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:: By Christian Sheppard, AB’91, AM’97, PhD’01

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Features ::

He seized the day (return to feature)

Stalked by Saul Bellow

For three spring days in the early 1990s, Saul Bellow—the most decorated writer in the American republic of letters, creator of Henderson and Herzog, chronicler of the 20th century’s second half, Saul Bellow—stalked me. I knew he too lived on the South Side in Hyde Park. But he had no way to know I lived there, no way of knowing me, and no reason to.

I first noticed Saul Bellow noticing me in the Seminary Co-op Bookstore. The Co-op is in the basement of a theological seminary, a tall brick tower. Like the catacombs beneath the campanile of a medieval town, it is a labyrinth of many levels, rooms, alcoves, and corridors, and all lined from floor to ceiling with books. Among the B’s of the fiction section, Bellow first approached me. At hand, below the Becketts I’d been browsing, was his own neat row of titles from The Adventures of Augie March to The Victim. Now here was the living Bellow: between Borsalino hat and cashmere overcoat, the same gap-toothed smile and same wise, wily eyes as in his official author photograph. My startled stare betrayed my recognition; his smile tilted in acknowledgement.

Beyond such an exchange of glances and grins, I did not know if I should introduce myself as an admirer or make a quick witty comment about checking up on how his wares were being stocked. But I had already stared too long for any comment to be quick, so I nodded politely, a slight bow, a gesture from the repertory of the loyal vassal quitting the august presence of his royal rain-king, and left. This was our first encounter face to face. I thought of it as a rare and auspicious event, as if I had spied a bald eagle—Augie’s hunting raptor “Caligula”—soaring down the Midway.

The next day, a gorgeous spring day, Saul Bellow found me on campus. I was sitting on a bench in the quadrangles, writing in a notebook, when I sensed his presence. I looked up to see him already looking at me. He nodded, discretely acknowledging: Yes, here I am again, Saul Bellow. He did not stop walking or even slow his pace. I watched him all the way down 58th Street. Chicago presents a vista so perfectly flat and streets so wide and uniformly straight, you can watch Saul Bellow stroll to the vanishing point over the horizon, and imagine him to be Charlie Citrine at the end of Humboldt’s Gift admiring the spring’s first crocuses.

I never suspected that Saul Bellow was stalking me until we met again the very next day. I was walking out to the Point, a peninsula of land that juts out into Lake Michigan and offers a view, over breaking waves, of the city’s skyline. (The Point is just beyond Lake Shore Drive where in Herzog Moses gets in the car accident that culminates his life’s crisis.) The Point is a good place to brood, to think about your life. But to get there you have to walk under the train tracks. Walking under the train tracks is always a Billy Goat Gruff moment, when you fear some desperate urban troll might leap out from behind a rust- and runoff-stained concrete column to knock you over the head for cash to buy crack cocaine only too late for both of you to discover that you are broke with nothing of value than the existential questions brewing in your now-busted skull. The Chicago cityscape can answer to one’s darkest moods, even in springtime. But who then should step out from behind a column but Saul Bellow. He again smiled and nodded, again, yes, here I am in the span of three days, Saul Bellow, your friendly neighborhood Nobel Laureate. What was he doing here?

It seemed he was going to take the train downtown. That he recognized me now, there was no question. I was a fairly memorable character. I wore the same faded leather jacket and black Chicago Bulls cap, a similar if not the same flannel shirt and jeans. I clutched the same tattered notebook. I am an average five foot ten, but square out at 230-plus pounds and have large, globular pale-blue eyes. I might be out of Bellow's own gallery of enthused grotesques, which was perhaps why he seemed pleased to see me. Just as I in reading his books identified with so many of his self-made and self-examining characters, perhaps he in seeing me, recognized an uncanny copy of one of his own imagined creations, crazy with ideas, searching the surrounding city as much as in old books for clues to the meaning of modern life.

You enter a Saul Bellow novel like you walk into the busy city itself. Pause with his characters to reflect upon and learn to savor life, but we can still feel the city life pulsing on around us. There was no retreat from life in Bellow, always a fight for greater embrace. Bellow gives you courage to stand up in a busy rushing world of social predators and cloying schemers, of beckoning advertisements and transfixing spectacles. He gives you courage to take yourself and each other and our city seriously, and to take pleasure in all. After reading Bellow, you walk back into the city feeling like a better character in your own right, but now life is your adventure.

As I reached the Point, I saw the train leave taking Saul Bellow into the city. I imagined him riding the train like Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, among the varied, vivid throng, "taking a humanity bath," cleansing himself of modern solipsism and nihilism, and renewing his hope and joy in common human life. Bellow is gone, but his presence abides in his novels to console and encourage us still.