Buffalo, New York
The novelist Saul Bellow died last week and, as with the late Pope, the popular press has been full of unqualified praise for him and his work. And, as with the late Pope, things are by no means so simple as the fulsome prose would have you believe. Here’s what critic LESLIE A. FIEDLER had to say about Bellow in a 1989 conversation with the Buffalo Report’s Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson.
The age of the Jewish-American novel is over. Everything is gone. The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Saul Bellow is like a monument put on the grave of Jewish-American literature….
I kept up a relationship with Saul Bellow for a long time, which finally broke up completely. For many years I knew him and I visited him at the University of Minnesota when he was there. It was through Saul Bellow that I went to Princeton for the first time. I was in New York on one of my infrequent trips there and I met him and he said, “I’m going down to Princeton to see Mel Tumin. Do you want to come along?” I went along and we sat around and there I met Richard Blackmur for the first time and John Berryman. And with John Berryman and Richard Blackmur there, you can imagine that there was more drinking than eating and more eating than anything else except talking. As Blackmur got drunker and drunker, all his misery came out and he began making first anti-Black remarks, then anti-Jewish remarks. Then anti-human remarks.
Blackmur and I remained good friends, oddly enough. Because Blackmur was the kind of anti-Semite who always had to have a Jew in residence, so he would always invite one to the position he had open at Princeton. He was the chief force in deciding who gave the Christian Gauss lectures there, and he brought a person to help him with his creative writing students, who were always Jewish. It was always Saul Bellow, Philip Roth-real Jews.
With Saul, I drifted further and further apart. He began writing me letters saying things like, “We were never really friends, were we? Why the hell doesn’t somebody tell you you’re way out in left field?”
That was bad, but even worse was the fact that although I was one of the first people who ever wrote reviews of his books, which assessed him for what he was worth-at his true worth-after a while I stopped reviewing him. He’s a very paranoid fellow, and he sat there saying, “Leslie isn’t reviewing my books. It means he hates me. Why does that bastard hate my books?”
When we were younger and more foolish, he would usually take me to see the woman he was about to marry and ask my advice, and I would always say things like, “If I saw her coming down the street, I would cross to the other side.” And then he would marry her.
In the days when I knew him in Chicago, he had not yet published his first book and all of those bright, bright young men were all living on the money that their wives made working at various kinds of jobs. And waiting for it all to happen.
But we also drifted apart as the years rolled by. He became kind of the poet laureate of the neo-orthodox, right-wing Commentary-type politicians. And he thought I was way out in left field, as he said. He didn’t like my politics; he didn’t like my attempt to come to terms with and at least understand the ’60s instead of just condemn it out of hand; and most important, he’s a very paranoid fellow, as most writers indeed are, and he figured, “If Leslie’s not writing about my books, it means he hates them, and I can imagine what he would say and that son-of-a-bitch, how does he get away with saying it?”
His last recorded remark on me, an old friend of mine, a guy named Seymour Betsky, who taught for many years in Holland in the Reichsmuseum, who knew both of us, said, “Are you going to be around for a couple of more days? Leslie is coming next week.” And Bellow said at the top of his voice for the public record, “Leslie Fiedler is the worst fucking thing that ever happened to American literature.”
I know what I did to have deserved it. First of all, I developed certain ideas which ran contrary to his. Almost from the start, but people didn’t recognize it at first, Saul resented everything that happened to the world from the moment that modernism had been invented. He was against “angst.” He was against “alienation.” He wanted to believe that the old bourgeois humanist values were still alive and well.
Leslie Fiedler is the author of Love and Death in the American Novel.