Excerpt From Reading Room/3:

A Conversation with Saul Bellow about "Something to Remember Me By."

Barbara Probst Solomon

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..."Isn't that mix of high and low precisely where you wanted to take the American novel?"

"Yes, I saw it as in the long tradition of the place of the novelist and novel in civilized society, in that the novel is a sort of rudimentary school in which you are taught life's most important problems. It's a corrective to the foolishness of your family, which wants everything to be polite, polished --" Bellow paused and used a Yiddish word, "gelesen. There was nothing polite or cultivated about Chicago street life."

"That grittiness laced with high-wire sensibility is at the heart of all your work. Tremendously, I felt in the novella you wrote in l990 -- Something to Remember Me By. The mother is almost dying, and the scared adolescent boy, blanking out on the abyss facing him, is getting ripped off by a whore. Isn't that -- " I paused, groping for the right word. Saul Bellow had been peppering our talk with lots of Yiddish words, checking me out to see whether I understood. In my Dalton high school days I had lots of left wing boy friends from the Bronx and Brooklyn. Their way of pulling rank on Jewish girls like me who went to private schools was to speak in Yiddish to us, confident that we didn't understand. They threw the Yiddish at us like they were Diamond Jim Brady throwing diamonds at Lillian Russell. "Okay, you use your Yiddish, I'll use my French (Bellow speaks great French). Isn't that grittiness your cri de coeur?"

Bellow gave me a bemused look. He knew that my crack about having to rely on my French, was my return volley about his superior knowledge of Yiddish. He roared with laughter.

I continued. "I'm not talking about poets, playwrights, short story writers -- but don't you think the gummy, imperfectness of this thing we call the novel is what ultimately you are faithful to? The near death of the mother jostling with the boy's crazy encounter with the whore -- life and death jostling against each other, isn't that what you are about?"

Bellow became pensive. His mother died when he was very young, and there clings to him the cool yearning of the half-orphan, a sort of aloof vulnerability. "Well, it's hard to talk about these things. I followed my intuitions in finishing that story. It didn't have to do with an angry father -- and the thing (Bellow didn't say outright, the death of the mother, his mother) had not happened yet. The boy had been spared."

"So, the adolescent boy in the story veers in another direction, he detours away from death?"

"Yes. And his being spared just at the point of real danger, real trouble, real difficulties, is turned aside, and something mythic happens instead." Bellow laughed again. "There is this kid, and he is nude. He has become the victim of a con game, and he ends up stripped of his clothing. This is one of the rackets that I learned about when I was a kid in Chicago. The women in hotels would take a man up to their room, and they would say, why don't you undress and get into bed while I go into the bathroom and freshen up? So the guy would jump between the sheets and then the woman would come out, scoop up his clothing, and throw them out the window to an accomplice waiting outside. The man's money would be inside the clothing -- everything he possessed. The men would rarely complain. Very often the men were bankers from the Middle West, or the mayor of a small town, they couldn't afford the scandal. This was a known racket. The built in comedy to the whole idea of the racket."

"The way you set up the story all sorts of different things, different emotions, are going on at the same time. The boy first sees the woman when she is lying oddly naked in a doctor's office, meanwhile, at home, his mother has begun to die. In the midst of all this the boy is trying to grasp some sense of his own future."

"Yes -- a lot is going on. First the boy delivers some flowers to the house where a girl has just died, and then he goes to his brother-in-law's dentist lab, and there he sees this naked woman. I do know that there were doctors in Chicago who made a racket of telling women that they were doing some scientific research in order to get them to take off their clothes."

"Another racket? So Chicago was a stock yard meat-packing racket city!"

"Right."

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Above: "Matisse in Nice at Work", Larry Rivers

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