That Somber City: In Search of Saul Bellow’s Montréal




I LEAVE THE APARTMENT soon after the snow begins to fall. The linoleum stairs are slick from days of muck, and in the little courtyard that separates the two wings of the housing complex, bikes are chained to the racks in defiance of winter, a blanket of white on their frames. My boyfriend, Jeff, is taking a shower. I slide across the frozen walkway. I am wearing Jeff’s hat, with ear flaps and a drawstring, as well as his gloves, which barely reach my wrists. I brought so few necessities on our trip that I can fit them easily into a small backpack. But because I was not sure what I might want to read, I carried a second piece of luggage, a black Nike duffle bag my parents gave me some years ago, which I filled with books. I have Ravelstein, the last novel by Saul Bellow, in the pocket of my puffy coat.

It is December 23, 2017. I have just read that this is the 18th birthday of the last child Saul Bellow sired, Naomi Rose, born when her father was 84. The Québecois amble on happily toward Christmas, a holiday that has probably overshadowed Naomi’s last 17 birthdays. The snowbanks flanking the path on the Rue Beaudry force pedestrians to walk in single file. Unhurried by the cold, they turn back to laugh, gesticulate, listen to one another. A police car rolls past the strip of gay bars on the Rue Sainte-Catherine. In front of the metro stop, men slouch in some indeterminate middle ground between loitering and cruising. A white-haired bundle of clothes walks past them unnoticed, changing his trajectory to intersect with mine as I walk in the opposite direction toward the car. He slides a map from somewhere in his peacoat. I realize, a moment before he begins to speak French, that his intention is to talk with me.

Parlez-vous anglais?” I say, “No francais.

The man smiles, shakes his head, and approaches someone else. I open the car door, slide in, turn the key in the ignition, take the brush and scraper from beneath the seat, and begin to clear the snow and ice from the windshield and hood.

The thrill of this activity is its ordinariness, its routine. The act of clearing ice from a car gives a monoglot like me a gift of anonymity I lose the moment I open my mouth. For the first time in the three days I have spent in French Canada, I fade into the appearance of a native with nothing to reveal my roots in the USA. At 26, I am freest when I am farthest from Chicago, where I grew up. Still, this is the first holiday season I have not spent with my family, engaging in the great cosmopolitan Jewish custom of seeing a matinee movie and going out to an early dinner, then drinking beer and smoking pot with my high school friends. Instead, Jeff and I decided to stay in New York. I have explained away our subsequent, impulsive decision to take a road trip to Montréal by saying that I planned to write an essay about the life that Saul Bellow, the quintessential Chicago writer, lived in another country.

Jeff, a writer with a long career behind him, has been astoundingly patient as I work to develop my own career. Decades older than me, he has gotten progressively irritated with the way I take his arm whenever we reach a treacherous stretch of ice-glazed sidewalk. Maybe he feels infantilized, but I worry about him falling in a foreign country. We have spent the last couple of days walking and drinking and eating poutine, smoked meat, ramen, and sushi. We paged through graphic novels at the Drawn & Quarterly bookstore. We explored the old city by a St. Lawrence River too blurry with frost to reflect the lights of Buckminster Fuller’s biodome in the Parc Jean-Drapeau. We hung out at a shockingly inexpensive gay strip club, only to arouse the other patrons’ curiosity when we got into a jealous argument. We took refuge from the burningly low temperatures in antique stores and a coffee shop with a pink neon sign on the wall that read, in English, “For Ladies Only.” Now, during our last full day in Le Village Gai, we have sobered up and decided that the only way to find the house where Saul Bellow was born and raised is to sacrifice our precious parking space in front of our Airbnb and drive Jeff’s Orange Fury–colored Honda Fit across the frozen city.

Few of Bellow’s readers — and among Jeff’s generation, more than my own, the novelist’s readers are many — know of his early childhood in Montréal and its incorporated, suburban borough of Lachine, where the author was born Solomon Bellows in 1915. His first home is one of the few turn-of-the-century structures still standing on his old block of 8e Avenue, although no plaque commemorates Bellow’s residency and no landmark status has protected it from demolition. In an interview, Bellow said of his birth:

[My mother] sent my cousin Sam to fetch the doctor. Sam made the rounds of the saloons until finally he found him, slumped over the bar counter, dead drunk. He dragged the doctor outside, cranked up his Model T and drove him home to my poor mother, who’d been in Canada two years and couldn’t speak a word of English or French. There she was, in the midst of labor, being tended to by a dead-drunk French-Canadian who could barely stand up.

They moved out of Lachine when Saul was three. His father Abraham, a Russian-Jewish immigrant and jack-of-all-trades businessman, had to flee for the slums of the inner city, purportedly after a business venture failed because he improperly outfitted burlap sacks for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. He brought his family to the Jewish ghetto around the Boulevard Saint-Laurent, known to Montréalers as “the Main,” a centrally located thoroughfare that once divided English-speakers from French-speakers before the city became overwhelmingly francophone in the 1960s. Saint Laurent had a different meaning to the Yiddish-speaking Bellows, for whom the Main was also a division between wealthy and impecunious Jews.

They settled at 3092 Rue Saint-Dominique, between the Rue Roy and the Rue Napoleon, on a lot now occupied by a pharmacy. In his 2015 book The Life of Saul Bellow: From Fame and Fortune 1915-1964, biographer Zachary Leader describes the family’s situation:           

The apartment consisted of four bedrooms, a water closet down the hall, a kitchen, and a parlor, which contained a piano for Jane [Saul’s sister] and an imitation oak sideboard, on which stood the family samovar and candlesticks from St. Petersburg. […] The three boys shared one room, Jane had another, the parents a third, and there was a room for a boarder to help with the rent. The rent for a comparable six-room cold-water flat on the same block was $15 a month.

In such crowded, cramped conditions, young Saul’s life was largely an outdoor one. A description of his childhood block is among the most memorable passages in the author’s first novel, Dangling Man (1944). Bellow describes “beggars with sores and deformities,” “a cage with a rat in it thrown on a bonfire, and two quarreling drunkards, one of whom walked away bleeding.” Now, this same stretch of the Saint-Dominique runs through a trendy, expensive neighborhood called the Plateau Mont-Royal. In search of Bellow’s Montréal, Jeff and I walked up the Rue and turned off to eat at Schwartz’s, a famous Jewish deli on the Saint-Laurent. Schwartz’s serves smoked meat — a Canadian term for a cut of beef similar to pastrami — and accepts American currency. We sat next to a group of friendly 17-year-old travelers from Queens and Staten Island who kept referring to Jeff as my dad. Outside, there was the plex-style housing, the French-language signs. Otherwise, little made this street apparently different from any commercial avenue in a major city in the northern half of North America. In search of local flavor, we went to Else’s on the Rue Roy, a cool, tchotchke-filled bar with good drink specials and a history printed on the back of its menu that tells the story of its founding by a Norwegian immigrant who moved to Montréal from Toronto in 1993. Our need to uncover urbane and edgy bar life was easily satisfied by this establishment.

Saul Bellow never followed his Québec into the contemporary world. Before Alice Munro won in 2013, he was the only Nobel Prize recipient in literature to have been born in Canada. Yet besides a library in Lachine that bears his name, his historical presence is invisible. By contrast, another Jewish scion of Montréal, Leonard Cohen, is enjoying a yearlong retrospective at the Musée d’Art Contemporain, the entirety of whose galleries are devoted to works depicting or inspired by or tangentially related to that beautiful loser.

Then again, Cohen sang about his hometown in “Suzanne,” commented on the Quiet Revolution in his much underappreciated novels, championed Ben’s, a smoked-meat shop shuttered in 2006, and kept a residence off the Parc Du Portugal. For his part, Saul left Montréal forever in 1924 when his father snuck into the United States, followed by his four children and wife, who were smuggled across the border by Abraham’s bootlegger friends. They settled illegally in Chicago. Bellow’s nationality was cited as American when he won the Nobel Prize in 1976. He did not become a citizen until 1943, a year before the release of Dangling Man.

His breakout book, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), is perhaps the most exemplary novel of its era about the search for an American identity. In this book and many others — Seize the Day (1956), Herzog (1964), Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), Humboldt’s Gift (1975) — Bellow precisely evokes the sights and smells and sounds and pace of both Chicago and New York City. His work lacks the same sense for Montréal. He jettisoned a novel about his childhood in Lachine and on the Rue St. Dominique, Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son, in order to write about Augie March, an “American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city” (to quote the book’s too often-quoted opening). At the urging of his official biographer, James Atlas, Bellow published an excerpt of Memoirs in Granta in 1992, accompanied by a postscript in which he notes his dissatisfaction with the story. The excerpt, while good, does not play to Bellow’s strengths. Memoirs is almost completely void of the sensory experience of the city, its descriptions focused on people and rooms and European-Jewish customs.

Bellow spun parts of Memoirs into Seize The Day, a short novel that contains some of the most visionary descriptions of Manhattan’s Upper West Side ever put to paper. One wonders whether Bellow had too many ghosts in Montréal — as my ghosts seem to assemble when I consider returning to Chicago for the holiday — to describe its boreal version of the “leaden spokes of sunlight” he saw on Upper Broadway.

The rare appearances Montréal makes in Bellow’s fiction come, with the exception of several brief moments in Herzog, at the very beginning and the very end of his career, and largely serve as occasions to write about a case of appendicitis Bellow suffered at eight. Doctors performed an emergency appendectomy at the Royal Victoria Hospital — known around town as “The Vic,” now part of the McGill University Medical Centre — and a number of serious infections followed. Stuck in the hospital, Bellow was subject to the whims of the nurses, some of whom hated him for his religion and hung a stocking on his bed around Christmastime. (Saul’s mother despised Christmas, Zachary Leader notes in his biography.) Bellow spoke of his experience as a patient in a 1999 interview with the Romanian-Jewish writer Norman Manea:

One of the things you learned about was anti-Semitism. You were a little Jewish kid and they kept reminding you of it. The nurses would keep reminding you of it, which would make me very angry. I was mad enough to kill but I was also very puny. I was eight years old and I weighed forty pounds or something like that. I felt very receptive to what I was reading […] about life in America, pioneers, farmers, immigrants, hunters, Indians. […] [O]ccasionally one of the kids would die and there was a lot of fuss in the darkness with a few lights on and then the stretcher would be brought in and in the morning there was the empty bed. […] My parents took turns visiting me. They were not allowed to come at the same time and meanwhile I was eating diced pork on a tin plate.

While the many months he spent in The Vic would eventually become the climax of Ravelstein, published in 2000 when Bellow was nearly 85, the notion of writing about his hospital experience inspired and eluded the author for virtually his entire life. His unpublished midcareer novel “Charm and Death” contains a scene that echoes the circumstances of the illness, yet Bellow never completed the book before his 2005 death. “Here and Gone,” an undated story, also incorporates details of a sick child in the course of relating an anecdote about an elderly man’s return to his birthplace of Lachine. Yet Bellow could not finish this story, either.

His connection to Montréal was a consistently tenuous one. He never lived in the city again, though he moved back to Chicago at several different points in his adult life. He lived in New York City, in Paris, in Vermont, in the Hudson Valley, and he bought a parcel of land in Aspen, Colorado. With Janis Freedman Bellow, his fifth wife and also a Canadian (she was born and raised in Toronto), he moved to Boston, where both took positions teaching at Boston University. They married when Janis was 30 years old and Saul was 74. Janis wrote a brilliant preface to his Collected Stories (2001) describing their life together and Saul’s writing routine:

Just then Saul was facing the final revisions on “A Theft” and he was wrestling with A Case of Love — a novel he would never finish. Meanwhile, he was waiting to hear whether “A Theft” had been accepted by The New Yorker. Both Esquire and the Atlantic Monthly had already decided the story was too long. It wasn’t in Saul to mope alone by the telephone. Every morning over breakfast he diverted me with puns or entertained me with possible subjects for stories. […] We were reading and rereading the proofs of “A Theft.” Saul habitually revises well beyond the last moment. The ending wasn’t right — too many ideas, not enough movement. He would rework it by day and each night I would type and retype the latest pages. In the middle of May we got word that The New Yorker had also turned down his story, but Saul was too busy to be checked by bad news. He was reflecting deeply on what should come next, and the weather wasn’t being cooperative. […] He wasn’t writing, he told me; he was going [to his studio] “to brood.” And he added, “That’s how I’ve always done things — you separate yourself from editors, lawyers, publishers. You set down your burdens and you brood.”

As a writer, I am inclined to relate to the Saul of Janis’s preface. In its characterization, I recognize the rhythms of a writer’s life — the disappointment, the necessity of a sanguine disposition, the flights of inspiration, the endless tinkering. But as the boyfriend of a writer, I relate to Janis in a far more meaningful way than I do to Saul. Janis and Saul, after all, are separated by the same number of years as Jeff and I. Before they dated, Janis was Saul’s graduate assistant, and she continued to type up his pages at night and help Saul arrange the details of his life so that he had time to write. Perhaps this is an unsurprising role for the late-in-life partner of a veritable literary institution. But it is in the writing of the assistant — Janis’s slight preface, not Saul’s voluminous fiction — that we see a portrayal of intergenerational romance that extends beyond cliche. Its conceit — of a lover describing the working and romantic life of her partner, to preserve it for their daughter, and simultaneously for posterity — makes for an unusual and unusually compelling structure.

In his final novel, Bellow depicts an elderly and sick University of Chicago eminence, Abe Ravelstein, with a boyfriend in his early 30s. The professor is a thinly veiled version of the homophobic gay conservative thinker Allan Bloom, a colleague and close friend of Bellow’s. His “companion,” Nikki, has training from a Swiss hotel school and likes “to watch kung fu movies from his native Singapore until four o’clock in the morning.” Their relationship is not sexual — a relevant detail in more ways than one, as Ravelstein is dying of AIDS. Rather, they relate like “father and son.” At one point, Ravelstein buys Nikki a BMW 740 to distract him from the extent of his illness. Bellow writes, “He only partially succeeded.”

Lest one be inclined to accuse Bellow of stereotyping, it should be mentioned that all the depictions of Ravelstein and Nikki can be attributed to the first-person narrator, Chick, an elderly, white, heterosexual biographer with a sensibility about gay life that is pre-Stonewall, at best. He also has a tone-deafness about ethnic diversity that — along with his slightly senile tendency toward repetition — suggests an authorial irony at the narrator’s expense.

Bellow’s letters reveal the potentially unimaginative lover behind the imaginative juxtapositions of his prose. Describing the experience of snowshoeing with Janis at his country home in Vermont, he remarks, “I suppose that age is one of those conditions from which occasional remissions bring some pleasure. Maybe that’s what second childhood really means.” But of course Bellow’s creative deficiencies regarding intergenerational relationships pale in comparison to the insensitivity of critics who have written about his marriage to Janis. In a Guardian essay, published on the occasion of the release of Bellow’s letters, Rachel Cooke details her initial beliefs about the couple:

Outwardly, it seems a pretty simple state of affairs: the old guy, who needs always to be in possession of a wife; the younger, rapacious woman who wants the fast-track to a certain sort of lifestyle, to a world where she is always the youngest and the prettiest in a room full of people who admire her new husband so much they hardly dare speak in his presence.

Saul’s son Greg Bellow, from the novelist’s first marriage, writes extensively of Janis in his 2013 memoir, Saul Bellow’s Heart. Sometimes, Greg’s aversion to his father’s fifth wife seems practical, a concern for matters of probate. He complains, for example, about Janis’s “[c]ontrol over [Saul’s] literary affairs,” as well as over his estate. He also fixates on moments that suggest their romance was a false pretense, expressing barely veiled disbelief that a young woman could be attracted to a man much older than herself. Elsewhere, he chides Janis for having a child, given the unconventional circumstances of her life. “At forty and with a husband over eighty, parenthood required a purposeful commitment,” he condescends, adding: “when I visited my waning father, I was struck by the irony of a house occupied by a little creature so full of life and an old man who was rapidly declining and often bedridden.”

One wonders what he expected to find. Could he only stand to see his aged father condemned to a life of solitude and routine? Was he disturbed by the sight of a child in a non-nuclear family structure? At one point, he locates his discomfort in an aversion to the way his father refers to Janis as “baby”: “Given the disparities,” he writes, he “found [this] disconcerting.” Greg’s reaction exhibits a queer-phobia that — as a person in love with someone far older than myself — I find disgusting and offensive.

¤

After I finish brushing and scraping the car, I round the hood, open the trunk, and take out Saul Bellow’s Letters from the duffle bag. I shut the trunk, walk back around, and sit down in the driver’s seat. I feel weird in this position. The last time I drove, I was 20 or 21, my mother’s scratched Honda Odyssey minivan my reluctant chariot around Chicago. Jeff had to drive all six-and-a-half hours up the Hudson Valley, the cold leaving its ominous blur on the windows as night descended and we found ourselves in darker and more desolate regions upstate. I lock the car and slide back across the walkway, Ravelstein in my pocket and the fat volume of letters tucked in the crook of my arm. In the apartment, Jeff is drying his hair. I squeeze his naked ass, kiss his neck, sit down on the couch, and open up Letters. I read:

May 14, 1984 Chicago

Dear Mrs. Dunsky-Shnay,

I wish it were possible for me to accept your very kind invitation, but I am not returning in triumph and delivering speeches in Montréal. I am making a sentimental pilgrimage to old scenes. I shall be seeing elderly cousins and friends of my childhood. To accept an invitation from the Jewish Public Library might give offense to my hosts in Lachine, who have what people in Hollywood call “an exclusive.” From 1918 to 1924 I was a child of Saint Dominique Street, and was sent to a basement cheder on Milton Street. I have good Jewish credentials in Montréal, which I am happy to acknowledge, but am not free to give lectures.

Sincerely yours,

Saul Bellow finally enclosed the feeling of Québec in a story that he liked enough to send to editors. By then, he was 80 years old, and the story, “By the St. Lawrence,” was the last he would publish in his life. It was also among the briefest works of fiction he ever produced, a slim and sweeping 10 pages about a Bertolt Brecht scholar who accepts an invitation to lecture at McGill in order to return to his childhood home in Lachine a celebrated man. The narrator, Rob Rexler, a name American-sounding enough to suggest satire, does not associate his hometown with memories of appendicitis but rather with a bout of childhood polio that left him physically handicapped for life. In “St. Lawrence,” we see the spartan world of Jewish immigrant life, the scheming, half-legal business ventures of Saul’s father Abraham transformed into fiction. Rexler has been in New York for “[h]alf a century,” and he is famous among thespians and academics in his field. Nonetheless, he is drawn constantly back into the indignities of his early life, his self-conception as a sick person. He remembers how his cousin Ezra called him “Angel” because of the way that polio deformed his back.

I flip to another page of Letters while Jeff sings to himself as he brushes his hair. One of the most remarkable letters in the book is one Bellow wrote to a nephew his eldest brother Maurice sired out of wedlock. An annotation informs me that the nephew, Dean Borok, wrote his uncle, “[a]fter he read The Adventures of Augie March, having realized that a version of his own birth is narrated in the novel.” I thought of this postwar classic, about a Chicagoan who abandoned childhood to discover the modern world, when I decided not to go home to Chicago but rather to come to Montréal in search of a Chicago novelist. “Are you ready?” Jeff asks me, and I am back in 21st-century Montréal.

The snow continues to fall as we drive, and before we even reach the expressway, there is no doubt that what we are experiencing is a serious weather event. We are on the expressway when Google Maps fails. Our voices hover on the brink of screaming at one another as we consider whether to merge into the right lane or stay in the two leftmost. We are afraid, and exhilarated, but by the time we find our bearings and make it to the Lachine Canal, we are free, the shoddy internet on our phone a portent. We have entered a land of industrial disrepair. On our left are a railroad spur and some shipping crates. Rob Rexler has a childhood memory of seeing the spilled organs of a man struck by a train, the street scene that surrounded them. Maybe it is only the storm, which has sent the workers home for the day and left everything still and preserved, that makes it seem as though we have left the modern world behind, and entered the past.

On the Rue Notre Dame, in Lachine, the snow is deep, and the brakes of Jeff’s fuel-efficient subcompact grind every time he engages them. Unlike Rexler, we stop and trudge up the street.

He asked him to park the Mercedes limo in front of his birthplace. The street was empty. The low brick house was the only one left standing. All the buildings for blocks around had been torn down.

The house in the center of 8e Avenue is a strange sight, if only for how absolutely ordinary it is. In Ravelstein, an experience the narrator has with food poisoning reminds him of being sick as a child:

At the age of eight I had had to recover from peritonitis complicated by pneumonia. Returning from the hospital what I needed to decide was whether I was going to be a lifelong invalid with two older brothers hating me for monopolizing the affection and concern of our parents. How such decisions are made in childhood is beyond comprehension. I see now, however, that I chose not to be a weakling. In some junk shop I turned up a book on physical fitness by Walter P. Camp, and I did as the famous football coach had done — I carried full coal-scuttles at arm’s length up from the cellar. I chinned myself, I worked out with a punching bag and Turnverein Indian clubs. I studied an inspirational tract called How to Get Strong and How to Stay So. I told everyone I was in training. This was no exaggeration. And the fact was that I had no gift for sports. Still the choice I had made at the age of eight remained effective. Some seventy years later I was preparing to do it again.

Saul Bellow was 69 years old when he returned to Lachine, declining Ms. Dunsky-Shay’s invitation to speak at the Jewish library in order to make a “sentimental pilgrimage.” A reporter from People magazine trailed him on his mission, Bellow’s celebrity being enormous then. The resulting article, “Saul Bellow Returns to Canada, Searching for the Phantoms that Shaped his Life and Art,” mentions the porch where his Uncle Gameroff used to read marriage ads in Yiddish newspapers, which still juts from the back. The old parking lot that, much to Bellow’s chagrin, had replaced his neighbors’ houses, was still there in 2017.

“We’re like detectives,” I tell Jeff, “looking in literature for clues to our lives.” Jeff smiles indulgently.

Rob Rexler sees Bertolt Brecht in the knot in his back. He hears Brecht in his aunt’s voice. He stands in his hometown — his Lachine to my Chicago — and notes how “[t]he tiny synagogue had become a furniture warehouse” and “[t]he Old Hudson Bay’s Trading Post was now a Community Center.” In reality, we see, standing on 9e Avenue now, that the synagogue, Beth Israel, built in 1909, has become a daycare center.

“Look at me,” Jeff says. I turn around and he takes my picture. His white iPhone matches the falling snow. It occurs to me that Jeff is approximately the age Bellow was when he returned home for his pilgrimage. Jeff asks what I want to do, whether I want to take a walk or get something to eat.

We end up in a restaurant, where we order grilled cheese sandwiches and french fries from a waitress who speaks no English. We talk about adventures that we want to take, up Nord, past the cities. I remember that I did not come to Montréal to find the past, that I would have gone home to Chicago if I wanted history. I came here for the future.

We are near our temporary home, in the Gay Village, when the tires begin to whir fruitlessly against the accumulated snow. We wait for our little car to dig itself out of this rut. We will move forward eventually, we think. We sit there and hope that, when we free ourselves, we do not drift into the oncoming traffic of the Rue Sainte-Catherine.

¤

Daniel Felsenthal writes fiction and nonfiction. He was born and raised in Chicago and lives in New York City.

¤

Banner image from Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.


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