In conversation with Melvyn Bragg, Saul Bellow talks about his new novel, and about the women of Eastern Europe

How strong was the fortress of Jewish life when you were young – did it hold up against the invasions of Chicago?

I think it broke down very quickly, at least in the Twenties. After the Second World War the Jews were shocked out of this and turned again to Orthodoxy but no longer the old Orthodoxy – to a sort of suburban religious life without much substance to it. The earlier generation lost their kids to the streets very soon, if not to the world. The power of the street was very great and American society was then a boom society. The European families could not contend against it. I think of the case of somebody like Houdini, the son of a rabbi in Appleton, Wisconsin: he changed his name to Houdini because he’d studied and learned from the works of a French magician whom he then surpassed, to become a sort of world figure. Well, that was the going thing. We all thought in one way or another that the sky was the limit, that we were in a situation in which infinite expansion was possible. We felt, I think, that we were a focus of the world’s attention. We were aware that we were accused by some of the outstanding writers of the 19th and 20th centuries of being terrible, unspeakable, horrid. Visitors like Kipling or Oscar Wilde had said all kinds of memorable and cutting things about Chicago. On the other hand, there was the speed with which Chicago had built itself, the speed with which it had recovered its prestige after the great fire. There are all the world records that have been set in Chicago, and what is not generally known is that Chicago was a sort of literary and artistic centre in the early part of the 20th century.

And did you discover this when you began to write?

I was 16 or 17 years old, and in no condition to judge what Chicago was, but I certainly felt the excitement of all this, and at the same time a continual current of depression, of ugliness, of forbidding ugliness and of violence. You had only to know what the Chicago Police were like, or the precinct captains of the Democratic Party, to feel how strongly your illusions of progress could be challenged.

Chicago figures very, very powerfully in your book, ‘The Dean’s December’, and one of the things that comes out is an admiration for the hard-nosed side of Chicago.

I wouldn’t say that ‘admiration’ was the proper word for it. I’ve known it for so long it’s very hard for me to refrain from expressing old attitudes towards it, but there is a sort of unregenerate philistinism in Chicago: elsewhere they had to work out an ideology in order to sustain their philistinism, whereas in Chicago there is no defensive ideology for Philistines. Word has not yet reached them of the undesirability of being a philistine.

It’s just there – raw.

It’s the good old raw USA just as it was in the beginning. People sometimes ask me: do you have your roots in Chicago? And I reply: there are no roots in Chicago, there are lots of old wires quite tangled up. Of course, I have an attachment to the city in which I have spent most of my life. I also feel that I have a peculiar understanding of it. There is, with that understanding, an undoubted antagonism to the harshness and vulgarity of the place, and a certain resentment, which is also undeniable, because I try to be a writer in that city, and a writer in a city like Chicago is a very strange beast indeed. Nelson Algren used to complain that his relationship to Chicago was one of unrequited love. Chicago is ignorantly proud of its writers and poets: they make good PR, eventually they are, with protests and complaints, converted into publicity. It’s something the media may have learnt from the old stockyards, in which none of the pig was wasted. My intention in this book was to be hard, to abandon rhetorical flourishes and keep myself to direct statement. I don’t think I’ve ever written a book with so many simple declarative sentences. The idea was to hit and to hit hard, to make sure that every stroke of the hammer would tell. I suppose in the matter of what I would call demoralisation and degeneracy, Chicago is perhaps not the most characteristic city in the country. It is the only city in America which still has an effective political machine. It called itself until very recently ‘the city that works’: under Mayor Daley it was still the city that worked – now it has to confess it is no longer the city that works. Daley was capable of it because he was such a forceful, clever, canny and brutal politician: he was able to make it appear that the city was working, and after he died some of the sweepings under the rug became visible. But Chicago now is faltering, it’s losing population, it’s losing industry. It has a large population of unemployables. It is unable to check the flight from the city into the suburbs or what they love to call the Sun Belt in the United States. Something like 80 plus per cent of public-school enrolment is Black, Puerto Rican and Mexican. The crime rate, of course, has risen very sharply, as in other American cities. So that it’s a city in which there was an effective resistance until very recently, and now failure stares it in the face.

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