The Fashionable Forms of Despair: A Recovered Interview with Saul Bellow

October 15, 2021   •   By Fred Hardwick

Bellow’s Gift: An Introduction

IN NOVEMBER 1977, I flew from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Boston. The next morning I took a cab from the Cambridge Holiday Inn to Waltham where I met with Saul Bellow, who had recently been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I was an undergrad at the University of Alabama. I was doing an independent study of Bellow’s work and had written to him about his writing and literature in general. Rather than write back addressing my questions, Bellow invited me to come and meet with him at Brandeis University, where he was Distinguished Writer in Residence, meaning he holed up in his office and taught one seminar a week for five doctoral candidates.

My cousin Dr. Abram Sachar was founding president and chancellor of Brandeis. I had called him from Tuscaloosa and told him about my appointment with Saul Bellow, and he was expecting me to hurry right over to his office, he said, “as soon as you’re through with Bellow.” I had first written to “Cousin Abe,” as my grandmother called him, when I was in the eighth grade after reading an article about him in Reader’s Digest, I think it was, and he had kindly written me back. But we had never met.

The cab dropped me off at the main entrance to the campus, and I trudged in the snow searching for the Rabb Building. I walked up the stairs to the floor of Bellow’s office; the hallway was unlit. I found the number. His name was not on his office door. I knocked and heard a soft voice say, “Come in.” I entered and found the great author sitting behind his desk. I don’t recall him standing to shake my hand. I was just a student coming in to ask him a few questions about literature, even if the questions were about him and his work and I had traveled some 1,200 miles to do it.

My meeting with Saul Bellow in his cubby hole of an office lasted about two hours, including pauses for a gorgeous female graduate student to come in and walk around his desk, lean over his shoulder with her long black hair falling over him, and point to some lines in a manuscript of hers for him to read and say, “Okay,” and a longer pause for him to take a phone call from his attorney in Chicago to discuss an ex-wife who was suing him for more alimony now that he had received the Nobel Prize in Literature and the hefty monetary gift that came with it. Bellow said to his attorney, “I thought I would get away from all that garbage in Chicago when I came up here,” and hung up. I returned my small tape player from Stop to Play. We resumed our discussion based on questions I had written down on a legal pad in the student cafeteria only an hour before my appointment with him. I have always been a great deadline man.

At the end of our meeting Bellow graciously signed Humboldt’s Gift to me with the date and place and “Best wishes.” As my hand reached the doorknob, Bellow said, “I have a feeling some day you will regret this.” What? I felt a gut punch, turned around, and said, “Sir?” Bellow replied, “I have a feeling that one day when you are older, you will look back and regret this.” I said, “You do?” Bellow said, “I do.” I asked, “Why?” He said, “Oh, I don’t know. I just have a feeling that someday when you are older, you will look back and regret this.” With a lump in my throat I said, “Well, goodbye.” Bellow said, “Goodbye.” And I left, walking slump-shouldered. I was in no condition to cross the snow-covered campus to visit my cousin, who I believe was a far greater man than Saul Bellow. I went to the student cafeteria, used a payphone, and called the office of the President of Brandeis University. His secretary answered. I asked to speak to Dr. Sachar. I pronounced his name the way my family and all who knew my relatives down in Alabama have always done, “Sha har,” though he and our Northern cousins pronounce it Sacker.” Dr. Sachar’s secretary said, “I’m sorry, he’s in a meeting. Can I give him a message?” I said, “I’m Fred Hardwick.” She quickly replied, “Oh, he’ll want to talk to you. Hold on!”

My cousin came to the phone out of breath, which told me he had hurried to take my call. He said in an excited voice, “Are you through with Bellow?” I lied and said I had to catch my flight at Logan. I still can hear the deflation in his voice when he said, “Oh, well perhaps next time.” He knew there never would be a next time. I have regretted lying to him from that moment to this day. I took a cab back to my room at the Cambridge Holiday Inn.

My dear friend, whom I took to our high school senior prom, was in graduate school at Boston College. She came and got me. We walked up the street to a restaurant across from Harvard Square, cheap and popular with students, where we sat at a long, wooden communal table and had Maine lobsters on paper plates. Afterward, we walked around Cambridge. She took me to the house featured in Love Story and I stood on the steps where Ali MacGraw had said, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” She took a photo of me. Recently I found photos from that day in an old briefcase, even the one I took of Bellow pretending to read a book after he’d first said, “I’ve been photographed too much as it is.” I look depressed in the photo my friend took of me. That night I walked alone along a sidewalk in Cambridge as snowflakes fell upon the empty, dark street in a soft patter then melted. I stopped in front of a white house and stood listening to the deep, mournful sound of a cello coming from an upstairs window. I had never felt more lonely in my life.

That was 44 years ago. I had not expected to carry Saul Bellow with me for the rest of my life. I am a Southerner. Telling my story now for publication may allow me finally to get shed of Saul Bellow once and for all.

Today, I am still good friends with the wonderful girl who came and got me at the Cambridge Holiday Inn. Debbie, God bless you. Life has been good, thanks to dear friends like you. And thanks to the “curse” Bellow put on me, I was led to find and become close to Dr. Abram’s son, my cousin Dr. David Sachar of Mount Sinai University. That is a story in itself. Due to my work in the medical field, I often received journals I haven’t subscribed to and rarely break the plastic seal on, let alone read. One of those was a journal in gastroenterology. I always gave them to a friend who manages a gastroendoscopy clinic, and she’d place them on a table in her office for gastro docs to pick up and read instead of complaining to her. However, one day for no particular reason I tore away the plastic, opened the journal, and did something else I have very rarely if ever done before in my life. I read the list of people on the editorial board and came upon a name, David Sachar, MD, Mount Sinai Univeristy School of Medicine. I stared at the name for a moment, frozen in time. Sachar? We have to be related. Dr. Abram said, “There are a lot of Sachers, with er but few Sachars with ar, and we all came from the same village in Lithuania.” That village is Vabalninkas. No Sachars are left there today. Our family fled in the 1800s to escape persecution by Tsar Alexander III’s Cossack soldiers and others. Any Sachars who didn’t emigrate would have been wiped out later by Nazis, Nazi collaborators, or Stalin. Sheina Sachar Gertner examines the contradicting emotional facets of surviving the Holocaust in her book, The Trees Stood Still. So I looked up the Mount Sinai website and found David Sachar, MD. I wrote an email saying that I believe we are cousins. I told the story about Saul Bellow and his curse and how I had lied to my cousin, Dr. Abram Sachar, who was president of Brandeis, and how I deeply regretted that. I hit send. Within five minutes, I received an email reply that simply said, “I am sure it was a loss for Dad as well.” Tears ran down my face. Bellow’s curse had been lifted. From that moment on, I have been blessed with a new best friend, a long-lost cousin, Dr. Abram’s son, David.

My connection with Cousin David soon led to Brad Rothschild, who is married to my cousin Michele Sachar. As the Alabama goy in the family, I declare Brad Rothschild my cousin. We do a lot of that down here. Brad is a brilliant filmmaker based in Manhattan and was speechwriter for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. I feel that I am a part of their family, my Yankee cousins.

Saul Bellow’s curse has turned out to be a blessing. So, 44 years later, Mr. Bellow, I look back on our morning together, November 27, 1977, and I smile with pride and gratitude. I have no regrets at all. In fact, I’m carrying on quite well. Life has been much simpler than I would have thought back then. What was it that jungle tribe, the Arnewi, taught your protagonist in Henderson the Rain King? Grun-tu-molani? Right. “Man wants to live.” That is basically all there is to it. As I look back, I am thankful for Bellow’s gift.

¤

FRED HARDWICK: After publication of The Waste Land, in 1922, many writers took refuge under the Waste Land umbrella. Eliot attributed this to people having the “illusion of disillusion.” Why have we been so slow to cure ourselves of the Waste Land syndrome?

SAUL BELLOW: Well, I think Eliot wrote The Waste Land out of his feeling that the Great War had been a disaster for civilization, had brought it down in ruins, and the poem reflects his own feelings of a civilized man, a man of culture, a man of feeling, and a man attached to the great literary traditions. It reflects Eliot’s feeling of disappointment in his own generation. I think it became also, however, fashionable to express these views; I think that Eliot was a pioneer in expressing them, but I think he was speaking for a view of civilization which was quite common, certainly not unique. We find the same feelings in many other writers of this time. We find it to some extent in Ezra Pound; we certainly find it in a man like Wyndham Lewis, a very powerful and influential writer of that period. We see something of the same sort in Joyce, touches of the same in Yeats. I think that they expressed themselves that way in defense of culture, in defense of poetry, in defense of what remained to them of a tradition, or of a humanism that they felt was under serious attack. I think it also indicates a kind of giving over to barbarism, but a definition of barbarism which I’m not altogether sure I can accept. That is, modern industrial, or post-industrial, mass society and all the rest of that. Well, I never felt convinced that mankind got lost because historical conditions changed, because the Great War occurred, because modern urban society developed with all the disagreeable characteristics that we see. I never really believed that. I think the attitude became stylish; it became a fashionable way for intellectuals to pose.

Just a matter of keeping in vogue?

I think it was, very largely. But you see, there are two elements to it. One, the real reasons to despair. Two, the fashion of despairing which had some elements of snobbery about it, and I always rejected the elements of snobbery, didn’t see the point of them.

Well, whatever the causal factors, the Waste Land syndrome continued, if only with the scope narrowed, perhaps, from mankind to the individual. For example, the moral Waste Land found in The Sun Also Rises seemed to grow out of individual lostness — as I see it, without regard to the plight of others. Look Homeward, Angel, published three years later, further narrows the scope.

But there are two kinds of lostness in modern literature, you see. There is a romantic and glamorous lostness of the Thomas Wolfe sort, you know, which has a very attractive adolescent softness.

And longing.

Yes, and adolescent longing. And then there is the desperate lostness, say, in André Gide or certain German writers of the ’20s and ’30s. This lostness is based on something very real, the isolation of the individual: his being cut off from life, cut off from nature, cut off from his fellows. It had been going on for quite a long time. You see, it was already very much in evidence in the 19th century, when people were cut off from nature, strangely cut off from society … cut off by their own internal development to which they could find nothing outside to correspond. For example, the characters of Thomas Hardy are cut off. The characters of D. H. Lawrence are cut off and try to reunite by sexual means, by erotic means. The characters of Bertolt Brecht are cut off but try to reunite themselves with mankind by political or ideological means. It seems to me that we are, at present, beyond these things. That is to say, we can’t actually make claims that were made by these novelists and poets in the ’20s and ’30s.

You mean we can’t get away with Lost Generationism anymore?

I don’t buy that sort of thing very much. You see, it became glamorous to belong to the Lost Generation. That was not particularly new either, to my mind. It was a Byronic phenomenon, you know; these poor devils had the glamour of being lost, drunken, and the glamour of falling apart.

You make it sound as though it were a privilege.

A privilege to do it in the right way. Get your bottle and girlfriend and get lost. [Laughs.]

In an artistic way.

Right.

By 1935, some writers had shifted to Marxism. The Depression was, I suppose the cause of that. At any rate, the writing community seemed to come together then divide into left and right. Most writers began to incorporate at least the shadows of a cause in their work. In the 1940s, didactic patriotism had become a major ingredient in literature. I know World War II was responsible for that. But it often seems to take something drastic to bring about a collective shift in literature. Where are the causes today?

Well, we have a hundred causes, but they seem to be mostly causes of complaint.

What do you think of the statement that you have done for the American Jewish heritage what Faulkner did for Southern culture?

I have some sympathy with Faulkner’s regionalism, but I don’t think of myself as having anything of the sort in me. I felt he was perfectly within his rights to express a feeling for his culture and its difference from the rest of the country, in the sense that it was distinct and valuable. It wasn’t his fault when people said the South is the only part of the nation that has any claim to this, that nobody else has any damn culture.

In World of Our Fathers, I believe, you are described as a writer of Jewish regionalism.

I’ve always thought that those things were nonsense. First of all, these are not categories invented by novelists and poets — they’re categories invented by critics, sociologists, and so on. Now, it’s very convenient to have some of these things, but I think it leads to very bad results.

Categorizing seems to be part of American culture.

I don’t even think it goes into the making of a culture. I just think it’s things that people like to talk about, a way of making discussions possible.

Chatter for the sake of chatter?

Well, it’s really quite an inferior thing, not to be taken seriously.

Would you say it bothers you to be categorized by critics?

They’re welcome to make what use of me they wish. I can’t stop it anyhow. But it’s as though a highly intelligent fish were swimming around a reef in the warm water, thinking continually of the kind of fish he is. It just doesn’t make any sense for him to be bothering himself with zoological notions.

In The Paris Review, in 1965, you said that your first two novels were, more or less, a young author’s paying dues. That statement led me to consider T. S. Eliot. Joseph in The Dangling Man certainly appears to be a Prufrockian character, indecisive. He could have measured out his life in coffee spoons. However, I can also see Joseph in a Sartrian light, a victim of the absurd. Am I stabbing in the dark with these views?

Well, I no more like to have concepts like the absurd imposed upon me than I accept any others. I mean, if I find matters in any specific human situation to be preposterous, that’s one thing; but if I have to labor under the rubric “The Absurd,” I really don’t like it. I think that a novelist does not proceed in the same way as an ideologist. That is, a novelist is more empirical. He may have general ideas, but he tests his ideas with the facts of life, imaginatively transformed, and he may bring down his dearest beliefs. I don’t find ideologists taking such gambles with their cognitions … let’s put it that way. Do you follow my point?

I’m not sure. Are you saying only the novelist must face the wash with his truths, even if they come out as untruths?

Well, let me put it to you this way: Dostoyevsky was a Christian of a certain kind, and yet no more devastating attack against Christianity could have been mounted, in The Brothers Karamazov. He almost destroys the grounds of his faith with a certain kind of attack, and he takes upon himself the responsibility of replying to his attack. Now, I would have more respect for philosophers, for literary critics, for scholars, and for ideologists if they submitted their own beliefs to this sort of scalding examination.

For the sake of argument, I’ll say that when you cut apart a peach to study the core, you destroy the overall beauty of the peach.

Possibly.

Wordsworth said, “We murder to dissect.”

But you see, I think that any really serious thinker, any serious writer has got to face the risk of demolition, as the greatest imaginative writers have done.

Although The Adventures of Augie March was your third novel, it seems to me to be your first firmly entrenched American novel. Augie could have been a Chicago-born, 20th-century Huck Finn.

I think you’re exaggerating.

[Laughs.] Well, how do you see the novel in retrospect?

I think of Augie March as a partially successful novel.

Augie seems, at times, to be a latent Machiavellian.

[Laughs.] No, I think Augie’s too ingenuous to be thought of that way. He’s a person who stands for a certain mood, not only my own mood, but the mood of a great many people who came out of the Midwest at that time. He’s curious, experience-loving …

Extraordinarily assertive: “I am an American, Chicago born […] and will make the record in my own way.”

[Laughs.] Yes, that’s right, but I think I would do things very differently now. In fact, I sometimes consider whether I should go back and do it again, do it right.

If Augie’s to be taken as an ingenuous character, then I suppose we should believe him when he says he’s never loved. But it still, somehow to me, doesn’t seem to hold true to his character.

Well, I quote you Robert Browning when somebody asked him about some lines of his. He said when I wrote those lines, both God and I knew what they meant. Now, only God knows. [Laughs.] I wrote that back in the late ’40s, and you can’t expect me to remember.

Do you remember Thea Fenchel?

Oh, yes I do.

What if I told you I believe Thea’s your favorite female character? Most of your female characters are emotional knife-wielders in their dealings with men. However, you spared her the temperament of a vicious woman.

Oh, I have no more an affectionate feeling for her than I have for lots of these girls. I like all my women. I just treat them rough. [Laughs.] I don’t really believe in this war between men and women. I think it ought to be brought to a halt. It’s getting out of hand. You’re not related to Elizabeth Hardwick, are you?

No. Let’s see. Next question … In moving your work from the shadows of the Waste Land umbrella, you often gave your characters the capacity for hope. Do you consider yourself an optimist?

I don’t belong to the Moose or the Kiwanis club, or anything like that. As a matter of fact, I’ve never been invited to join. I certainly don’t belong to the Optimist club. Sometimes people seem to be optimists or pessimists by contrast, to distinguish themselves from silly people who are excessively optimistic or excessively pessimistic. Both optimism and pessimism can be absurd, and I don’t want to be associated with anything of the sort. H. L. Mencken, long ago, talked about some writers’ “barnyard” optimism. Nobody wants to be associated with that sort of cock-a-doodle-doo. I have a deep feeling that life, in its foundations, is a very painful and difficult matter. I also don’t like, however, the easy accusations or the easy forms of resignation. Or again, the fashionable forms of despair.

Or the idea that life can “crush you like an empty beer can”?

[Laughs.] Yes, when that lady tells Charlie [from Humboldt’s Gift] that life will crush him like an empty beer can, then all he can think is that life is a steamroller. But you see, human life is not a can, and life in general is not a steamroller. That was just absurd, saying to him he would be crushed like a tin can, so why was he so giddy and cheerful? Some people just have a different sense of being. I don’t think of it as glandular. I think it’s more of a spiritual resource. I don’t think the glands run the spirit. I think it’s the other way around.

That’s a more consoling thought, anyway.

Oh, I would never for a moment consent to the hypothesis, because it can only be a hypothesis, that we are only made up of two bits worth of chemicals.

I read Arthur C. Clarke’s essay in which he held that there will be no place for art in the advancing age of supertechnocracy. I read your counter-essay in defense of art. How seriously do you take Mr. Clarke?

He only meant that it would be more interesting. Of course, it is intensely fascinating. But you see, all kinds of things can be intensely interesting, and I don’t even say that these interesting things need necessarily be spiritless, because, after all, technological things are creations of the human spirit, too. But then lots of things that humankind has always valued greatly can pass into obsolescence. And if Arthur Clarke thinks that eventually machines or mechanisms of some kind will replace Homer, Shakespeare, and Beethoven completely, then I think Arthur C. Clarke is a very endearing, fascinating kind of crank. I wish him well; I love cranks.

It seems to me that the word art is very carelessly thrown around today. I’ve come to wonder just when a person can truly be called an artist. I once read a definition that works for me, now, but I’d like to know your definition of an artist.

Let’s hear yours.

It’s in three parts: A man who works with his hands is a laborer. A man who works with his hands and his mind is a craftsman. A man who works with his hands, his mind, and his heart … is an artist. I don’t remember who said that.

That’s not bad.

Thank you for the interview.

Okay, pal.

¤

Fred Hardwick is an Alabama native. He has written about comparative world medicine, the history of the war against cancer, and pioneering endoscopic neurosurgery.