Saul Bellow Returns to Canada, Searching for the Phantoms That Shaped His Life and Art

updated 06/25/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The June afternoon in Montreal is hot and muggy, but in the air-conditioned luxury of the old Ritz-Carl-ton Hotel on Sherbrooke Street, Saul Bellow sits comfortably in a dark, leather armchair, sipping a Perrier with lime, his mind drifting across a span of many decades. "There are ghosts here," he says softly, gazing out the eighth-floor window at the glass skyscrapers that tower above a few surviving, 19th-century brownstones. "This city is crowded with the dead."

Saul Bellow, novelist, Nobel laureate, comic raconteur, wandering Jew and streetwise denizen of Chicago, has returned on his 69th birthday to the land where he spent the first nine years of life—to the land this youngest son of Jewish immigrants from Russia calls "my own 'old country.' " Bellow has come to Montreal on an officially sponsored visit—to attend the dedication of the Bibliothèque Municipale Saul Bellow in Lachine, the working-class suburb where he was born—but it is a spiritual pilgrimage as well. From 1915 to 1924 Shlamke Bellow lived and played on Eighth Avenue in Lachine and on St. Dominique Street in old Montreal—in cluttered, dirty slums filled with the cacophony of Italian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Polish immigrants, the cries of bread hawkers and ice peddlers, the Hebrew prayers of Jewish families, the rasping coughs of children dying of tuberculosis in the night. Life then had a harsh elemental quality—tightly familial, exuberantly emotional, bound by tradition, besieged by poverty and death. It was a life that shaped Bellow's literary voice, from Dangling Man, his first novel, published in 1944 ("I sometimes think St. Dominique Street was the only street where I was able to encounter reality," says the main character) to Him With His Foot in His Mouth, Bellow's new collection of short stories.

"I saw mayhem all around me from an early age," Bellow recalls this afternoon. "Especially on St. Dominique Street and at the Royal Victoria Hospital, where at the age of 8 I understood what sickness and death were. I was in a children's ward with peritonitis and pneumonia, and one day you'd be talking to a kid, and two days later you'd see him being wheeled out, covered up. One was not protected from these things. I think of that as an advantage. I look at my own children and their generation, and though they're very intelligent and attractive, they seem not to know anything about life."

Bellow's life journey has left its physical and spiritual mark. His wispy hair is white. His handsome, almost feminine face, with its prominent nose and deep-set brown eyes, is marked by crow's feet and creases. Pouches of flesh hang below his chin. He thinks and writes frequently of mortality nowadays, since the death of his cousin Louis Gameroff several years ago and the critical illness last winter of Louis' younger brother Meyer, Bellow's last surviving cousin from Lachine. Yet when Bellow laughs, as he does often—a hearty, joyous guffaw, back arched, head thrown back, the boyish gap between his front teeth exposed—the decades seem to drop away, swept off in a wave of infectious exuberance and vitality.

It is Sunday morning, and Bellow is full of emotion as his limousine slides up to a crumbling, two-story red brick house on Eighth Avenue. On neighboring porches men in sweaty T-shirts and their tired-looking wives peer with curiosity at the fancy car and the nattily tailored man who emerges from it, escorted by his wife, Alexandra, 50, sister Jane, and niece Lesha, 46. Three generations have come and gone since Bellow and his family moved away, yet today the neighborhood is still seedy, taken over by lower-middle-class French-Canadians, few of whom have ever heard of the author or his Nobel Prize.

"Bonjour, madame," Bellow says to a woman in her 30s, who has opened the door at 130 Eighth Avenue. "I was born here. May I have a little look?" he asks in French. "Of course," she replies. Grinning with delight, he wanders through the cramped flat, rediscovering the tiny room where he was born in 1915. He was the third son of Abraham Bellow, a St. Petersburg onion importer who had fled Czarist police with his family in 1913, renting the flat next door to his sister and brother-in-law Rosa and Max Gameroff. "My aunt used to tell me how, on the morning was born, she sent my cousin Sam to fetch the doctor," Bellow says. "Sam made the rounds of the saloons until finally he found him, slumped over the bar counter, dead drunk. He dragged the doctor outside, cranked up his Model T and drove him home to my poor mother, who'd been in Canada two years and couldn't speak a word of English or French. There she was, in the midst of labor, being tended to by a dead-drunk French-Canadian who could barely stand up."

Messy, loud, comical—somehow it is fitting that Saul Bellow should have entered the world in such a fashion. Though he left Lachine at the age of 3, he returned every weekend by trolley car from Montreal to visit his pals and cousins, and his mind is a tapestry of memories. Walking down Eighth Avenue toward the St. Lawrence River, he remembers his father rising at 3 a.m. seven days a week to deliver baked goods by horse and buggy through the neighborhood. From the west bank of the river he gazes across the blue expanse and recalls the nickel ferry rides that he and friends took to the Caughnawaga Indian Reservation on the opposite bank. "We had an Indian girl who worked for my mother when I was small," he says. "At mealtimes, she used to chew the meat and put it in my mouth. I swallowed a great amount of Indian saliva as a child. It probably had a big effect upon my life."

He climbs the outside metal staircase leading to the Gameroff's second-floor apartment, where his Uncle Max and Aunt Rosa lived with cousins Lena, Sam, Meyer and Louis. "Their apartment was roomier than ours, and they had a bigger coal stove," he says. "Uncle Max used to sit on the porch up there and read his sons the matrimonial advertisements from the Yiddish newspapers: 'Young widow, well endowed, looking for a husband.' He was concerned about making a good match for them." Bellow pauses. "They're all gone now except for Meyer," he says, glancing at a little girl watching him from a window. "But this house is the Lachine that used to be. Now you look across the street and you see a parking lot."

Later, crowds throng the bandstand in front of the Bibliothèque Municipale Saul Bellow, applauding with excitement as the hero of the morning arrives. Escorted by the town's energetic mayor, Guy Descary, Bellow is besieged by well-wishers, housewives armed with weighty manuscripts ("I've been writing this novel for 10 years!"), New Wave teenagers, retired hockey players. To this stagnant town of drab apartment blocks and tenements, Bellow is the native son who made good beyond imagining, the poor boy who escaped to Chicago, achieved international adulation, and who has returned to bring vicarious joy to the old, hope to the young.

"I remember an Indian policeman named John, a giant said to be capable of driving spikes into a fence with the palm of his hand," he tells the crowd. "I remember an old gentleman who had a perpetual motion machine powered by a spring. I remember the Lachine Canal and the barges going through the locks, the green water, the banter between the crew and the people alongside on the grass. I grasped it all tightly with my senses, with a consuming appetite." The appetite has served Bellow and his art well over the past decades, energizing his soul and warding off the shadow of despair. "I've always gone my own way," he tells his admirers, "always stamped my writing with the direct imprints of my mind and spirit. One must see and feel this contact. Otherwise, we are so beleaguered by trivialities that life is stolen from us." Small wonder that, as he walks amid the remnants of his youth, his eyes flash with recognition of—and longing for—the world as he first knew it, a world that has departed forever.

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