Voice from Bellow

Saul Bellow's letters recount a very awkward dinner with pro-Palestinian critic Christopher Hitchens. No doubt he would have been heartened to see Hitchens now standing up against Islamism.

[amazon 0670022217 full]Two of the four participants had already published striking, if pithy, descriptions of that memorable evening in August 1989 in rural Vermont. English novelist Martin Amis, summering in Cape Cod, had brought along his journalist friend Christopher Hitchens to meet and sup with another friend, Saul Bellow (and his wife Janis).

Hitchens, who was writing for The Nation (and now writes regularly for The Atlantic, Slate and Vanity Fair), a few years earlier had discovered his Jewishness (or half-Jewishness; his mother, who committed suicide in 1973, had been Jewish). But he remained a knee-jerk leftist, especially when it came to Israel and the Palestinians. Bellow, while critical of Israel's drift to the right and of the occupation, was consanguinely—as Amis put it—pro-Israel. Amis, too, was pro-Zionist, though he apparently contributed little to the dustup that evening between Hitchens and Bellow (save, as both Amis and Hitchens later recorded in their autobiographies, respectively Experience (2000) and Hitch-22 (2010), for continuous under-the-table kicks to Hitchens's shins designed to persuade him to tone it down).

During the drive up, Hitchens, who is also a well-regarded literary critic (and a prominent God-basher, author of the best-seller, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007))—had promised Amis to be on his best behavior. But on Bellow's table was a copy of Commentary, the essay "Edward Said: Professor of Terror" prominently flagged on the cover. Said and Hitchens were pals; indeed, Said was probably instrumental in deepening Hitchens's pro-Palestinism (together they had edited a pro-Palestinian volume called Blaming the Victims). Hitchens probably suspected that Bellow had deliberately laid the copy of the monthly on the table ("the only piece of printed matter in view")—a red flag dangled before a bull or, as Hitchens was to put it, a Checkhovian pistol placed on the mantlepiece in the first act, auguring eventual cataclysm.

After the "genial and sparkling" dinner, Bellow, says Hitchens, launched "a very coarse attack on Edward"—and "I was damned if I would hear him being abused without saying a word.” Hitchens let loose. But Bellow, a veteran "Chicago streetfighter,” "hardly took offense at all,” Hitchens was later to write.

But this wasn't how Bellow saw things at the time, to judge by his letter written a few days later to novelist Cynthia Ozick. It is included in the just-published Saul Bellow: Letters (edited by Benjamin Taylor). Bellow: "At the [negative] mention of Said's name . . . the guest [Hitchens] wrestled briefly and silently with the louche journalist and finally [the latter] spoke up." Bellow says that "everybody remained polite" and "for Amis's sake, [that "Amis whom I love and admire"] I didn't want a scene.” Nonetheless, Bellow said his piece: Said had "more or less"compared the Jews to the Nazis. "But of course, said Hitchens, it was well known that [then–Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir had approached Hitler during the war to make deals.” Bellow objected that "Shamir was Shamir, he wasn't the Jews.”

Amis described how, after "Christopher's cerebral stampede," it all ended:

And we faced the silence. . . . A consensus was forming . . . that the evening could not be salvaged. A change of subject and a cleansing cup of coffee? No. Nothing for it, now, but to finish up and seek our bedding. But for the time being we sat there, rigid, as the silence raged on.

Bellow in his letter dismissed the young Hitchens as "not always fit company . . . at the dinner table" and as a "Fourth-Estate playboy thriving on agitation" ("and Jews are so easy to agitate"), a nihilistic "gnome," peddling—like Said—historical falsehoods. Hitchens, for his part, recorded that Bellow, presumably years after, "sent me a warm letter" about his introduction to a new edition of Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March.

That letter, unfortunately, does not appear in Bellow's Letters. But, without doubt, Bellow—who died in 2005—would have been happy to see today's Hitchens (shoulder-to-shoulder with Amis, currently vilified as an Islamophobe for his denunciations of Muslim terrorism and obscurantist Islamic thought) blasting away at the Islamist scourge of our time.