Choosing the Necessary:
Remarks by Saul Bellow to Padgett Powell's Graduate Class in Fiction Writing at the University of Florida, Gainesville,
February 21, 1992
Transcribed by Andrew Gordon
Saul Bellow was invited to the University of Florida in February 1992 to participate in the annual Writers' Festival. The arrangements were made by the poet William Logan, the Director of the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English, and by the novelist Padgett Powell, who also teaches in the Creative Writing Program. Bellow and his wife Janice Friedman flew from Chicago to Gainesville, Florida on February 20, 1992 and returned two days later. The evening of February 21, he gave a reading from Humboldt's Gift (Charlie Citrine visits Humboldt and Kathleen in their "rural slum") to an appreciative crowd of 900 in the University Auditorium and then attended a reception in his honor at Kate's Fish Camp, a colorful local hangout for writers.
For one hour on the morning of February 21, Bellow answered questions posed by graduate students and faculty. He was casually dressed in work pants and jacket but no tie. He stood at the head of a seminar table in a crowded room and seemed in a fine mood, relaxed but sharp and witty, thinking on his feet. He concluded the session by quoting the divine Schwarzenegger as the Terminator: "Hasta la vista, baby!"
Afterwards, congratulated on the honesty and cogency of his responses, he said, "It never comes out the same way twice." The following remarks are based on my handwritten notes, not on a tape recording. There are thus some elisions in Bellow's responses, and I condensed the questions, which were often much more roundabout. I have tried, however, to be as faithful as possible to Bellow's specific wording and colorful turn of phrase. Bellow refers to Diderot in his first answer because Padgett Powell's creative writing students had been reading Diderot.
Question: In our creative writing course, we've been studying two kinds of fiction: realist fiction vs. writerly or postmodern. Which do you think a writer should choose?
Bellow: I think the first thing to do is to locate your soul and find out what it has to suggest. This other thing is irrelevant. The farther you get away from the promptings of your soul, the more trouble you're in. Don't adopt any device which doesn't suit your deepest, own needs. You can be sure Diderot did not settle for any less. He is the kind of person he is: bubbling over, an eighteenth-century French intellectual with a tear in his eye.
Literature is not like two designs, as if you're shopping for wallpaper. People hunt around and find their own devices. The history of literature is not just what people have come up with but also the history of what they've become bored with. Some ages are more susceptible to boredom than others.
My own rule is to choose the necessary and set aside the superfluous.
Question: Was there a day when you found your own voice as a writer?
Bellow: I can fix on some points when this happened. You grow up in this hybrid America and you're overcome by the idea of being a writer because you've been inflamed by what you read. What was I reading when I was young? Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, Dos Passos, Dreiser, Faulkner, Joyce. I was an early Faulkner fan. I bought his novels as they appeared in the 1930s; I scrounged to buy them. You learn your trade by doing in your own way what you thought these writers were doing.
Then I dried out. In 1949 I was in Paris on a grant. I was writing a novel that was to be the book after The Victim. I was tied in knots and couldn't do it, I don't know for what psychic reasons.
Every morning in Paris they would flush the streets with water and divert the current with strips of burlap. One morning I watched the current being diverted and thought, "Why do I have to be tied down to this awful thing which is killing me?" I felt released and wrote the book that became Augie March. That was myself in unrefined form--brown sugar. It was spilling out of me. I was very excited I had found a language. There was the excitement of discovering these things I had always known but didn't know until I found a way of writing about them.
Question: How did you get the idea to write Henderson the Rain King? Had you been to Africa?
Bellow: I'd never been to Africa when I wrote Henderson. During the Depression I got the idea to study anthropology. Since the streets were full of unemployed doctors and lawyers, it didn't matter what you studied. I read a great deal of anthropology-- journals and reminiscences of travelers and missionaries--and forgot it for years. Then it returned to me in a comic form. I thought, what a lark you could have! I attached it to a mad millionaire I had met in the Hudson Valley, and we were off.
Question: How much do you plan your novels in advance?
Bellow: Occasionally I get an idea for a terrific story but then I never write it. Anybody can have an idea; that's superfluous. What does matter is the things that haunt you for years and you build on them until you're ready to write them.
Question: Are you ever comfortable with one form or do you like to shift around?
Bellow: I like to be guided by some considerations I don't really understand. I prefer those. I can trust those. They're grounded in myself.
I never did go for "technique as discovery"--that whole slogan.
My first book was my B.A. as a writer, my second my Ph.D. Then I turned my back on that stuff and never wrote that way again.
Question: What have you read lately that you would recommend?
Bellow: I do read a great deal and I shop around. I can tell after a paragraph or two whether the writing will excite me. If not, I just close the door on it. Life isn't getting any longer and you don't want to waste your time. You want the necessary.
Here's some fiction I liked recently:
Robert Graves Antigua
James Hogg Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Christina Stead The Little Hotel
Danilo Kis A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
Andre Sinyavsky The Icicle
And some nonfiction:
Alexander Wat Memoirs
Betty Howland Blue in Chicago
If these things don't turn you on, you know what to think of my taste!
Question: What do you think of articles deploring current American fiction, and what do you think of the state of writing now?
Bellow: Yes, it's true, things could be better--they could be a lot better.
Tom Wolfe is a very ingenious writer of his sort. He's a journalist. They seldom are the very best of writers because of their relation to a mass public which demands billboards. Bonfire of the Vanities seems like a brave book. But you're looking at one billboard after another--it's like driving down a highway. You don't meet the human substance of the characters.
It's true life is running a lot thinner now. I grew up among immigrants of all kinds in the city of Chicago. They had not yet been pressed into shape by the forces of modern life. Maybe there's no character to look at anymore--that that's just an illusion inherited from the past. Yet one can't help but be convinced that a human being is a profoundly mysterious entity-- and to label him as this or that--it can't be so.
I can read Beckett with pleasure. But then I say, "This is only one kind of description of what human beings are, and it's offered to people who are different from those described." It's a very curious and elegant trick, but it is a trick. Sometimes people tell the truth of a single mood but it's only one mood. Have we begun an idolatry of mood?
People understand Ecclesiastes in the Bible as well as they understand Beckett.
Question: In a speech at Bennington in 1987, you referred to the need to return to "purest human consciousness." What did you mean by that?
Bellow: Instead of saying "Read my lips," I'd say, "Read my books!"
I know it's a frivolous answer, but these things can't be done up so neatly. Writers fall into these traps, like the one who said, "When I wrote it, only God and I understood what I was saying, and now, God only knows."
Question: What was the genesis of The Bellarosa Connection? Did you meet someone like the fat lady?
Bellow: We were having dinner with some people in Vermont. The host told me a story of a man brought over by Billy Rose--the man became a manufacturer in New Jersey. That was all I knew --what James would call the little gift, the donee. I remembered that, after WW II, unlucky American ladies sorted out refugees looking for a match. I knew some of those people. And I met Billy Rose once or twice and knew one of his ghostwriters when he had a daily column. The rest is a question of embroidery. I didn't start with a fat lady.
Question: You used an actual person in your novel?
Bellow: Billy Rose was already nine-tenths fictionalized. He had done it himself. He was a creature who had excreted a legend about himself. Beneath it all was a sad little guy who was very unhappy with himself. Blue. There are many people of that kind.
Question: How has winning the Nobel affected you, considering the supposed "curse" of the prize on other writers?
Bellow: Well, poo, it's just another prize. I've won other prizes. I knew Steinbeck well and knew how the mantle of the prize paralyzed him. He thought, "I'm just a guy from California." It bothered him.
Writing is close to entertainment and sports in this country. People who write about writers are very much like sportswriters: "Now that the champion has the title, will he be knocked out?"
Question: You knew Isaac Bashevis Singer and translated his "Gimpel the Fool." Would you say you were influenced by Singer?
Bellow: Not in the least! I was already a formed writer when I translated Singer. I don't see how anyone could be influenced by Singer, except perhaps to become a vegetarian. He's sui generis.
Let's say that, living among immigrants, we were subject to some of the same influences. But to be influenced by Singer, you'd have to twist yourself into a weird shape.
Question: Have any of your fictional characters stuck with you?
Bellow: No, I don't really think so. I can't think of any who did.
Question: Why did you choose the particular narrator of The Bellarosa Connection?
Bellow: I thought it a good thing to write the story that way because it was a memory story. As I grow older, I find I've always carried with me things from the past as if they were absolutely contemporary. Your soul is so open to things when you're young, that you identify with them for life--subsequent experience seems very shallow. I do reach for that, stories told through a narrator--somebody trying to bring together events of maturity with your earliest judgments, which had a singular vividness and power.
Question: What is your process of revision?
Bellow: Each book has its own genesis. No two are quite alike. If I'm lucky, I can write rapidly. I'm ready to spill the beans. I've been collecting the beans for a long time. Groping lays you under a curse--you're trying to do by trial and error what you should be doing by revelation.
Question: Herzog looks like it must have been a difficult book to write.
Bellow: I had a mental scheme for Herzog -- all the passions stored up and ready to discharge. The details I found very hard to manage, and I had to rewrite. I don't really like that very much. I like the spilling the beans part of writing better-- when you have a very clear idea from the beginning. Other things you find out about as you're writing.
Question: You don't mean you knew the story entirely of Bellarosa when you sat down to write?
Bellow: The story is like a magnet which operates selectively--that is, it'll pick up this or that you've thought about. Suddenly, the utility of that particular thing is revealed to you by the story you're about to write.
You have a close connection to people--it means a great deal to you--it forms part of your mental life. So why doesn't he see Sorella and Harry for twenty years? Why put them in a mental warehouse? You put people there and think of them always as permanent personnel in your life. You assume there is an intimate connection. But why doesn't he ever see them? If he loved them, then how could he find it in his heart to check them in his locker and lose the key? When he tries to find these people he loves so much, they've all been filed away. If you live long enough, you'll do this to people. You say, "Yes, I've got them inside me."
Question: In Him with His Foot in His Mouth, a character says, "Sometimes I feel as if my existence is an insult." Should a writer give offense? Is it his job? Is a fault of writing unwillingness to offend or willingness to deliberately offend?
Bellow: Of course, modern man, especially in his liberal version, has become a very odd creature. He cherishes a standard of ideal goodness for himself--he's for all the good things and against all the bad things. We're all like that now to a certain extent. We identify with the good.
But it drives us into a certain absurdity. Because that's not the way we make real judgments. It's a kind of armor we put on so we enjoy the safety of our goodness. An artist as artist doesn't have any ill will toward anyone. He proceeds with a passion toward the thing he does. But now we're very reluctant to injure or be injured. Our chests are covered with medals saying, "I am not a racist; I am not a sexist; I am not a misogynist. I'm for all the good things." And our chests decorated with these insignia, we go through life without thinking about it anymore.
There's a kind of artificiality in conduct now. People used to be closer to their natures. Or perhaps I see it more because the ideological lines have been drawn tighter now. We have the burden laid on us of understanding a multitude of things we don't understand and are not informed about. We're just not capable of making judgments. The power to think about things is withering noticeably, now more than ever.