Editing Saul Bellow

The novelist was a wizard with a dark side.

When the Viking Press published Mr. Sammler’s Planet in the fall of 1971, I happened to be the new kid on the Viking editorial block. I guess all of us knew, and I learned quickly, that the great man liked to read proofs in-house when he could, turning up to attend to this or that when he was in New York in the peri-publication period. Since he revised his texts heavily in the late stages (sometimes with up to four sets of proofs), he was around plenty.

The final revisions were astounding. “Look at this,” said a colleague, an editor who greatly admired Bellow’s novels but disliked him personally. He was keeping an eye on the proofs of Mr. Sammler’s Planet during the brief summer absence of Bellow’s then-editor, Aaron Asher. He threw down on my desk a single long sheet from the second chapter, with scrawled lines defacing a paragraph at the top and new phrases and clauses sprouting at the end, all this in a clear, decisive hand and bright black ink. “Just read that,” he repeated. “Read it! He took a perfect sentence, the bastard, and he made it even better.” In the summer of 1973, when I was assigned to be Saul Bellow’s editor for his forthcoming books—the first was Humboldt’s Gift—I had scarcely talked to him, but he nailed me as his co-conspirator in the work to be done, and we plunged in. I kept him company while he pawed through the many drafts, options, and alternatives of a fiction that, I learned, he’d been concocting for years.

Reading through the folders of possible sections in the book was like finding a box of sparkling unset jewels; many of them never saw the light of day. I had to be what movie people call the continuity girl; he expected me to read the text closely so that he could have someone to talk to as he worked on finishing it, to opine, query, schmooze, then query again. I was shocked, at first, that he gave a hoot about my opinion; he had written so many great novels already, he’d won three National Book Awards; who was I to pass judgment on this manuscript? But we went over many a sequence, incident, chapter break, transition—then over and over them again. He seemed, sometimes, uncertain of his powers, even as he demonstrated them in the unflagging, keenly focused attention he gave to every detail. He wanted me to pay attention, too. Auden says that paying attention is a form of love; well, then, I tried to love Saul Bellow.

The final revisions of the typescript became almost grotesquely complex. Saul laughed happily to think that no future graduate student would ever figure out what the hell had been going on. I think he enjoyed being copy-edited, though, even when the queries drove him nuts. On Page 4 came a marginal notation that the glamorous cars belonging to Humboldt’s father in the 1920s actually weren’t made until the 1930s; he grumbled, settled for a Pierce-Arrow and a Hispano-Suiza, and carried on. I went off to the loo, and when I came back he was standing in the door of my office glaring up and down the hall. A timeline inconsistency had been spotted, and he’d been requested to fix it. “I will not, NOT, be stretched on the procrustean bed of American social realism!” he all but shouted, pacing around my room and expostulating. He crossed out the query—yet made the adjustment, I noticed—and kept going. We missed a grievous error in the very last pages; he was more than peeved later, when a reviewer mocked him for attributing the aria “In questa tomba oscura” to Verdi’s Aida when any civilized person knew that Beethoven had written it. How could the copy editor and I have let him slip like this?

He’d work long hours, stopping only for a sandwich at lunch, now and again a five-minute yogic headstand against the bookcase, maybe tea in the afternoon. We know that stamina and persistence are essential ingredients of great art, don’t we? Saul was in fighting trim. That gorgeous prose, with its sinewy elegant hilarity and syncopated rhythmic intensity—you don’t think it was composed by a slob with poor muscle tone, do you? Still, there was plenty of time for unwinding and for talk. About everything under the sun—art, music, politics, cats and dogs, friends and enemies, and of course novels and novelists. He was scandalized I hadn’t yet read Frank Norris, or Kawabata, and followed up to make sure I remedied the lack. A magical teacher.

The revisions began in earnest when the book was in proof. He told me he couldn’t take his writing seriously when it was still a manuscript, that it was only an “undergraduate effort” until typeset. We talked about the moral power of the justified right margin. He’d beef up passages he found slack, alter effects that had charmed him in manuscript and now put him off, cross out whole passages and add new paragraphs. Polishing, polishing. Grammar, syntax, punctuation. I complained about some repetitions, and he stopped in his tracks, amazed at my dimwitted slowness. “Kiddo, this book is constructed like the Chicken Little story, haven’t you seen that yet? Of course there are repeats. Da capo.” Then he intensified the repetitions. And we laughed a lot at the jokes.

In the same way, he revised the shorter text of To Jerusalem and Back, his first nonfiction book and the occasion of his first publication in The New Yorker. Saul was still smarting about the magazine’s treatment of his books over the decades; they’d never taken any of his stories, either. He’d recite by heart passages from reviews whose faint praise suggested, he thought, anti-Semitic condescension: “They think it’s remarkable that I write as I do seeing as how it isn’t my native language. That’s the implication. Their idea of a Jewish writer is Isaac Singer—shtetls, exotic Polish ambience, magic, curious folkways. Believe me, I know whereof I speak. They never wanted stuff of mine.” He was being paranoid, I told him, but privately I thought he was right.

William Shawn’s having accepted this big piece on Bellow’s trip to Jerusalem was a big deal, therefore, and it pleased him. But he was on guard, especially whilst his text was submitted to The New Yorker’s elaborate editorial and fact-checking procedures, and I remember the glee with which he trumped them. For example, he had written that his first publisher-editor at Viking—the much-loved, revered Romanian Jewish Pascal Covici—had started out life in America as a grapefruit salesman in Florida. The fact-checkers asked three different people to verify this implausible statement; all three said that the only living person who would know that detail was Saul Bellow. We talked about verifiability, about the meaning of factual truth, about trusting the writer, about seeing trees and not understanding forests, especially when the landscape was Israeli.

The Pulitzer arrived. The Nobel. We were patient handmaidens in the ceremonies of his fame. Waves of praise came crashing in on the beach. He was used to this, of course, but the tide was rising and the sound of the surf almost deafening. He maintained his outward poise but seethed. Reviewers who had once dealt harshly with his earlier novels were now coming around, he noted with scorn. “Oh, these critics, with their cork heads and cork bottoms, bobbing to the convenient surface,” he said to me. He couldn’t bear their elaborate interpretations of the evident trajectory of his work from novel to novel with its culmination in Humboldt’s Gift. Reviewers love to offer these mega-interpretations, but they were mostly inane. “Kiddo,” he said wearily, “don’t they understand that we’re making it up as we go along?” He treasured the unexpected letter that came from his friend John Cheever, who had understood what he was up to in the book and described it so lovingly. We at Viking did our best to help him cope with the mounting flood of requests, demands, and expectations, and we marveled at the dismaying, boundless inanity of American celebrity culture. “They’re blood-suckers,” he said as he riffled through the letters asking him to give this honorary lecture, accept that prize, open this conference, close this colloquium.

It came to an end, all this. A few years later, for tangled reasons, Bellow left the Viking Press. I never worked with him again, though I saw him often enough in New York over the next decades. His departure hurt, naturally. A civil, affectionate letter assured me I had nothing to do with his decision to be published elsewhere and noted poignantly that his relationship with Viking had been “as close to monogamy as I’ve ever been.” Well, OK, so we joined all the ex-wives, ex-girlfriends, ex-friends, ex-publishers. There was a large community of ex-intimates well-acquainted with the cruelty in Saul’s self-torturing perfidies. He’ll die alone, a mutual friend said; it was a judgment on Saul’s soul, not a prediction. We wondered what ancient injuries required this generous, wise person to turn skittishly mean. I became hypercritical. I asked Irving Howe what he thought of a story of Saul’s published around this time, and agreed when he said, “From any other writer it would be a major accomplishment. But this is Saul writing with his left hand. It’s a nothing. From him.”

I kept on reading—all the later books, especially Ravelstein, since Saul and I had gabbed so often about Allan Bloom, David Grene, and his buddies on the Committee on Social Thought. I was happy to run into Bellow with his new wife, to learn of his new publishing arrangements. I couldn’t stop paying attention to him. He had become a constant presence for me in a different way. I never tried—still don’t want—to escape his influence, to lose his incomparable, uproarious, devastating comprehension of the mess we’re in. I hear a new joke or learn of some crazy new detail in our national life or meet a new kind of phony, and I need Saul Bellow. Wherever we are, it’s somewhere Saul has been before us, and I can’t help registering the ways that his novels transformed our ordinary American scenery into radiant loci of intense human meaning. Without him? It can never be.

It was terrible to hear of his death. Yet it was wonderful to know that in the end he was not alone after all but with his wife and child, that he left this world knowing his love was shared and reciprocated. He deserved no less.