A wonderful if incomplete interview of Saul Bellow, by Philip Roth, in The New Yorker contains among other gems an insight into his breakthrough as a writer. Bellow talks about writing two “correct” and rather depressing first novels, then seizing on the idea for The Adventures of Augie March from recollections of a childhood friend:
… in becoming a writer I hoped to bring out somehow my singular reactions to existence. Why else write? I had prepared and overprepared myself by reading, study, and fact-storage or idea-storage and I was now trying to discharge all this freight.
Gods know that all of us carry such a freight and think it’s significant. Even significant magic. It can be, at any rate, if we lighten the load by expressing it. Stuff summoned up from childhood or adolescence or last year or yesterday. Magical freight that gets lighter and lighter the more we heave it out of the dark.
Of course, we have to do some work, most of us, rummaging around in the dark. Much of the past is forgotten, often to our benefit. But much of it lives in the present and must be exercised or exorcised so that it doesn’t haunt, once conscious, but frees us.
Think of something funny in your past or someone in your family who was a real character, as we say. What specifically did he or she do to show a difference from the others, from the rules, from the crowd? I think of my older brother Gerry, who died two years ago, and was always a character. He was married three times if you want to count the first marriage, which lasted a day. He eloped with a girl from high school, who was “good in the back seat,” he said, and drove from Minnesota to Iowa to get hitched by a justice of the peace. When he came back with his bride, my dad, a lawyer, had the marriage annulled.
So much for that rebellion.
But the annulment didn’t quench Gerry’s spirit. He quit high school shortly and joined the Marines … from which he was expelled a couple of years later but not before having his share of adventures.
If Augie March can have adventures, why not our friends and relatives? Why not us writers? If we find the right subject and the right language, which, Bellow suggests, should reveal itself, our writing will be an adventure. Our story will practically write itself. Our story will be our own “singular reactions to existence.”