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                                       politics + culture

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Harold Arlen and Saul Bellow

A composer and songwriter who exemplified the verve and swagger of the NYC streets...Harold Arlen was so sweet...just listen...and then read this essay, Come Rain or Come Shine by John Lahr from the New Yorker. It may be one of the best pieces of writing I've read all year. It's just perfect and beautiful and heartbreaking.

It makes me think of this passage from Philip Roth's document in tribute to Saul Bellow, yet another great New Yorker essay. In the midst of writing a depressing novel in post-war Paris, Bellow recalled how he seized on the inspiration for his greatest novel...the Adventures of Augie March:

"...when spring came I was deep in the dumps. I worked in a small studio, and as I was walking toward it one morning to wrestle yet again with death in a Chicago hospital room, I made the odd discovery that the streets of Paris were offering me some sort of relief. Parisian gutters are flushed every morning by municipal employees who open the hydrants a bit and let water run along the curbs. I seem to remember there were also rolls of burlap that were meant to keep the flow from the middle of the street. Well, there was a touch of sun in the water that strangely cheered me.

I suppose a psychiatrist would say that this was some kind of hydrotherapy—the flowing water, freeing me from the caked burden of depression that had formed on my soul. But it wasn’t so much the water flow as the sunny iridescence. Just the sort of thing that makes us loonies cheerful. I remember saying to myself, “Well, why not take a short break and have at least as much freedom of movement as this running water.”

My first thought was that I must get rid of the hospital novel—it was poisoning my life. And next I recognized that this was not what being a novelist was supposed to have meant. This bitterness of mine was intolerable, it was disgraceful, a symptom of slavery. I think I’ve always been inclined to accept the depressions that overtook me and I felt just now that I had allowed myself to be dominated by the atmosphere of misery or surliness, that I had agreed somehow to be shut in or bottled up.

I seem then to have gone back to childhood in my thoughts and remembered a pal of mine whose surname was August—a handsome, breezy, freewheeling kid who used to yell out when we were playing checkers, “I got a scheme!” He lived in the adjoining building and we used to try to have telephone conversations with tin cans connected by waxed grocery string. [snip]...

Now, just what had happened to handsome, cheerful Chuckie and to his brothers, his mother, and the stranger whom they called granny? I hadn’t seen anything of these people for three decades and hadn’t a clue. So I decided to describe their lives. This came on me in a tremendous jump. Subject and language appeared at the same moment. The language was immediately present—I can’t say how it happened, but I was suddenly enriched with words and phrases. The gloom went out of me and I found myself with magical suddenness writing a first paragraph.

I was too busy and happy to make any diagnoses or to look for causes and effects. I had the triumphant feeling that this is what I had been born for. I pushed the hospital manuscript aside and began immediately to write in a spirit of reunion with the kid who had shouted, “I got a scheme!"

And isn't it like that....something about being American, just when you feel like you may have lost it all...this place finds a way to drop a diamond in the midst of all your troubles...or a rainbow.

In memoriam: Harold Arlen and Saul Bellow.


  • "But it wouldn't be make believe, if you believe in my. Without your love it's a honky tonk parade. Without your love, it's a melody played in a penny arcade." I mean come on..Harold Arlen is one of the top 3 greats of all time. Where have all the great composers and lyricist gone?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:15 AM  

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