Elisabeth Sifton on Editing Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow
He’d work long hours, stopping only for a sandwich at lunch, now and again a five-minute yogic headstand against the bookcase, maybe tea in the afternoon. We know that stamina and persistence are essential ingredients of great art, don’t we? Saul was in fighting trim. That gorgeous prose, with its sinewy elegant hilarity and syncopated rhythmic intensity—you don’t think it was composed by a slob with poor muscle tone, do you? Still, there was plenty of time for unwinding and for talk. About everything under the sun—art, music, politics, cats and dogs, friends and enemies, and of course novels and novelists. He was scandalized I hadn’t yet read Frank Norris, or Kawabata, and followed up to make sure I remedied the lack. A magical teacher.

The revisions began in earnest when the book was in proof. He told me he couldn’t take his writing seriously when it was still a manuscript, that it was only an “undergraduate effort” until typeset. We talked about the moral power of the justified right margin. He’d beef up passages he found slack, alter effects that had charmed him in manuscript and now put him off, cross out whole passages and add new paragraphs. Polishing, polishing. Grammar, syntax, punctuation. I complained about some repetitions, and he stopped in his tracks, amazed at my dimwitted slowness. “Kiddo, this book is constructed like the Chicken Little story, haven’t you seen that yet? Of course there are repeats. Da capo.” Then he intensified the repetitions. And we laughed a lot at the jokes. […]

“I hear a new joke or learn of some crazy new detail in our national life or meet a new kind of phony, and I need Saul Bellow.”

I never tried—still don’t want—to escape his influence, to lose his incomparable, uproarious, devastating comprehension of the mess we’re in. I hear a new joke or learn of some crazy new detail in our national life or meet a new kind of phony, and I need Saul Bellow. Wherever we are, it’s somewhere Saul has been before us, and I can’t help registering the ways that his novels transformed our ordinary American scenery into radiant loci of intense human meaning. [Read More]

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