It is hard to credit, but a tone of eager, unmistakable hostility attends much of the commentary surrounding Saul Bellow’s relationship to Canada. “His writings have absolutely nothing to do with this country or its citizens or its culture or its psyche,” wrote Thomas Hodd in a Globe and Mail article, written on the heels of Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize win, whose very title (“Stop Calling Foreign Writers ‘Canadian’”) seems indelibly fringed with ire. Though the substance of Hodd’s comment is demonstrably false—before abandoning graduate work in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Bellow began a thesis on French-Canadian acculturation—it’s the thrust of Hodd’s animus, that glimmer of jovial myopia, that grates.
To overlook the Canadian in him is to miss out on Bellow at his most visceral and prescient.
Stephen Henighan expressed a similar sentiment (albeit more rigorously) in The Walrus, arguing that, with the publication of his third novel, The Adventures of Augie March, “Bellow expunged his Canadian childhood and schooling from his fiction, imagining himself as an American by birth” (“Canada’s Great Prize Giveaway”). To some extent, Henighan’s point is well taken. In matters of national nomenclature, Bellow’s career poses curious annoyances. The author of such an insistently American novel as The Adventures of Augie March—the author, indeed, of such an insistently American sentence as, “I am American, Chicago born— Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent”—it’s easy enough to ignore the Canadian in Bellow; or, depending on how much of him one reads, to dismiss these elements as mere autobiographical bunting, recursive and graspable, but, finally, of little critical interest given that other, broader American project.
And yet, there exists, in the fiction, a definite, recurring obsession with Canada—one that extends far beyond the rivery precincts of Lachine, Quebec, where Bellow was born in 1915, and about which he would write most memorably, some eighty years later, in “By the St. Lawrence,” the last short story published in his lifetime:
As a kid you were hemmed in by the dinky streets. The river now had opened up, and the sky also, with long static autumn clouds. The rapids were white, the water reeling over the rocks. The Old Hudson’s Bay Trading Post was now a community center. Opposite, in gloomy frames of moss and grime, there stood a narrow provincial church. And hadn’t there been a convent nearby?
Though Bellow mined the Montreal environs of his youth throughout his career (the family moved to St. Dominique Street in 1918, “the only place where I was ever allowed to encounter reality,” as the narrator of Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man, has it), and his relationship with that city, particularly as represented in Herzog and “Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son,” continues to garner occasional critical attention (an essay, “That Somber City: In Search of Saul Bellow’s Montreal,” appeared last year in the Los Angeles Review of Books), the variety and intensity of his interest in Canada—from the damp, gloomy wetness of a Vancouver winter (in 1982 Bellow was a visiting lecturer at the University of Victoria, and there composed “Him with His Foot in His Mouth”), through the frigid (doubtlessly gale-luffed) tarmac of the Gander International Airport in Newfoundland—remains conspicuously undocumented.
“I am a Russian, Quebec born—and moved to Chicago at the age of nine,” rewrites Martin Amis, in a sentence that, though lacking in Bellovian cadence, comes closer to pinning down our mark. Bellow’s parents, Abraham and Lescha, fled St. Petersburg in 1913, where they had been living illegally, with forged papers, following the Odessa pogrom of 1905. Zachary Leader, in his weighty, two-volume biography of Bellow, provides an excellent historical overview of this period, likening its atmosphere to Andrei Bely’s masterful Petersburg, but little is known of the family’s actual escape from Russia. At some point “in 1912 or 1913 Abraham’s illegal residency was made known to the authorities,” and he was arrested. The circumstances of Abraham’s detainment by czarist police and the means by which he managed to escape and secure passage to Canada receives fictional treatment in Herzog:
Under Pobedonostsev the police caught up with him for illegal residence. He was convicted and sentenced. The account of the trial was published in a Russian journal printed on thick green paper… He never served his sentence. He got away. Because he was nervy, hasty, obstinate, rebellious. He came to Canada, where his sister Zipporah Yaffe was living.
The family arrived in Halifax, aboard the Ascania, by way of Southampton, on December 26, 1913; their final destination was listed on the ship’s manifest as Montreal. From Halifax, the Bellows—like the Herzogs of their unborn son’s imaginings—travelled to Montreal by train, and from Montreal to Lachine. The French-Canadian doctor who delivered Bellow, and “who had to be fetched from a saloon and was quite drunk when he arrived,” according to Leader, becomes “faltering, drunken Jones, who practiced among Jewish immigrants” in Bellow’s “The Old System.”
A string of unsuccessful business ventures—from marriage broker to dry-goods salesman to bootlegger characterizes Abraham’s Canadian years. “His talent,” Bellow writes in “Here and Gone,” an unfinished, undated manuscript, “was for failure.” The family lived in Quebec for nearly a decade, before circumstances forced them to flee to Chicago (by 1923, Abraham was being pursued by Canadian revenue agents, “in part because he was too poor to pay bribes,” writes Leader). Abraham went first, eventually earning enough money working nights at a bakery, where he stacked boxes and readied delivery wagons, to smuggle his family across the border. The remaining Bellows travelled by coach to join him some months later, arriving in Chicago on Independence Day, 1924—illegal immigrants all.
In a written conversation with Philip Roth (later published as “I Got a Scheme!”), Bellow recalls this voyage:
We climbed into Cousin Louie’s touring car with its flapping celluloid curtains and we followed the car tracks, on which the kids had laid small explosive devices that were set off by the trolley cars. The air smelled of gunpowder. War veterans were firing the guns they had brought home from France.
Readers of The Adventures of Augie March will remember that the ever-scheming Grandma Lausch, “who was one of those Machiavellis of small street and neighborhood that my young years were full of,” masterminds “the smuggling of some immigrants from Canada,” and that, not a hundred and fifty pages later, Augie is conscripted by his childhood friend Joe Gorman, “narrow, tall, sharp in the way of his shoulders,” to help run “immigrants over the border from Canada, from around Rouse’s Point over to Massena Springs, New York.”
Far be it from me to enumerate every Canadian excrescence in Bellow’s oeuvre. (A compendium of instances in which Bellow reimagines the attack of appendicitis that saw him confined for months to Ward H of Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital could make its own, lengthy article.) And it’s important to avoid reading Bellow too autobiographically. As Janis Bellow (Bellow’s fifth wife) notes in her preface to the Collected Stories while discussing his 1989 novella, “The Bellarosa Connection” (which, fittingly enough, also concerns an immigrant’s escape, this time from Nazioccupied Europe), “Biographers, beware: Saul wields a wand, not scissors. He is no fact collector. Better to imagine Prospero at play. Or to picture Saul as he lights out for the studio: a small boy with his satchel and his piece of fruit.”
The image, here, of the small boy with his satchel, his piece of fruit, lost to the book he is writing, is crucial. Though Henighan argues that “Bellow expunged his Canadian childhood and schooling from his fiction,” childhood memories figure constantly in Bellow. Critic James Wood (who, together with Amis, remains one of Bellow’s most ardent cheerleaders) likens this Bellovian fixation to “a kind of emotional cubism, whereby the mind returns repeatedly, but with variations, to the same details, and ponders and reponders.”
Consider the following two examples. Here, the narrator of Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man, recalls growing up on St. Dominique Street:
Little since then has worked upon me with such force as, say, the sight of a driver trying to raise his fallen horse, of a funeral passing through the snow, or of a cripple who taunted his brother. And the pungency and staleness of its stores and cellars, the dogs, the boys, the French and immigrant women, the beggars with sores and deformities whose like I was not to meet again until I was old enough to read of Villon’s Paris, the very breezes in the narrow course of that street, have remained so clear to me that sometimes I think it is the only place where I was ever allowed to encounter reality.
And now Chick, the Boswell-like narrator of Ravelstein, Bellow’s final novel:
Further childish penetrations of the external world: On Roy Street in Montreal a dray horse has fallen down on the icy pavement. The air is as dark as a gray coat-lining. A smaller animal might have found its feet, but this beast with its huge haunches could only work his hoofs in the air. The long-haired Percheron with startled eyes and staring veins will need a giant to save him, but on the corner a crowd of small men can only call out suggestions. They tell the cop he’s lucky the horse fell on Roy Street, easier to write in his report than Lagauchettierre [sic].
Nearly six decades separate these scenes. In both, a child’s memory of Montreal is vividly preserved—pinned, almost wriggling, like a prehistoric weevil bulbed in amber sap. Given Bellow’s lifelong devotion to Dostoevsky—his second novel, The Victim, recasts Dostoevsky’s “The Eternal Husband” and “The Double” (itself a Gogolian distillation) in New York—I suspect that the image of the fallen horse is less autobiographical than literary, recalling, as it does, Raskolnikov’s dream of the flogged horse in Crime and Punishment, a dream similarly prismed through the eyes of a child.
In the later of these excerpts, the clipped sentences and shifting tenses (how deftly we flit into the present) lend the scene a curious tactility. The memory appears less written than recounted, more chewed than jotted. The striking image of the tumbled horse occurs but its inclusion seems—cruelly, comically—almost incidental. Our attention pivots—or is permitted to pivot—from the horse to the “small men” unhanding advice to a cop.
Early Bellow strains at voice. (There is nothing particularly casual or effortless about that “say.”) It wants too much. It hasn’t quite figured out how to manipulate its registers. Dour and bleak, the images, all those “sores and deformities,” proceed like a funereal conga, freighted with import. Humour is scrupulously avoided; and the reference to Villon verges on pretension, somewhat bruising the palate. Look, says early Bellow, here is the smell of a stale street, and now how about that fifteenth-century French poet I just read?1
A singular style like Bellow’s doesn’t come splitting into existence all at once. The genesis of a good style, an enduring style, is slower. And a key to unpacking Bellow’s artistry, from the chatty urbanity of his prose (“Summers, under flipping gutta-percha fan blades, boys and girls read in the hard chairs. Crimson trolley cars swayed, cowbellied, on the rails”), through that rigorously digressive, vivid accretion of detail, capable of rendering not just a character, but very nearly a life, inside a single sentence (“Bearded, nearsighted old Krieger, fingers stained with chicken slaughter, cut away the foreskin”), rests in his obsessive retooling of a child’s-eye view of the past.
In “By the St. Lawrence,” Rob Rexler, a New York-based Brecht scholar recovering from “a near-fatal illness,” accepts an invitation to lecture at McGill so that he might return, for an hour, to his native Lachine, there to stroll along streets he has not seen for seventy years. Bellow would make a similar pilgrimage in 1984, ten years before the story’s publication, to attend a ceremony at a Lachine library that was being renamed in his honour.
Like the best of Bellow’s novels, “By the St. Lawrence” hovers turbidly inside a mind. Detail is never static in Bellow; or, put another way, detail is never separate from its witnessing agent. Midway through the story, Rexler remembers seeing the aftermath of a fatal train accident as a boy. What struck him, then as now, was not the corpse of the victim
… but his organs on the roadbed—first the man’s liver, shining on the white, egg-shaped stones, and a little beyond it his lungs. More than anything, it was the lungs—Rexler couldn’t get over the twin lungs crushed out of the man by the train when it tore his body open. Their color was pink and they looked inflated still. Strange that there should be no blood, as if the speed of the train had scattered it.
As Rexler—whose own sick and damaged lungs are described early in the story by a doctor as “whited out”—continues on his mnemonic promenade, the image of these lungs repeats, reminding him of “the water wings used by children learning to swim” and later, “as pink as a rubber eraser… the baldness of them, the foolish oddity of the shapes, almost clownish.” Water wings, erasers—objects of such giving, untroubling buoyancy and obliteration—it is significant that the metaphors remain a child’s, even as their portent steepens.
“Looking back,” Bellow told the audience gathered at the Lachine library in 1984, “I think I had a kind of infinite excitement going through me, of being a part of this, of having appeared on this earth.” Speaking to the significance of his earliest memories of Montreal, Bellow continued:
I always had this feeling…that this is a most important thing, and delicious, ravishing, and nothing happened that was not of the deepest meaning for you—a green plush sofa falling apart, or sawdust coming out of the sofa, or the carpet that it fell on, the embers dropping through the grates… Everything is yours really. There’s nothing around that you don’t possess.
This voraciousness for detail, for the little epiphanies in the mundane—what Leader likens to a kind of Wordsworthian orthodoxy, “and every common sight / To me did seem / Apparelled in celestial light”—finds its purest, most tactile expression in Bellow’s Canadian fiction. Here, from Herzog, a necessarily long passage:
Anyway, a holiday should begin with a train ride, as it had when he was a kid in Montreal. The whole family took the streetcar to the Grand Trunk Station with a basket (frail, splintering wood) of pears, overripe, a bargain bought by Jonah Herzog at the Rachel Street Market, the fruit spotty, ready for wasps, just about to decay, but marvellously fragrant. And inside the train on the worn green bristle of the seats, Father Herzog sat peeling the fruit with his Russian pearl-handled knife. He peeled and twirled and cut with European efficiency. Meanwhile, the locomotive cried and the iron-studded cars began to move. Sun and girders divided the soot geometrically. By the factory walls the grimy weeds grew. A smell of malt came from the breweries.
So supple is Bellow’s deployment of the free indirect style that I sometimes forget I am reading third person. The details accrete, by the adjective, gaining story. Bargain-bought fruit is spotty, overripe, ready for wasps and immigrant children (and so maybe not WASPs); nearing decay, it exhibits such marvellous fragrancy, and we haven’t even broken the skin. A page later, the pears eaten, Herzog remembers how his mother would wipe at his cheeks with a handkerchief she had moistened with her own spittle. Sitting in a New York taxi forty years later, he remembers “the odor of his mother’s saliva on the handkerchief that summer morning in the squat hollow Canadian station, the black iron and the sublime brass.” This, to borrow a phrase from Bellow’s penultimate novel, The Actual, is first-class noticing.
But what does it all add up to? Is he Canadian or not? In a word, no. Not really. But also, and more to my mood, who cares? The giddy balkanization and parcelling of writers according to nationality seems like the most simplistic point of interest—the least rigorous, most assuredly reductive means of assessing an author’s worth. Bellow wrote about Canada throughout his career, often beautifully, and that in itself is interesting and, I would think, critically significant. “I never felt it necessary to sacrifice one identification for another,” Bellow told the audience at the Lachine library. “I never had to say that I was not a Canadian.” If Bellow didn’t feel the need, why do we?
1 This incessant namedropping, a nearly surreal bookishness (“To study with Ravelstein you had to read your Xenophon, Thucydides, and Plato in Greek”), carries through all of Bellow and feels (at times) no less clunky in Ravelstein than it does in Dangling Man. As Jeet Heer notes in a reconsideration of Bellow for the New Republic, “[t]o read a book like The Dean’s December is overhearing Saul Bellow muttering, not always coherently or cogently, to himself. Whole passages read like a professor preparing a lecture, trying out pedagogical gambits and provocative quips while also anticipating objections.”
—From CNQ 105 (Fall 2019)
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