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To know what Saul Bellow thinks of cancel culture, read his work (or watch this film)

A new PBS documentary confronts what made the novelist so controversial — and so great

On his deathbed, Saul Bellow asked a question his admirers and detractors have long been agonizing over: “Was I a man, or was I a jerk?”

Of course this is a false binary. But when Bellow said “man,” his biographer Zachary Leader ventures in The Adventures of Saul Bellow, the new American Masters documentary on PBS, what he really meant was “mensch.”

Bellow was speaking about “a human being showing the best of human qualities,” Leader says in the film. “Jerk,” he offers by way of comparison, may be self-explanatory, but also “a Bellow word” that pops up in his fiction.

Which was he? The documentary is agnostic, speaking to authors, critics, friends, family and surviving ex-wives who alternate between praise of his humanistic prose, and indictments of his prolific betrayals via novel of many in his life.

Israeli director Asaf Galay, who previously made The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer, about the Nobel winner’s women translators, was excited by Bellow’s complexity.

“It makes a better story,” Galay said. “This is his literature.”

Weaving together Bellow’s TV interviews and literary analysis and insights from Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth and Vivian Gornick, Galay’s film unpacks the uniquely American-Jewish cadence of Bellow’s writing, while never forgetting the damage he could do with a dazzling sentence. In 2022, the film is strikingly relevant to today’s discourse on “cancel culture” and divorcing art from the artist.

I spoke with Galay and executive producer Michael Kantor about Bellow’s genius, his foibles and filming Philip Roth’s last interview. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

PJ Grisar: What was your first introduction to Bellow?

Asaf Galay: I saw one of his books in my grandfather’s library. It was Mr. Sammler’s Planet. I was, I think, 18 and I didn’t like it so much. I didn’t understand. Later on, when I’m 27, I read Henderson the Rain King. It was really appealing to a 27-year-old and then later, around 35, I started to dig into his literature and it became a spiritual passage to me. I think that this is maybe the problem with Bellow. He is not that accessible at each age. It’s not like Hemingway. You need to have some life experience to really enjoy it.

Were you reading it in Hebrew originally?

Galay: First I started in Hebrew, but then later to enjoy it I had to learn better and to improve my English.

Michael Kantor: I’m curious, did Bellow write anything in Hebrew?

Galay: No. It’s a really good translation to Hebrew, but of course every translation is a big traitor. It’s losing so much of the beautiful English.

Kantor: I learned from the film that Bellow started reading the Old Testament in Hebrew, at the age of 4 or 5 or something and that became part of his sort of storytelling universe. 

I didn’t read Bellow in college, but when I met my wife, her mother had a book on her bookshelf, Herzog, and it turns out this is the most important book on her whole bookshelf. Why? Because it was actually a book filled with pages, but in the old style, it was hollowed out and it’s where she hid her money and her jewelry. So in our family to this day, we have the same kind of hiding place, which we call Herzog, even though it doesn’t say “Herzog” on it.

American Masters is the name of the series but in some ways, it’s like a prompt or a question in terms of Bellow’s Americanness and how he claimed it. Obviously, there’s that first line of Augie March: “I am an American, Chicago born.” But he was born in Canada. One of the scholars says he’s really saying he was born as a writer in America. Was that question on your mind approaching him as  this American creation of himself?

Galay: So I am an Israeli born in Chicago. My father was studying at the University of Chicago, I was born in ‘78 and Bellow was the big name in those years in the University of Chicago. When I came back to the States 10 years ago, I started to read Bellow again. Bellow is a great guide to the American spirit, to the American culture. He’s an outsider that looks into the inside of the culture, to the society. It’s amazing.

You conducted the last interview Philip Roth ever gave. What was that like? Did he hesitate at all?

Galay: So first, when I approached him, he said, “No, I’m out of this business.”

He’d retired from writing novels at that point.

Galay: He was retiring from writing because of back problems, so he didn’t  need to do PR. So first he said no, and then I wrote him another letter because I’m noodging. I told him “But what will happen when you will meet Bellow again. You will not tell him that you refused.” “OK, OK. Come over. We’ll give you 20 minutes.” And then we came to his house in Connecticut, and it became like one hour and 30 minutes that he talked really about new issues. It was amazing. In most interviews, he’s like a politician. He’s always telling the same jokes. And I think when he talked about Bellow, he really talked about himself a lot.

Was there anybody who would not talk to you?

Galay: The family was very cooperative. They gave me complete access to everything, very supportive of the project. Five people wrote biographies; he always told them “everything is accessible. It’s your story. Just tell it.”

I guess he’d be something of a hypocrite if he didn’t. He mined so much from his life. I’m wondering how you felt going into the more knotty or troubling parts of the legacy and reading through those texts?

Galay: This is very important as a filmmaker to deal with all the issues, to bring in many ideas, many critics, I don’t do hagiographic films. You need to tell everything to try to to understand better and in the end to let the viewer judge it. I don’t do verdicts, I’m not a judge.

Kantor:  I was worried before I saw how Asaf was dealing with the story that Bellow’s been canceled, written off as a misogynist for many people. And I think, again, back to that great Philip Roth interview, he said, “Augie March changed my sense of what a novel could do, of what a Jewish writer could do with his experience. Because up until then, there wasn’t any Jewish writer who’s comparable, who was not in the public relations business who was not busy honoring Jews, or praising Jews or defending Jews. He just presented Jews and that’s what was liberating.” So I think in that sense, you know, there are people who have nasty divorces and there are people who go through all the different truthful aspects of what Bellow is presenting. And he just does it in an elevated way that is remarkable and that bears our reading and rereading. Within today’s climate, I want to let the work stand for itself.

We see Bellow reacting to all these  things that feel ripped from the headlines now. His response to crime in Chicago, campus culture. We talk about cancel culture, which wasn’t a term then but one wonders what he would think about what’s going on now.

Galay: I think that already in his own life, since the ‘80s, with political correctness, there was a lot of a clash between Bellow and his critics. It’s happened in his own life and you can see his response to it in his essays, in his writing, it’s nothing that you need to imagine. You just need to go and read Bellow.

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