The International Writers Magazine: Paris Blues
I don’t know how it is today, but when I was a kid in Chicago, a place like France wasn't on the map at all. If France ever entered the conversation at all, it was on a level of perfumed lace panties.
Back in my uncle’s and father’s time it was even worse. The city was heavily Polak, and I include the Jews in that because their culture was just as equally boring and oppressive.
Maybe that’s why my father fell for my mother, because, schooled in the ways of Hollywood glamour from all her freakin movie magazines, and, coming from New York, where the people were a little more advanced, she represented a revolution of American Glamour that Chicagoans only sometimes were able to glimpse at the movies.
There is a smart set in Chicago but Bellow was never exposed to it. He had the opportunity. His father and brother both offered him good jobs and a chance to make some real money. He could have had a blast, with a car, girlfriends, clothes, vacations at smart resorts. If he wanted to write stories, he could do that too. But the guy was a grind. He was a putz. He got married at age 20 and spent his days jerking off in the back room of his wife’s parents’ apartment, supposedly writing, while she and her parents worked all day.
What the fuck do I care? The thing that sends me ballistic is Bellow’s visceral loathing for French culture, as a total plodding idiot schlepping his wife and kid to Paris and living like Mr. and Mrs. Joe Blow in the midst of a sea of Parisians, and then becoming outraged against exactly the best qualities of Parisian living.
Bellow enters a restaurant with a French writer whom the waiter addresses as “Maitre”, which is an expression of respect accorded to learned persons, and Bellow blanches at the formality. It really stuck in his craw, the idea of such small gestures of elegance pervading daily life.
Bellow found the Austrians, who were at the time still 100% Nazi, much more to his liking. Go figure! Bellow’s dumbass Polak working class mentality of the West Side of Chicago, with its underlying ethic of morose fatalism, superseded and trampled any manifestations of refinement. In a way, you could say that Bellow’s reverse snobbism against French pretensions exactly mirrored his father’s and his brother’s anti-snobbery attitudes toward him, only elevated to a higher plane of small-mindedness.
I don’t know why I should bother to raise the point. There are plenty of reasons not to like France, ask any French person, they know their weak points better than anybody. Where do you care to begin, with all their past centuries of imperialism that enslaved Africa and Asia?
But hating them for their good points is the manifestation of an idiot. It’s all a product of envy. Once at Club Med Cancun I appeared in the talent night show in two sketches, one time playing a blues song on my harmonica, and once in a comedy skit where I did an imitation of Michael Jackson. I did pretty good and the whole Club got to know me.
The next morning at breakfast I stopped to say “Bonjour” to this charming French woman. We had a brief exchange of greetings and I kissed her hand in a perfunctory manner. As I turned to leave, I realized that the next table was intensely staring at me. It was a whole gang of American guys wearing hick haircuts and clothes, like some kind of marketing junket. They were staring daggers of jealousy at me, like I had insulted their mothers, or something.
In the “French Connection” movies, NYPD Detective Popeye Doyle finds himself standing outside with his nose pressed to the glass as first Frog One and then the French police inspector in Marseilles sit inside restaurants enjoying sumptuous meals. It’s an expression of high comedy directed by William Friedkin, who, being a boyhood friend of Bellow from the old neighborhood, understood the feelings of resentment and exclusion that pervaded Bellow’s anti-French attitudes better than I ever could. I can imagine Saul Bellow walking around Paris for an entire year, his eggshell ego constantly shattered, his head exploding with envy like the top of an overheated thermometer a dozen times a day haha.
Saul Bellow claimed that his novels were not inspired by Gustave Flaubert in any way. Maybe he was not admitting what he was really thinking. Maybe he feared that he would fall short in any critical comparison. I think of his work as having weak-to-nonexistent story lines elevated by a lot of superb imagery and descriptive passages. How important is a story line anyway? Opera is a good example of lush sound and image built around an almost childlike plot. Flaubert even admitted that he would have liked to write a novel with no story line whatsoever. It’s all in the execution.
I’m no professor, and I commit a lot of gaffes, but it’s better than no effort at all (plenty of smarter people would disagree with that). Anyway, it’s a fact that all my stories contain at least some original elements. I think that I can defend my opinion of a Flaubertian influence on Bellow that made him shift the standard of American Literature in the direction of literary writing. At least I can take cover behind historic author and critic Robert Penn Warren who detected enough Flaubertian influences behind “Augie March” that he explicitly referred to them in his 1953 review of the novel in New Republic.
My reading taste runs to André Malraux, for his gripping adventure stories recounted at the level of high literature; John Le Carré; Ian Fleming; Joseph Conrad. Men’s stories. Until my attention was entirely diverted by Zachary Leader’s compelling biography of my family, I had been enjoying “L’Orchestre Rouge”, which recounts the true history of the Soviet spy network that operated in German-occupied Belgium and France during WWII. The suspense and imminent danger are palpable on every page of this meticulous and highly-charged documentary novel.
But that’s me. Some people are more enchanted reading about a professor who writes letters to dead German philosophers (why did they have to be freakin Germans?). It’s a novel about nothing, to use Flaubert’s turn of the phrase, but the rhapsodic literature of the piece gives it its magic, like a peasant festival portrayed in a tableau by Pieter Brughel.
God Bless Him, my uncle went ballistic when the French waiter addressed his companion as “Maître”. Bellow groused, “Back where I come from we don’t do that!” But he was wrong. The Great White Hope for a breakthrough of Jewish culture into American Literature hadn’t gotten it straight. Over here we use honorifics all the time, but in the music world. You got Professor Longhair, Dr. John…
“Good evening, Professor, we’re honored to have you in the house”.
“Fry me a steak”.
I myself was assigned the honorific “Doctor Dean, Gynecologist to the Stars” by no less an authority than High Society magazine in a 3-page soft porn comedy layout that they did on me.
“Good, evening, Doctor Dean, we’re honored to have you in the house tonight”.
“Send me over a nice plate of pussy”.
My uncle was the older generation, but he was still living in Chicago. He still went to Maxwell Street, where the Jews Meet the Blues. Evidently he just blocked out African Americans completely, and if you want to speak American you need them. This is an element that everybody seems to have passed over. This is why a lot of his dialogue may seem contrived, or even flat, to an American reader.
Let me take you on a little trip to the Uptown district of Chicago, where nobody literary ever deigns to go. There used to be a huge population of hillbilly white trash living in the neighborhoods there. They were the nastiest class of people that I ever met in my life. As comedian Chris Rock quipped, “Nothing is scarier than poor white people”, but the idiot white outer-borough New Yorkers that alarm him so much have got nothing on the numb-nuts Appalachian hillbillies of Uptown in terms of primordial ooze.
The men were all about stock car racing and duck’s ass haircuts, which they greased with any kind of industrial application that they had at hand, like machine lubricant of motor oil. Nevertheless, they brightened the linguistic landscape with their curious derivations. A guy would ask you, “Cut me a hasp”, which meant “Do me a favor”. One time this old boy asked me, “Yankee, you ever shat from a tree?” Back home, instead of bothering with plumbing or outhouses, they just climbed trees and relieved themselves sitting on a limb, and then using leaves for toilet paper. But these quirky people informed Chicago street culture to a huge degree, totally missed by Bellow.
He is no different from any other white people of his time, but, considering that I recognize myself to a huge degree in him, I’m more disappointed by his blindsidedness than I would be about anybody else.
© Dean Borok July 2015
Saul Bellow - The Biography
I am sunk into Zachary Leader’s biography of my uncle, Saul Bellow, and all my relations, like a man whose whole life flashes back to him in the instant before his death ...