He had the profile of a delicate bird of prey with white hair, and he wore a velvet jacket that was almost as handsome as he was. I wanted to tell him how much I admired his writing. The Adventures of Augie March had been my own student bible. Its violent mix of the high and the low—tough street talk entangled with the cadences of Milton and Melville—had created a new kind of literary jargon. It allowed me to become a writer, showed me that my own staccato music might have at least a little bit of merit, and perhaps that all language started in the street.
It was circa 1966, and he was giving a talk at Stanford, where I was one more young novelist that the university had dragged out of the cold. My first two novels had vanished into the ether. I could barely remember what they were about. And so I introduced myself to Saul Bellow, told him how much Augie March had meant to me. He smiled and sang out, like some list from the hit parade, Once upon a Droshky and On the Darkening Green, the names of my two novels. That was Saul’s hello.
I remember his smile. He was a writer-magician, after all, and he must have known what effect his words would have. Yet he couldn’t have realized the gift he had bestowed upon me, a kind of subterranean encouragement to continue writing—no matter what obscurity I had been born into, I could still ride my own language out of the dark.
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