Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Elephant in Marshall Field’s Window: My Glimpse of Saul Bellow

As we pulled up the driveway there he was, an old man with white hair sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of his Vermont farmhouse, reading the newspaper. I was with my friend Oliver. We’d been invited to the Bellows for dinner that night. For a while we sat drinking beers in our own rocking chairs to either side of Saul as the sun started down and he turned the pages of his paper—the Sunday Times—though he wasn’t reading it. He was eighty-five years old then, still pretty much there, though he had stopped writing, and he tended to repeat himself. Otherwise, though, he seemed content in that way that only great men seem able to achieve, and only when they arrive at grand old age after long lives filled with struggle and success, the contentment born of finally laying down the sword and shield. As a writer Saul Bellow was finished and he knew it, but he had nothing to regret or apologize for, having done all anyone could have asked him to do and more.

And now he sat there in his rocking chair on the front porch of his Vermont farmhouse turning the pages of his paper with the sun about to go down, telling a story about Trotsky, probably his favorite story of all, how when he was an undergraduate studying anthropology at the University of Chicago he and a fellow student decided to hitchhike to Mexico and gain an audience with the expelled Bolshevik revolutionary.

“We got there a day too late,” Bellow said. Trotsky had been killed the day before. “But,” Bellow went on, “we were allowed to see the body.”

He and his friend were escorted to a room. There lay Trotsky, under a starched white sheet in a hospital gurney, his beard brown with iodine or blood—either he couldn’t recall or had never been sure. Both what he remembered he saw with perfect clarity, as if it hadhappened the day before. “It was the sort of thing you never forget,” he said.

Before the sun went down completely Oliver and I went for a swim in the Bellow pond, a Huck Finn style pond with a small sagging dock and bullrushes all around. The water was murky but cool. Some of the Bellow girls swam with us. Except for Saul and his three-and-a-half year old daughter, the rest of his family consisted of brunettes of all ages, all of them beautiful. We finished our swim and walked in wet bathing suits back to the house for dinner.

I forget what we ate. Something warm and good—stew with salad and warm beets, something like that, or a vegetarian dish, served with a red wine. Oliver, Saul, and I sat together at one end of the long rustic table (everything about the place was rustic). As Oliver tends to when we're with others, he let Saul and I do all the talking while he listened and laughed and smiled. Saul, on learning that I had written a children's book, said he once had an idea for one himself.

“Really?” I said, taking a more than polite interest. “What was the idea?”

“It’s called ‘The Elephant in Marshall Field’s Window.’”

“Sounds great. What’s it about?”

“I don’t know,” Saul leaned in close to me and whispered conspiratorially. “All I know is it’s called ‘The Elephant in Marshall Field’s Window.’ I haven’t worked out any of the rest.”

From there somehow he drifted back to seeing Trotsky when he was eighteen years old. This sensational episode of his young manhood, it occurred to me—an event that may or may not have played a role in his becoming an author—had become for him a sort of reference point, a lighthouse at sea, shining a beacon that lit up his past—but fitfully, as beacons will.

After dessert, and after watching Saul’s three-and-a-half year old daughter dance for us, Saul, who’d had a long day, said goodnight, and Oliver and I in turn bid our farewells to the rest of the Bellow clan. Saul died three years later. He was eighty-seven.

Among today's young writers and readers Bellow has since fallen into something like neglect, a shame, since his books remain worth reading. I still think of him as a literary Titan, our most legitimate heir to Melville. Those who wish to disparage his works point out that when writing fiction the man had trouble checking his intellect at the door—and that starting with Augie March he stopped trying. True, true. But then who among us wouldn't have trouble keeping Saul Bellow’s intellect at bay? Among all his books you'd be hard pressed to find a single uninspired line. The texture of his prose alone is worth the substance of most others'.

As for me, from now on I’ll think of Saul Bellow as a neat old man who once glimpsed Trotsky’s bloody beard and imagined an elephant in Marshall Field’s window. Oh, yes, and who wrote a few masterpieces and won the Nobel Prize.

Photo by Jill Krementz

1 comment:

Chef E said...

GREAT Piece! I meet people in a similar way who tell me things of the past. I wished I had written them all down. I see their faces, maybe I can detail the story with that bit...Peter, I am enjoying your blog!