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Bellow-ing

August 2, 2007 By:
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It's two years now since Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow died, and yet the tributes keep appearing, especially in the the literary quarterlies which, because of their printing schedule, often take a certain amount of time to catch up to major events. One such magazine, the ever-resourceful Salmagundi, edited by Robert and Peggy Boyers at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., published the remarks that novelist William Kennedy delivered at Bellow's funeral, in the winter-spring 2007 issue.

Kennedy and Bellow had a long relationship, which began, literally, as student and teacher. As fate would have it, these two quintessential American writers -- Kennedy is associated with upstate New York, the Albany area mostly, and its down-on-their-luck residents, as in the novel Ironweed -- met in, of all places, Puerto Rico back in the 1960s.

Kennedy, who began as a journalist, was then managing editor of a new daily newspaper, the San Juan Star, and Bellow, who was in the middle of writing perhaps his most famous work of fiction, Herzog, happened also to be teaching fiction writing for a semester at the University of Puerto Rico.

As is often the case with journalists, Kennedy was struggling to write a novel; and so the managing editor applied to be part of the class and was accepted. Bellow eventually told Kennedy that the class was actually the last he ever taught, which was beneficial for the struggling novelist, since it was the only one Kennedy ever took.

"Saul dealt with students individually, half an hour, or more, of conversation at the Faculty Club every other week, about six in all. I showed him two chapters of a novel in progress and he thought it was fatty, clotty, imprecise and verbose. Otherwise he liked it. I wrote the fat, clot, imprecision and verbosity out of it and a month later he liked it so much he thought it was publishable. He was wrong but I invited him to dinner anyway and told him my beautiful wife, Dana, would cook. He became competitive and said he too would bring a beautiful woman, and he did and later married her, which is another story. My wife did cook but she decided I should charcoal-broil the steak. I could not get the charcoal to ignite, for it was fatty and clotty, and Saul, who was hungry, became restive and snarly. When the steak, a great steak, finally arrived on his plate, his demeanor again became civilized and we got to be friends."

Kennedy then sketched in a picture of their friendship over the years. He only glancingly referred to how Bellow's intervention changed his life as a writer; I believe that Ironweed, which was Kennedy's fourth novel, had been rejected by countless publishers, until Bellow admonished the editors at Viking to have another look -- and the rest is history. Kennedy's tribute provides a loving, insightful portrait.

If you do happen to track down this issue of Salmagundi, don't miss a splendid interview with Mario Materassi about his relationship with Henry Roth, author of Call It Sleep. 

 

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