The time was the summer of 1983, and the place was West London.
‘Durrants?’ said the hotel telephonist.
I cleared my throat—not the work of a moment—and said, ‘Sorry about that. Uh, hi. Could you put me through to Saul Bellow, please?’
‘Of course. Who shall I say is calling?’
‘Martin Amis,’ I said. ‘That’s eh em eye ess.’
A long pause, a brief return to the switchboard, and then the unmistakable ‘Hello?’
‘Saul, good afternoon, it’s me, Martin. Have you got a moment?’
‘Oh, hello, Marr-tin.’
Martin, in very early middle age, would for some reason try his hand at a polemical work entitled The Crap Generation. It would be non-fiction, and arranged in short segments, including ‘Crap Music’, ‘Crap Slang’, ‘Crap TV’, ‘Crap Ideology’, ‘Crap Critics’, ‘Crap Historians’, ‘Crap Sociologists’, ‘Crap Clothes’, ‘Crap Scarifications’—including crap body piercings and crap tattoos—and ‘Crap Names’. Well, Martin thought that ‘Martin’ was a crap name if ever there was one. It couldn’t even get itself across the Atlantic in one piece. Nowadays, true, most Americans naturally and relaxingly called him Marrtn. But those of Saul’s age, perhaps feeling the need to acknowledge his Englishness, came up with a hesitant spondee: Marr-tin. In Uruguay (where ‘Martin’ was MarrrTEEN, a resonant and manly iamb), Martin had an attractive friend called Cecil (mellifluously pronounced SayCEEL). And ‘Cecil’, similarly, was unable to ford the Rio Grande intact, and became a ridiculous trochee. ‘In America, man,’ said Cecil, ‘they call me CEEsel. Fuck that.’ Martin, on the phone, wasn’t going to say ‘Marr-tin? Fuck that’ to Saul Bellow. For the record we should additionally concede the following: ‘Martin’, in plain old English, wasn’t any good either. It was just a crap name.
I said to Saul, ‘Uh, you know the Sunday paper I wrote about you for last year?’ This was the Observer. ‘They generously said I could take you out to dinner anywhere I liked. Would you be able to fit that in?’
‘Oh, I think so.’
Bellow’s voice: he gave it to the dreamy, prosperous, but somewhat blocked and inward narrator of the spectacular fifty-page short story, ‘Cousins’. [M]y voice had deepened as I grew older. Yes. My basso profundo served no purpose except to add depth to small gallantries. When I offer a chair to a lady at a dinner party, she is enveloped in a deep syllable. Thus enveloped, I said,
‘Now I happen to know you like a nice piece of fish.’
‘That’s true. It would be idle to deny it. I am partial to a nice piece of fish.’Martin, in very early middle age, would for some reason try his hand at a polemical work entitled The Crap Generation.
‘Well this place specialises in fish. It might even be fish-only. And it’s near you. Have you got a pen? Devonshire Street. Odin’s—like the Norse god.’
I said, ‘Would you mind if I brought my serious girlfriend?’
‘I’d be delighted. Your serious girlfriend—do you mean that she’s serious or that you’re serious?’
‘I suppose both.’ That was the point: we were both serious. ‘She’s American—Boston—though you wouldn’t know it.’
‘More Europeanised. American parents, but born in Paris and grew up in Italy. Adulthood in England. She’s got an English accent. She’s such an absentee that they won’t even give her an American passport.’
‘No. Not unless she goes and spends six months in an army camp in, I don’t know, Germany. They won’t give her one, she says, until she’s screwed enough GIs.’
‘Well she doesn’t sound too serious.’
‘She’s not. She’s just right. Her name’s Julia. Is there anyone you’d like to bring?’
‘My dear wife Alexandra is in Chicago, so, no, I’ll be alone.’
It was to Chicago that Martin had flown, in December 1982, to interview the man whom even John Updike—an unusually generous critic, but unusually tightfisted, unusually near, when he dealt with his obvious living superiors—acclaimed as our most exuberant and melodious postwar novelist.* Much would turn out to hang on this meeting.
I checked into my hotel: big and cheap and by Midwestern standards implausibly old (it was now a Quality Inn but the more senior locals still called it the Oxford House), downtown, between the IBM Building and the El, in Chicago, ‘the contempt centre’, as Bellow called it, of the USA. I was in an exhilarated state, a state of evolutionary excitement—because my life was about to change, and as profoundly as a young life can ever change† . . . The next morning I breakfasted early, and showered and spruced myself up for our lunch, and then walked boldly out into the Windy City. Risibly so named, by the way, because of its reputation for boosterism and ‘hot air’—and not because the city was and is really fantastically windy, with a glacial blast (known as the Hawk) veering in over Lake Michigan . . .
Bellow was sixty-eight and I was thirty-four, exactly half his age (a conjunction that would of course not recur). But I was already an old hand at processing American writers, having done Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, Joseph Heller, and Norman Mailer. Still, this was different: when I read my first Bellow, The Victim (1949), in 1975, I thought: This writer is writing just for me. So I read him all.
The only other writer who turned out to be doing this—composing each sentence with me in mind—was Nabokov. (He and Bellow had one other thing in common: they both derived from St Petersburg.) In my immediate circle there were no convinced Nabokovians with whom I could crow and gloat. But I had a convinced Bellovian close by; at that stage he was just a journalist and a ‘meteoric Trotskyist’, and not yet the much-loved essayist, memoirist, and blaspheming polemicist he would eventually become. I mean Christopher Hitchens. Christopher had left England in 1981 and was now living in what he proudly and affectionately called ‘the projects’ in Washington DC . . .
So at twelve-thirty I left the Oxford House and strode to the Chicago Arts Club. In my mind I was already sketching out some preliminary passages for the piece I would soon write, one of which went as follows (and I know it’s very bad form to quote yourself, and it won’t happen again*):
This business of writing about writers is more ambivalent than the end-product normally admits. As a fan and a reader, you want your hero to be genuinely inspirational. As a journalist, you hope for lunacy, spite, deplorable indiscretions, a full-scale crack-up in mid-interview. And, as a human, you yearn for the onset of a flattering friendship.
Three wishes, then. The first came true. And so did the third—but not yet, not yet. That didn’t happen until 1987, in Israel, and it relied on the intercessionary figure of Bellow’s fifth and final wife, Rosamund. In the end it was she who put me through to Saul Bellow.†
He had cheerfully told me on the phone that he would be ‘identifiable by certain signs of decay’. But in fact he looked scandalously fit—he looked like the American Eagle. And as he began to talk, I felt an acrophobic dizziness, and thought of the description of Caligula, the eagle in The Adventure of Augie March (1953):
[He] had a nature that felt the triumph of beating his way up to the highest air to which flesh and blood could rise. And doing it by will, not as other forms of life were at that altitude, the spores and parachute seeds who weren’t there as individuals but messengers of species.
But let’s keep a sense of proportion and context: first things first. My character was about to reveal itself in the form of destiny; I was moving on to a further and a higher phase of adaptation to the adult world; I was about to get married; and not only that . . .
And it was all secret, for now. Still posing as a friendship (our mothers after all were expat neighbours in Ronda, Spain, and we’d known each other for years), our affair itself remained unacknowledged. On pain of death I was forbidden to tell anyone; so I only told Hitch.
‘Julia and I are having an affair,’ I said.
‘. . . I’m overjoyed to hear it. Though I had my suspicions. Bring her to dinner at my place. Just the four of us. Don’t worry, I won’t let on I know. Tonight.’
This happened, and was a riotous success.
‘Hitch,’ I said when he and I were briefly alone (the girls had gone down on to Portobello Road—it was Carnival weekend in Notting Hill). ‘I think the quest is over. I think she’s the . . . I think she’s the other half.’
‘Oh, without a doubt. Bind her to you with hoops of steel, Little Keith. Very clever, very attractive, and,’ he said (this settled it), ‘and a terrorist.’
Christopher was about to marry a terrorist of his own, the fiery Greek-Cypriot lawyer Eleni Meleagrou . . . A terrorist, in Christopher’s application, meant a woman with a strong personality—strong enough to inspire fear (when roused, terrorists became ungainsayable); and there weren’t all that many of them in the early 1980s, with the sexual revolution in only its second decade. I said,
‘Well Eleni’s definitely a terrorist. And yeah, I suppose Julia’s one too.’
‘All the best ones are.’
‘They’re feminists, which goes without saying, but not even feminists are all terrorists. Or not even all feminists are terrorists. Christ. What I’m trying to say is it’s not the same thing.’
‘No, not yet. Let’s go down. Bring your glass.’
And the four of us danced to the reggae on Golborne Road, as in an urban fertility rite, the boys shufflingly (and drunkenly), the girls with abandon and panache, again and again flinging their hands gracefully backwards above their heads . . .
Martin flew to Chicago, ‘huge, filthy, brilliant, and mean’, in the words of its tutelary spirit (and the only American city that, like a terrorist, was frightening and proud of it, with those subterranean metal chutes on the way in, like a delivery system to the urban future). But Chicago admitted him, and let him out again. He flew back, and delivered his long piece to the Observer. Soon afterwards he happened to have a transatlantic conversation with Saul’s agent, Harriet Wasserman, who said,
‘Your piece. I read it out to him on the phone.’
‘On the phone?’ The piece ran to over 4,000 words. ‘The whole thing?’
‘The whole thing. And guess what he said when I finished. He said, “Read it again.”’
In 1974 the unofficial shortlist for the Nobel Prize ran as follows: Bellow, Nabokov, and Graham Greene.* That year the joint winners were two Swedes of profound and durable obscurity, namely Eyvind Johnson and Harry E. Martinson. But Saul, unlike Greene and Nabokov, won it later, in 1976. He was sixty-one. And the Nobel was more or less the only prize (or award or medal or orb or gong) that wasn’t already his. Yet he sat there, on the phone, for well over an hour, listening to praise.Christopher was about to marry a terrorist of his own, the fiery Greek-Cypriot lawyer Eleni Meleagrou.
So when Bellow came to London in the spring of 1984, and I went to the welcoming party thrown by George Weidenfeld, I (indirectly) brought it up with him, the writer’s susceptibility to praise and dispraise (does it ever end?). We were out on the balcony, looking down at the Embankment and the Thames, and Saul said,
‘It’s an occupational vice. You fight it, and you don’t want to admit to it, but you’re never free of it. Do you know this story? . . . There was a girl in a village who was very good at everything and she won all the medals. She was covered in medals from head to foot. And a wolf came to the village, and the trembling children all ran and hid and kept as quiet as they could. But the wolf found the little girl and he ate her. Because he could hear her. He could hear her medals shake.
‘That’s what happens when you’ve won everything and imagine you’re safe at last. Really you’re more vulnerable than ever. They can hear your medals shake.’
I was always going on about Bellow, so my secret fiance was to some extent prepared. Unlike most of my close girlfriends Julia was a reader. So she read Henderson the Rain King (his least typical novel) and liked it. A few days later, though, she looked up from page 30 of Augie March and said,
‘Does anything actually happen in this book?’
‘Well the title mentions his adventures. There’s development but no real plot.’
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘So it’s a babble novel.’
‘A babble novel?’
‘You know. Him just going on.’ Rather than expatiating on the babble novel, rather than defending the babble novel (as a route to self-liberation), I just said,
‘It’s the calibre of the babbler that counts. Anyway. You’re okay about the dinner?’
‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll probably be quiet at first. Pretend I’m not there. Talk to Saul. You don’t have to worry about me.’
The Arts Club in Chicago had featured a de Kooning, a Braque, and a drawing by Matisse—‘but as you see,’ Saul had commented, ‘it’s not an arts club. It’s just an exclusive grillroom for elegant housewives.’ In the same kind of way, Odin’s flirtatiously acknowledged the appeal (and the expense) of high culture—it was practically panelled with modern masters, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Patrick Procktor. In this setting, then, Julia and I were already ensconced on our velvet chairs when Saul Bellow was shown to the table.
I saw him come in. Fedora, checked suit with a crimson lining (not loud exactly, but a bit sudden as the English say); just below average height (he once complained that time had shortened him by at least two inches); resolutely and handsomely full-faced, and solid-looking. Half a decade from now it would be my habit to embrace Saul on meeting and parting; and I never failed to register his density of chest and shoulder: the build of a stevedore. At the age of seven, the ghetto child in Montreal lost a year of his life to tuberculosis; one of the many changes this wrought in him was the determination to become strong
. . . In 1984 Bellow was in the middle of his third marriage—or was it his fourth? To tell the truth, I was not a keen student of Saul’s private life (in literary matters I was far too earnest for that); no, I was a keen student of the prose, the tone, the weight, the disembodied words.
Julia was introduced, and was duly enveloped in a deep syllable. For a minute or two they had a genial exchange about Henderson (‘Oh, you liked that one, did you?’). Then I said,
‘We’ve ordered cocktails. And for you?’
And Saul surprised me—and pleased me—by consenting to a Scotch.I was always going on about Bellow, so my secret fiance was to some extent prepared.
Looking around for a waiter I said, ‘The owner isn’t here tonight.’ I meant Peter Langan, the controversial Irish restaurateur. ‘Unless he’s asleep under one of the tables. He’s a Celt, you know, and what they call a roaring boy. But a nice chap. They say he can get three bottles of champagne down him before lunch.’
Saul asked, ‘And how often does Peter accomplish this?’
‘Oh, daily, I think.’
There naturally followed a discussion about drunkenness and drunkards (with Saul describing the two drunkards he’d known best, the poets Delmore Schwartz and John Berryman). Saul had not yet come up with one of the great observations on drunkenness and drunkards (it appears in the late story ‘Something to Remember Me By’): There was a convention about drunkenness, established in part by drunkards. The founding proposition was that consciousness is terrible.* And then there was the mysterious American tilt to the nexus between writers and suicide . . .
I said, ‘There’s a paragraph in Humboldt’s Gift. I loved it and assented to it at once but I don’t really understand it. Maybe you have to be American.’
‘Let’s see if I understand it,’ said Julia.
‘Okay. Then we’ll know how American you are and whether you deserve a passport . . . That bit, Saul, when you say America preens itself on the suicides of its writers. The country is proud of its dead poets.† Why? Because it makes Americans feel virile?’
‘Well yes. I meant business America, technological America.’
‘Somebody wrote that you could count on the fingers of two hands the American writers who didn’t die of drink. I suppose he meant the moderns, because Hawthorne didn’t die of drink, did he? Melville didn’t. Whitman didn’t.’
‘Whitman was a temperance-leaguer. With episodes of frailty.’
‘Henry James didn’t. But nowadays, I bet, it’s only the Jews who don’t die of drink. Because they don’t drink at all. What does Herzog’s father say about his hopeless lodger? “A Jewish drunkard!” So it’s an oxymoron. Even their writers don’t drink.’
‘With exceptions, like Delmore. I’m wondering. Roth hardly drinks.’*
‘Perhaps that explains the dominance of the Jewish American Novel.’
‘Yes. We just lay in our hammocks till the field was clear.’
I too wondered. ‘Heller drinks a bit. Mailer drinks.’
‘He sure does.’
‘Mm. I like old Norman.’
‘So do I.’
‘It’s strange. No one behaves worse or talks more balls than Norman, but he’s widely liked . . . The question remains. Why don’t Jews drink?’
‘Well, it’s the same with Jewish achievement in general,’ said Saul (as his drink arrived). ‘And that achievement is disproportionate.† Einstein put it pretty well. The great error is to think it’s somehow innate. That way anti-Semitism lies. It isn’t innate. It’s to do with how you’re raised. All good Jewish children know that the way to impress their elders is through application. Not sports, not physical strength or physical beauty, and not the arts. Through learning and studying.’
‘When did Einstein say that?’
‘I think just before the war. In 1938 . . . You know, Einstein lived in Princeton, and in 1938 the incoming undergraduates were polled on the question “Who is the greatest living person?” He, Einstein, came second. And Hitler came first.’
‘Christ,’ I said. ‘And wasn’t American anti-Semitism very strong before the war?’
‘During the war—that was its historic apogee.’
‘I confess I just don’t understand it, anti-Semitism. You copped some more of the same, didn’t you, with The Dean’s December.’
‘Yes, but from a different quarter. Not from the world of primitive superstition but from high academe.’
‘From Hugh Kenner, wasn’t it?’
‘Uh. Hugh Kenner. He tormented Delmore and now he torments me. He managed another hissy fit in defence of uh, “traditional culture”.’
‘Meaning non-Semitic culture?’
‘Meaning anti-Semitic culture, in this case. The traditional culture of Pound and Wyndham Lewis and T. S. Eliot.’
‘Mm. Well, two nutters and a monarchist. And Wyndham Lewis did at least come up with that wonderful phrase . . . How do you think it went, by the way? I mean the moronic inferno?’
‘I thought the moronic inferno went rather well.’
‘Me too. The moronic inferno went very smoothly.’
‘What’, asked Julia, ‘is the moronic inferno?’
Two or three days earlier Saul and I had taped a TV programme entitled (with a glance at Freud) Modernity and its Discontents, chaired by Michael Ignatieff; and that had been Michael’s first question. ‘I’m wondering what you meant, Saul Bellow, when you picked up that phrase from Wyndham Lewis’: the moronic inferno. And Saul answered:
Well, it means a chaotic state which no one has sufficient internal organisation to resist. A state in which one is overwhelmed by all kind of powers—political, technological, military, economic, and so on—which carry everything before them with a kind of heathen disorder in which we’re supposed to survive with all our human qualities.
And the question before us, Saul went on, is whether this is possible . . . So we talked about that, bearing in mind that writers, as he said, are expected to have ‘a fairly well-organised individuality’, and are therefore able to put up some opposition—some internal opposition to the moronic inferno . . .
It lasted about an hour, and then the car dropped Saul and me off in Gower Street, and we strolled through Bloomsbury—the garden squares, the plaques and statues, the museums, the houses of worship and the houses of learning. As we crossed Fitzroy Square I talked scornfully about the Bloomsbury Group (in my view a disgrace to bohemia); and we moved on to the major class antagonisms that were only now beginning to fade . . . Saul needed no goading to think ill of what he called Bloomsbury ‘patricianism’, though he was surprisingly relaxed about Bloomsbury Judaeophobia.
‘But Saul, it was so fierce and it was all of them.’
‘Yes, even Maynard Keynes. But they were only reflexive anti-Semites. Not visceral. Being anti-Semitic was just one of the duties of being a snob.’
‘. . . Maybe also one of the duties of being second-rate. The only one who wasn’t was Forster—not anti-Semitic and not second-rate. As for Virginia Woolf . . .’
‘But bear in mind she was married to a Jew. Leonard . . . That kind of drawing-room anti-Semitism—it’s mostly just a posture. They’d’ve been horrified by anything serious.’
‘True. I suppose. But that Virginia though . . . Imagine reading Ulysses and mainly coming away with the notion that Joyce was vulgar.* You know, common. And that’s what strikes her most . . . Unbelievable.’
‘Well it’s a hard life, being a snob. You can’t relax for a moment . . .You know, a decade ago I spent six weeks in the Woolfs’ country house. East Sussex. It was very cold, and I expected Virginia to haunt me and punish me. But she never did.’
Next, the full English tea at the hotel, crustless cucumber sandwiches, quite possibly, and maybe even scones and cream, with the two of us swathed in the lace and chintz of Durrants. Saul was quietly tickled by all this, I realised. And at one point, that afternoon, he did actually say (revealing a fondness, too, for Anglicisms),
‘You know, they treat me very well here. Because they think I’m a toff.’
And in general how pleasant, how touching, how humorous it was to re-experience London through the eyes of one’s older American friends, who saw the place as a bastion of courtesy, rootedness, and imperturbable continuity (and, through them, I could see it too); but otherwise, in everyday life, London felt to me like discontented modernity, stoked by subterranean powers . . .
The conversation with Michael Ignatieff was reprinted in a BBC publication, and so that longish quote from Saul is verbatim. The transcript tactfully omits my final remark—when I startled myself with a quavering cri de coeur. I said that Bellow stood above the moronic inferno, and could survey it from on high, whereas I was still in it, still under it, pinned and wriggling, and looking out. What I was referring to, I later realised, was the erotic picaresque of my early adulthood. This was one of my hopes of Julia: that she would emancipate me from the moronic inferno of my lovelife (best encapsulated in the person of Phoebe Phelps) . . .
Odin, god of poetry and war . . . Fortified by a second round of cocktails, we had moved on to America—America and the religious Right, and the erring clerics of the Bible Belt.
Saul was telling us about a reverse recently suffered by the Born Again community in West Virginia. An unusually puritanical video vicar (he hoped to criminalise adultery) was under federal investigation for swindling his flock (he peddled miracle cures, they said, and preyed on the ill and the old). In addition, the troubled divine had just been found under a stack of hookers in a de luxe Miami sex club called the Gomorrah, a visit he paid for with church funds . . .
‘We’d better leave aside the question of hypocrisy,’ said Saul. ‘As for relieving Christians of their jewels and disability cheques, he’ll just say, Well everyone else does it—which is no kind of defence, of course, though it happens to be true. As for the hookers and the church funds . . . You’ve got to understand that in America there are two distinct spheres of wrongdoing.’
‘Ethics and morals. Going to the Gomorrah—that’s morals. Paying for the Gomorrah out of the donations bowl—that’s ethics. Morals is sex and ethics is money.’
. . . Now Saul had a famous laugh: back went the head, up went the chin, and then you heard the slow, deep, guttural staccato. And Saul, by the way, loved all jokes, without exception, the feeblest, the dirtiest, the sickest. But the line about ethics and morals hardly qualified as a joke to Saul Bellow: it was just a sober statement about America (and is a fact confirmed every day).
So it wasn’t Saul’s laugh that now turned all heads, that stilled the tables, that made the waiters freeze and smile—it was Julia’s. An orchestral laugh, eruptive, joyous, with a note of pure anarchy that I never dreamt she had in her.
Saul and I looked at each other in wonder . . . And then we all cheerfully frowned over the menus, and ordered our nice pieces of fish and our costly white wine, and the dinner at last began.
She was my age and she was a widow. Her first husband, a handsome and vigorous philosopher, died of cancer at the age of thirty-five. More than this, she was a pregnant widow; and I was the father.
You know, when my erotic life got going, in the mid-1960s, I pretty soon decided that I wouldn’t encumber myself with worries about honour. Given the historical situation (what with the sexual revolution and so on), honour, it seemed to me, would be nothing but trouble.
And the human being who would go on to set me straight about all this—not by suasion but by example—was already present, that night at Odin’s. A tiny amphibian, less like a newt than a tadpole, scudding and skittering about in there, enwombed. It was Nathaniel, my first son.
Excerpted from Inside Story: A Novel by Martin Amis. Copyright © 2020 by Martin Amis. Excerpted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.