloud from – The Adventures of Augie March, which would be his breakthrough book come 1953.
"He was legal," as Gold writes. "The rest of us were stowaways."
The beauty and toughness of Gold's prose – this is, I'd say, the best portrait I know of Bellow, and there have been many, especially in the wake of his recent death – is apparent from the following passages:
"Saul's generosity was not the sum of his appeal. His complaints, particularly marital, and his neediness, which went back to childhood or perhaps to the origins of the human species, gave him the charm of a genius for grief. His lamentations, what I thought of as 'The Book of Saul,' a long-running drama, had some of the eloquence of Job and Jeremiah: sackcloth, ashes, a wife who didn't understand him, and sometimes, even worse, a woman who did. In that last variation, 'The Book of Saul' departed Scripture in the direction of modern happy endings.
"When his marriage boiled over, the spillage was uncontained by the boundaries of family. The shock of seeing this hero in a state of frantic self-pity bewildered my 22-year-old wife and my 24-year-old self. He was a mature person, about the age of Jesus when crucified, but we were kids. With his first two books, his handsome lounging, and his renown as the Designated New Voice, his fall into despair made us feel awe. It was as if the mountain crumbled as we watched; we heard the shrieks."