Saul Bellow did not have to eat Beef Bellow, as it turned out, at the banquet following his Jefferson Lecture last night for the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was changed to Beef Jefferson. So much for the power of words.
Novelist, Nobel Prize winner, and adopted son of Chicago ("hog butcher to the world," as one of the poets sang), Bellow spoke of the writer and his country, or The Writer and His Country, a topic shadowy enough to permit almost anything to be got off the chest except possibly a grievance against the railroads of India.
A few hours before he faced the well-guissed audience in the National Academy of Sciences Auditorium, he said he had written reams of pages (no writer wishes to be thought to earn his keep without effort), but the fact is, he said, he was not quite sure what it would be about.
Except this: He could safely say the lecture was not going to be very close to the announced subject.
As it turned out, there were plenty of references both to the writer and his country - Bellow has long felt that writers may deserve success (as he thought he certainly deserved the Nobel Prize, for example) but, "I only hope they know how to hold their own with Mammon."
Bellow said, in a session with reporters, that for much of his professional life he got by on $3,000 or $4,000 a year and was quite content. Nobody paid him any great mind and he tapped along on the iron keys expecting (for example) his novel "Herzog" to sell maybe 8,000 copies. Instead it zoomed forth as a best seller in 1964 and brought financial security with it.
But now he is famous and rich ("with one hand they give you a prize, with the other they tax it away," he said) and it reminds him of taking a shower.
"You go in to take a shower, and there is Niagara coming down on you. Well, you wanted the water to run and wash you clean, but not quite Niagara."
He crossed his ankles with grand contentment and seemed to enjoy greatly his session with the press, answering questions (one woman seemed determined to make the point that television has replaced the Bible, and what a shame that is, literarily speaking - and keeping the sharp lads from putting words in his mouth.
Television has replaced the Bible, and what a shame that is, literarily speaking - and keeping the sharp lads from putting words in his mouth.
After Bellow said that if he were living life again, he would have another career, maybe in the Foreign Service, along with his writing, one fellow observed that diplomats and ministers and chiefs of state (meaning Allende in Chile) were better writers than statesmen.
Belllow said all he meant was that he thought a Foreign Service career might have been something he'd like to do - "I didn't mean I wanted to be a South American dictator."
Bellow has always had gifts for comedy and its twin, the lyrical uproar but yesterday there were more laughs than lofts. A writer, he said, must understand there is no acknowledged culture to which everyone belongs, nowadays. Formerly you could count on the Bible - everyone knew that, in the olds days. But now, he said, it's "a question of finding where everybody is at."
Better than some writers who have become solvent, Bellow slightly resisted the impulse to speak from on high or prescribe to the world. "As they say in Chicago, we don't shave here. We just lather. You get the shave across the street." (Laughter.)
"Will sucess spoil Saul Bellow?" asked one questioner, not even blushing at the triteness of the wording. "No," said Bellow. "I am too old and cranky for that."
But not too old for normal vanity, he went on. His failures of writing leap at him from the page.
Novelists are by nature long-winded and none of them can (or will) polish the work till it gleams. They go back and are horrified that a phrase here, a paragraph there, a scene yonder, is lacking in perfection. The writer, he went on, sees he has written "carelessly, falsely, flatly and is ashamed."
For a man torn up by shame, Bellow bore up right well and smiled a good bit. Doubtless he thought of one or two sentences that came out all right - writers can live with extremely little triumph - such as "As I was lying stretched out in America, determined to resist its material interests and hoping for redemption by art, I fell into a deep snooze that lasted for years and decades . . . Luckily I'm still alive and perhaps there's even sometime left still." That is from "Humboldt's Gift" and shows a writer at work.
Bellow has always grappled for the thing in a writer - himself - "that is a gift, not an aquisition."
The phrase is Conrad's, but the meaning is Bellow's. He has long distrusted the acquisitions.
It is the "primitive prompter" within a writer, he has said, that counts, not the accretion of learning or thinking things up in the head, fancy.
This faculty; which need not be crude like a cave man (he says it is often fastidious, in fact) is why people say of the best writers they have a gift. Not a learning or a skill, but a gift.
"Bellow is long on record against "gangs" or literary people whose specialty sometimes seems to be attracting the mass media. (He liked the irony of that, as he himself was the object of their attention.)
The Jefferson Lecture carries an award of $10,000 and a dinner in the Benjamin Franklin dining room of the State Department. The men all go as penguins and the women rummage about beforehand for jewels. Guests included Joan Mondale, wife of the Vice President; Robert Lipschutz and Jack Watson, assistants of the President, six ambassadors, five senators and House members, museum directors, archivists and academics.
The main dish had been called Beef Bellow on a preliminary printed menu, but was changed by Beef Jefferson. It is tender beef with a brown sauce (that is, a real Brown Sauce, not something merely brown out of the saucepan) and Beef Bellow did sound a bit too much like a slaughterhouse. Though, of course, Bellow is from Chicago - "hog butcher to the world" as one of the poets sang.