SAUL BELLOW has died, announces the radio; so I rummage through my fiction
to find a reminder of his genius, returning with Mr Sammler’s Planet, a novel
about an elderly Polish gentleman from Cracow in New York during the 1960s.
He is half-blind; so the author makes him only partly comprehending of what
he sees as he wanders the streets. He carries with him some of the borrowed
culture of an English clubman, his own fastidious Jewishness, and the horrors
As with many old people having little to do, he watches others. Mr Sammler
reminds me a little of the retired clerk in Charles Lamb’s essay “The
Superannuated Man” who says: “I am no longer clerk to the Firm. . . I am
Retired Leisure. I am to be met with in trim gardens. I am already come to be
known by my vacant face and careless gesture, perambulating at no fixed pace,
nor with any settled purpose. I walk about, not to and from.” Though, needless
to add, Saul Bellow’s old man does not have a vacant face, but one that carries
Thinking of Bellow’s “All Americans are outsiders,” reminds me of the
writer’s voice “off the page”, as it were. How different it is, in many ways,
from other voices. The Archbishop of Canterbury has a writer’s voice, and it is
the writer’s voice that has crept in throughout the Christian ages, disturbing
statements and theologies.
Amos’s was certainly a writer’s voice, although he would no more have
claimed it than his official right to prophesy. The fact that he was no more
than “an herdman and a gatherer of sycomore fruit” could not invalidate his
being a poet. He reminds me of Mother Julian calling herself an ignorant
The writer no longer apologises for his voice, whether on the page or on the
tongue, if only for the reason that he cannot do anything about it. There it
is, the awkward or off-key though sometimes beautiful tone that can throw out
what is generally said and believed.
The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
wrote Emily Dickinson. But then she didn’t have Radio 4.
The Only Shows I see
Tomorrow and Today —
she continued. But then she lacked BBC1. She went on to say that the only
street she knew was “existence”.
How strange it is to exist — to be. And how nice, too, when I can weed out
of the wind, Kitty the white cat helping me, and the April birds hollering
away, and the bare trees rattling, and Gordon and Elaine driving from goodness
knows where to take me to the pub for lunch. What an existence.
And a book to write some time or other, and hymns to be chosen for Sunday,
and green ponds to be admired. And quizzes to be avoided in the village hall,
for there my brain packs up, as it does when someone asks me 7 across — “You
should know this, you being a writer!”
Ah, if they did but know the muddle that is in the writer’s head, the
criss-crossings of its existence, its beliefs and heresies, its strange
convictions and sudden truths! Even if at this moment I am no more than a
tie-backer of raspberry canes.