Way back in the 1960s, a decade which I still remember even though I was there, I was reading American Studies at Hull University. At Hull, we actually said ‘doing American Studies’ not ‘reading American Studies.’ In my third year, 1969, the university received an invitation to send two students to London for a seminar with Saul Bellow. This was to be held at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, a place recently besieged by my peer group, and the American government was to pay our train fare. The invitation was issued to the five or six institutions then offering a dedicated course in American Studies. I was one of the two selected from Hull, perhaps because I had already read Dangling Man and Henderson The Rain King. I hurriedly squeezed Saul Bellow into my massive reading list even though he was not on the 20th century syllabus. In the two weeks before the seminar I read Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March, The Victim, Seize The Day as well as Tony Tanner’s book on Saul Bellow in the Writers and Critics series. I used to write dates in books when I bought them, and they’re labelled January 23rd 1969, so it would have been a major investment. 3/6 here, 4/6 there, a couple of them at 5/- even. I wasn’t hugely enthused by the novels, as my taste then, as now, ran more to Nathanael West, Ken Kesey, Thomas Pynchon and Joseph Heller, but I must have been a conscientious student. Hull was not the most fashionable of universities in those days, and I remember being told ‘not to let the university down’ as if I’d been going on University Challenge.
The great day came and we set off from Hull Paragon station with a day return ticket each. It was a long trip to London, spent assiduously re-reading bits of Henderson The Rain King. The American Embassy was not then barricaded away behind anti-tank concrete, but nonetheless we were searched, and I had a few quips from genuine crew cut American marines about my hair length, as well as an uncomfortable question (given the Grosvenor Square demo in 1968) as to whether I had ‘been here before.’ We were led up to a seminar room, light wood and dark tinted windows overlooking the square, and offered coffee and curled up sandwiches. They must have gone British in catering. There was a buzz of excitement in the room. None of us had met a great author before. It was exciting enough for me just to be meeting Americans.
Bellow waltzed in, a small neat hat on his head and an attractive female publisher’s representative twenty-five years younger in tow. He threw his hat across the room, and patted her bottom. Now it was 1969, I’m male, I was twenty-one, and an antediluvian part of my brain was no doubt registering, ‘If you ever get to be a famous middle-aged author you will be allowed to pat younger women’s bottoms and they won’t slap you,’ but my conscious mind was registering the looks of stern disapproval from the women in the room. He was clearly showing-off and very pleased with himself. At that point, he’d lost half the small audience. It didn’t take him long to lose the rest. He announced that he had no intention of discussing either himself or his work, but was happy to discuss literature in general, or Shakespeare in particular, as we were in Britain. Silence. He emphasized that he wanted to talk about English Literature, not American. The realization dawned that he had prepared nothing whatsoever in advance, and had assumed it would all just happen. My feeling of disbelief lasted many years, until I started going to literary festivals and realized that this was quite a common attitude from famous fiction writers.
Saul Bellow on Shakespeare? It should have been interesting and revealing. Most of the seminar were reading (or doing) English combined with American Studies. I wasn’t but had done Drama subsidiary. That meant I was used to drama lecturers speaking on Shakespeare, and naturally drama lecturers have well-honed presentation skills and have prepared their parts well, while Saul Bellow said nothing that stuck with me at all. I’ve read what an inspiring teacher he was. Not in London. Not in 1969.