Another genius who seems to have forgotten nothing is Montreal’s greatest writer, Chicagoan Saul Bellow. Born in Lachine on the same day as my father (which adds to his greatness), he never let go of his first nine years in Montreal; they seep through most of his fiction, including his first novel (1944) and last short story (1995).
Dangling Man, an existential diary loosely modelled on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, is full of catalytic, stop-time moments. “Little since then has worked upon me with such force,” he says of the things he saw from his window on rue St-Dominique: “a driver trying to raise his fallen horse, a funeral passing through the snow, a cripple who taunted his brother … a Negro with a blond woman on his lap… a cage with a rat in it thrown on a bonfire… I sometimes think it is the only place where I was ever allowed to encounter reality.
“In “By the St. Lawrence,” written a half-century later, an aged American author returns to his birthplace of Lachine. He is stooped and hunchbacked, crippled in adolescence by polio. As he-Rexler-hobbles along the St. Lawrence, he recalls:
There had been an accident. A man had been killed by a fast train. He was able to see-not the corpse, but his organs on the roadbed-first the man’s liver, shining on the white, egg-shaped stones, and a little beyond it his lungs. More than anything, it was the lungs-Rexler couldn’t get over the twin lungs crushed out of the man by the train when it tore his body open.
Rexler later sees this same image, but filtered through his octogenarian brain: “The lungs in the roadbed as pink as a rubber eraser and the other organs, the baldness of them, the foolish oddity of the shapes, almost clownish, almost a denial or refutation of the high-ranking desires and subtleties.” He wonders if his deformity-the shelf on his back and the curved bracket of his shoulder-had developed to protect his organs. An armour forged by his will on the hint given that afternoon at the scene of the accident. “Don’t tell me, Rexler thought, that everything depends on these random-looking parts-and that to preserve them I was turned into some kind of human bivalve?”
As we ponder that staggering thought, the story ends in mood-shattering anti-climax, vintage Bellowesque burlesque: “The Mercedes limo had come to the canal for him and he got in, turning his thoughts to the lecture at McGill he didn’t particularly want to give.”mRb