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.

In your novel, Corde carries the burden of the humanist tradition of the USA – what point would you say you were hammering here?

‘Humanism’ is one of those words which have deservedly fallen into disrepute. I am not certain that I would accept your use of it, because I don’t actually know what you mean by it. I would prefer to say that here was a man of a certain education, in literature and philosophy, who has tried to hold on to a position, to make a tenable position for himself, but finally the facts are forced upon him. That is to say, if you call yourself a ‘humanist’, you cannot permit yourself to do this without a real review of the facts of life. You are obliged to see them at their worst. You cannot afford to mitigate them. Of course everybody who lives in these conditions tries to mitigate them, tries to avoid the facts. Even the tough people who claim to be so tough about the facts, they’re not actually tough – they have evasions of their own. So that what you face is a multiplex conspiracy of evasion. Corde is a humanist, perhaps, in the sense that he is obliged to find some explanation for his moral impulse, which is challenged not only by the disorder of life but by a sort of nihilistic questioning in the modern world. He has to struggle for some kind of minimum – I dislike the word – affirmation, and he has to show cause why he persists on such a course.

The Dean in your novel, Corde, has a great deal of affection for Chicago and he’s tied to it in a way, wants to be there. Superficially, it would seem that he has an odd way of showing his affection in that he writes a number of hard-hitting articles about the place, and about what you call its underclass, which cause a great disturbance in Chicago.

You can’t live in Chicago without being sharply aware of the presence of this under class. It is a source of disorder in the city. The crime rate is very high. The streets are not only unsafe but have acquired a barbarous character. The reason for this, I try to say, is not racial, although statistically most of the violent crimes are committed by what the French used to call gens de couleur – and the fact is that these are at the heart of the unrest, the drug scene and all the rest of it. Now, whose fault is it that this has happened? Daley tried to put his cordon sanitaire around the black slums of Chicago. He demolished the old buildings, he built the high-rise projects which have become sources of disorder and infection in the city for everyone. The blacks suffer more seriously from these conditions than the whites. But what has happened, in effect, is that you have a mass of people in America’s cities who have become, for technological reasons, superfluous. Nobody knows what to do with them. They don’t know what to do with and about themselves. The problem of sustaining them, of feeding them, of educating them and finding employment for them, has proved too much for the cities, or for the Federal Government, for that matter. What we are looking at is a doomed population, one which has no visible prospects of survival. Billions of dollars has been spent mostly on bureaucracies appointed to deal with these problems, and they have utterly failed to do so. They have simply failed. Matters grow worse, not better. What you have in effect is any number of segregated populations, white as well as black, the whites segregating themselves for defensive purposes, the blacks having a segregation imposed upon them by the kind of life which has been allowed to grow in the black ghettos. Nobody has thought of anything to attach these people to life. Coming out of his college office, Corde reacquaints himself with Chicago, and this is what he has to report. He reports it with a certain force of indignation, deeply moved by it, even frantic. He thinks that human beings don’t grasp what is not forcefully expressed: that is to say, that we have found a language or languages to mask these things from us because it is our desire to conceal them. It has been one of the achievements of literature to make human beings aware of the fact that they are human. That’s what it’s about. And I don’t know that anything else, particularly in the present age, makes you aware of that. Is sociology going to tell us that we are human? Is psychology going to tell us – with the unique power that literature had – that we are human? Are the social workers going to tell us, are the politicians going to tell us, are the media going to tell us? None of these classes of people has the language to do it. Corde says: I didn’t force poetry upon Chicago – Chicago has forced poetry upon me.

You say, as Corde says, that ‘only poetry has the strength to rival the attractions of narcotics, the magnetism of television, the excitements of sex and the ecstasy of destruction.’

I am saying that a writer has certain powers and that these powers are essential. Communication is what is notably most absent in modern life, despite the fact that people are ostensibly informed. The information is not information, but a kind of anxiety causing provocation or even sickness, so that people are suffering from information sickness. The need for clearly stated truth is like the need for bread to eat and for water to drink. These are fundamental needs of human existence. People who have truly grown up reading the great books of the tradition feel how necessary it is that someone should write now in such a way as to furnish – within the limits of one’s own talents and capacities – the edible bread and the drinkable water. This is why Corde is in such a ferment, almost in a frenzy. It has struck him that there is no way to transmit these things any more, that the world is beyond shock, and that the worst of shocks have been assimilated in a most peculiar and undesirable manner. A President is shot – what next? The Pope is shot – what next? The Egyptian President is assassinated – what next? Three or four American Presidents fly in like the Magi to attend his funeral – what have they to say? Nil. Nothing happens. Nothing is said. No one has the power to speak, to pierce this chaos. So that you begin to feel what a responsibility you have. It’s a responsiblity which is, in a sense, beyond the responsibilities set for themselves by writers earlier on in the 20th century. It strikes me that in writing this book I have, without knowing it, rejected such aesthetic responsibilities and have attempted a sort of cri de coeur. I wasn’t doing it deliberately. I sensed that I was embarked upon a course which I myself didn’t understand very clearly, and I always sympathised with the Hemingway attitude: if you’re looking for a message, try Western Union. I wasn’t trying to deliver any sort of message. I was trying to express the feeling of a writer who after some forty years of practising his trade has a fresh look at the city in which he’s spent most of his life.

By setting so much of the book in a Communist country, from which Corde comments on capitalist Chicago, you get a tale of two cities, with ironies, contrasts, paradoxes.

My parents were East Europeans and when I go to Eastern Europe now I very quickly pick up resemblances and I think of the old days, probably those of my childhood – days of warmth, characterised by family closeness and all the good old virtues, which I saw disintegrating as I grew older in Chicago. I might have seen them disintegrating in Europe too. On the other hand, you do see an undoubted cohesion, warmth, mutual aid and kindly support in Eastern Europe that you don’t so often see in the West. I don’t know whether those human attachments necessarily have a good yield: sometimes they may produce a new kind of wickedness. I don’t know what the distribution of the forces of good and evil is in those parts of the world in which the old attachments still survive in strength. I don’t know what to think of the human warmth in Iran. But undoubtedly there is more intimate kindness in Iranian family circles than you will find in New York.

In Rumania Corde meets an old school friend of his from Chicago, Dewy Spongier, a major syndicated journalist.

I’ve known many such people. I thought this would be a good opportunity to depict one of them in all of their strength and fantasy.

What do you see as their strength then?

They’re extremely influential people and they are opinion-makers and even celebrities, and at the same time frivolous, irresponsible and silly, many of them. They are sources of information for the modern world and you can judge for yourself how effective their information is or how true it is. They are really the creators of public excitement and distraction. They are the people who make all nations feel that they’re in the act – while what there really is is a chaotic mess of distractions which makes information impossible. It’s all too silly. It just tears at you. It doesn’t tell you anything that you need to know. It keeps up a sort of daily fever. It’s show business.

Towards the end of the book, Spangler writes an article which destroys what remains of Corde’s position at the university. Why does Spangler do that?

He does it from gaieté de coeur. He means no harm. It’s not deliberately malicious at all. He’s just practising his trade.

How far do you see his lust for success as particularly American?

The reason why it is, to my mind, uniquely American is that people come from nowhere, they rise from obscure positions. You find yourself at the head of a great conglomerate, a multinational corporation, and all of your inclinations and habits are those of a young man from Idaho. You don’t know how to dress, you don’t know how to speak, you don’t know how to order dinner, you don’t know how to travel, you don’t know how to tip, you don’t know how to get on with women and you don’t know how to conduct yourself with sophisticated Europeans. The challenge, therefore, for these Americans – for these Chicagoans – is to attain this condition of worldly wisdom, and it has to be done so rapidly that it has to be improvised, made up on the way.

Corde throws the articles that he writes about Chicago into the ring and has a reaction – all sorts of reactions. In a similar way, you’ve thrown your novel into the ring. What have you learnt from the reactions?

I’ve come to learn when I publish a book that if I follow the press reactions, I can get a sort of cultural and psychological, if not spiritual, profile of the country. The professional book reviewers are like generals: they’re always fighting the last war. They may not have cared for the last book but it was the book that they were expecting to see again, and then they express their disappointment when they don’t – when I don’t produce it. But I don’t like to go on producing the same book over and over again: this is a habit of professional writers that I deplore. Secondly, there are the all too familiar objections that my book is cerebral, intellectual, that I expect too much from the lay reader. The old populist assumption about the common reader in the United States is dead wrong. People do think – they must think. They are, in fact, armed if not cumbered with a vocabulary of thought which they have got from the media themselves, so that when you ask very simple people in the United States questions, they answer you with a sort of intellectual jargon. I’ve talked to prisoners in the county jail, on trial for their lives, who discuss the social structure of the United States with you. It isn’t true that people are unsophisticated in the United States: they are barbarously sophisticated, I think that would be a much more correct way to put it. They know all kinds of things they have learned from press and TV, from watching panel discussions. They’ve picked up psychological, anthropological, sociological, political jargon. They’re simply abuzz with ideas or the simulacra of ideas, so that if you try to assume that you are dealing with a lay public which has no ideas, I think you’re quite mistaken. They may be vulgarised or otherwise discreditable ideas: they are nevertheless there and they are motives of action. How long can we go on pretending that there is a dead level of gutter ignorance which novelists are supposed to defer to? We’re dealing with a storm of abstractions all about us and it would be truly unrealistic to omit those from any account of modern life.

What has been the reaction to the book as an exposé of the Chicago underclass, to Corde’s missionary purpose?

There has been an immense resentment in Chicago, of which I have received reports. People saying: we have to live this, why do we have to read it too? We know all this stuff. The truth is that they don’t know the stuff. What they mean is that they’ve made an accommodation to their own transfigured version of it which makes it possible for them to roll with it and to live with it. But their version of it is fictive, and that’s how they’d prefer that it should be. The odd thing about the book is that I have forced a great many people to remove this poor fictive hanging and to look at the facts, and this has not been altogether welcome in Chicago. I knew that there was trouble brewing, but if I may say so, I felt that it would be wrong of me simply to wrap myself in my honours and lie down quietly. I couldn’t bear the thought of that. The cliché about anyone who has won the Nobel Prize is that he has shot his bolt, he’s finished, he’s ready to bite the dust, nothing more will come from his pen or his typewriter. I defied that particular prejudice. I didn’t defy it defiantly, I defied it quietly, because I thought it was nonsensical. But there are a great many people who had their pieces already prepared: bye bye Bellow. However, I did not oblige them by biting the dust – at least I don’t think I did. I’m going to be under fire until I am a reverend senior, if I live long enough to join the Robert Frost category. I’ll be all right, but at the moment it’s still stormy for me. I have received quite a lot of disagreeable notices from people to whom a subject of this sort is taboo, or who have a prescribed attitude for it from the liberal Left. I’ve also been attacked from the right, by the so-called traditionalists, or some of the neo-conservatists, as they like to call themselves. I haven’t really succeeded consistently with any group of readers except the most intelligent.

It would be remiss not to mention the utter devotion that Corde has for his wife, Minna, an astronomer, and the way in which that patient fidelity breeds passages where women are seen with great tenderness.

He finds that they are, if you like, custodians of the emotional life – protectresses of morality. I don’t know what to call it except a sort of matriarchy. They are the ones who hold things together, and who fill the men with a similar feeling and with similar purposes. It was really an astonishing thing to have watched that, to have seen the strength of the attachments, the acceptance of difficult duties. I couldn’t help contrasting it with those Western societies in which people plug in or plug out at will and say they’re moved when the occasion arises. Perhaps they are, but it doesn’t last very long and it is not cultivated, it is not developed. There is no real will in it, it is just one of the sensations of the day. To see the steady practice of that kind of virtue is very moving and most impressive.