'I Apparently Got the Last Interview That Philip Roth Ever Gave'

Israeli filmmaker Asaf Galay’s new documentary ‘The Adventures of Saul Bellow’ takes a deep dive into the artistry and tumultuous personal life of the American Jewish writer

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Saul Bellow, left, and Philip Roth. 'He missed arguing with him at the table.'
Saul Bellow, left, and Philip Roth. 'Roth missed arguing with Bellow at the table.'Credit: EDDIE ADAMS / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Ronen Tal
Ronen Tal

After a long series of pleading emails that were carefully crafted to straddle the fine line between erudition and groveling, Philip Roth consented to grant Asaf Galay 40 minutes in which he would talk about Saul Bellow, the man who was his spiritual mentor. At one point, he also stole Roth’s girlfriend, Susan Glassman, and married her. “I went to his house in Connecticut, and unlike other writers who mainly talk about themselves, Roth really talked about Bellow, and every sentence of his is a work of art, verbal magic,” Galay recounts. “And after he spoke about Bellow he started telling me jokes in Yiddish – jokes that of course I couldn’t put in the film – and he said, ‘Let’s meet again. Come back here and do a real film about me.’ But that, of course, didn’t happen, and a year later he died. I apparently got the last interview that Philip Roth ever gave.”

And what was the most interesting thing Roth said about Saul Bellow? “He said that he missed arguing with him at the table, but that Bellow was not a good friend. He said something like: ‘He wouldn’t be the first guy whose companionship I’d seek out in the afterlife.’”

Roth is just one of the interviewees who appear in Galay’s film, “The Adventures of Saul Bellow,” which follows the life of one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Other interviewees include Bellow’s three sons, Greg, Adam and Daniel; the two of his five former wives who are still alive; the writers Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Charles R. Johnson and noted literary scholars and critics. The film, which was shown as part of the Jewish Film Festival that took place last week at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, depicts a man who was a towering intellectual, a charismatic personality and Nobel Prize winner who searched in his writing for an answer to the spiritual wilderness at the core of the human experience – but also a petty man replete with human faults.

Asaf Galay in Tel Aviv, this month.Credit: Hadas Parush

The film was produced with the support of the Gesher Multicultural Film Fund and the Avi Chai Foundation, and is being released after six years of intensive work. In many ways, is a natural follow-up to Galay’s previous documentary, which was about the relationships between Isaac Bashevis Singer – another Jewish-American literary titan and Nobel laureate – and the group of women he employed as Yiddish-to-English translators. “The trigger,” Galay says, “was when I discovered that Bashevis Singer’s first story, ‘Gimpel the Fool,’ was translated into English by Saul Bellow, who was already the big star in American literature at the time. Bashevis Singer said: ‘Everyone will think the success is because of the translator and not because I am a great writer,’ and he decided to become the sole ruler of his translations.”

Bellow was born in 1915 in Canada to parents who had immigrated there from Saint Petersburg, Russia. When he was 9, the family moved to Chicago. His mother was a pious woman. His father made a living from an array of business ventures, which included smuggling alcohol during Prohibition. They spoke a mixture of Russian, Yiddish and English at home. Bellow’s first novel, “Dangling Man,” came out in 1944, but the book that really jump-started his career was “The Adventures of Augie March.” Published in 1953, the picaresque novel’s main character is Bellow’s alter ego – a Jewish young man who grew up in Chicago during the Depression and changes successive occupations, locations and romantic partners as he tries to find his way in the world. It comes together into a spectacular chronicle of flawed and fascinating humanity.

Bellow went on to publish numerous impressive and successful books, including “Henderson the Rain King,” “Herzog,” “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” and “Humboldt’s Gift.” Most feature Jewish male protagonists who are grappling with an existential crisis and searching for philosophical meaning, erotic excitement, or both. His personal life was just as tumultuous: He married five times, with the age difference between him and his wives tending to widen the more his fame grew; each marriage, save for the last one, ended aid a major scandal. In his spare time, he also had affairs.

Author Philip Roth poses in New York in 2010.Credit: Eric Thayer / REUTERS

Even though Galay’s parents are Israeli, he was born in Chicago, where the family lived for two years while his father, Yiddish writer and composer Daniel Galay, was doing a master’s degree in composition. Before he even learned to read, Bellow’s huge shadow already loomed over his childhood. In 2014, Galay returned to the United States when his wife, Yiddish literature scholar Hannah Pollin-Galay, did her doctorate there. That was when he also returned to Bellow’s books, which he had read when he was younger. “He became like a spiritual guide for me to American society,” he says. “I read him nonstop. Then I decided that I was going to do a movie about him.”

The appearances by Rushdie and Amis, who were close to Bellow and cite him as an inspiration, provide Galay’s film with some of its best moments. “Amis was especially close to Bellow; he spoke at his funeral, and he was the first one who agreed to be filmed. Just let him talk. But he spoke mostly about what a great writer he himself is.”

And Rushdie? “With Rushdie, there was an issue. Because of the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini issued against him, calling for him to be murdered because of his book ‘The Satanic Verses,’ he doesn’t give anyone his address. His agents told me, ‘Pick a location and he’ll come [to you].’ I got in touch with a Yiddish cultural institute in Chelsea and they gave me a room to use for the interview. Rushdie arrived in a black car with a driver and bodyguard. After two assassination attempts, he still fears for his life. It’s not just a joke on Larry David’s show.”

He says that he did not recognize the author at first. “I saw a chubby man wearing a Yankees cap get out of the car and walk into the building, and I was sure it was just some Jewish guy coming to look at the archive. Most famous people have this aura about them, but Rushdie is so skilled at hiding that it’s easy to miss him. As soon as you turn on the camera, it’s amazing – He comes to life and gives so much of himself and is so funny, all accompanied by infinite charm. I think he’s the greatest living writer today. I’d like to make my next film about him.”

Family affairs

Bellow’s family affairs were a harder nut to crack. His sons gladly agreed to be interviewed, but the person who holds the rights to his literary estate is his fifth wife Janis Freedman Bellow, mother of his 18-year-old daughter Rosie, and she has long been alienated from the sons. “Janis was unwilling at first, and only after long emails along the lines of ‘You were the person closest to him in his final years’ did she agree. Ultimately, you find that everyone wants to come into the modern confessional booth and tell their story.”

The scenes with Janis convey a sense of intimate longing and a sort of sadness, a testament to Galay’s ability to foster trust with his interview subjects. “I filmed her at the summer home in Vermont where she lived with Bellow. Nothing has changed there: His desk is just as it was, his shoes are in their place. Like a museum. I met with her more than 15 years after he died and it felt like she is still living with him. She never remarried, and when she talks about him you see her love for him, as if he were sitting right next to her.”

Their relationship was a target of criticism at the time. “Bellow met her when he was married to his fourth wife, Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea, an eminent Romanian mathematician. Janis was his student and then his secretary. There was a 42-year age difference between them, and that in itself didn’t look good. When he died, he left her all his money and assets.

Author Salman Rushdie arrives at the High Court in London in 2008.Credit: REUTERS

“Naturally, his sons were hurt and angry, but Bellow’s argument was that they were now adults with careers of their own, and she was the mother of a four-year-old girl, apparently with special needs, and needed the support. They are still angry at him. His marriage to Janis came as a shock to them, and even more so the fact that he had a daughter with her when he was 84. In photos from that time, you see what looks like a great-grandfather holding a baby girl when he himself needs care, and it’s clear that she will grow up without a father.”

In the 1950s and 60s, when he was considered America’s greatest writer, Bellow amassed a significant fortune, but as his got older, his financial situation became problematic. “Most of the money he earned went to pay for the divorce trial from his third wife, Susan Glassman, whom he left in order to marry Alexandra the mathematician. He and Susan were only married for three years, but the conflict between them reached the highest courts and went on for years. His insistence on going to trial emptied his bank account. It was really idiotic.”

Galay says he wondered why Bellow married so many times. “Why keep getting married when you know it never ends well? Each time he repeated the same ritual – a wedding in the synagogue and then at City Hall, and hiring a photographer. As if he needed to experience the action each time anew, including the drama of the marriage dissolving, and this drama impels him to write. He once said he couldn’t write out of indifference, he had to hate in order to move himself to write.”

What would you have thought of him had you met him? “First of all, I would have been impressed by his appearance. Bellow was quite a foppish dandy, always wearing a bow tie in bright colors like pink or turquoise, with custom-tailored suits and hats that cost $400. He went to the barber once a week. Someone who walks around like that today is either demonstratively gay or an eccentric type like [Haaretz columnist] Benny Ziffer.

“In the film, Janis describes how he would write – sweating and grunting with effort, as if he were running a marathon, and changing shirts and wiping his head with a towel while he trembled all over. You realize what a physical and mental effort writing was for him, like an Ironman race.”

Saul Bellow in 1995.Credit: Courtesy of the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival

Bellow’s physical and mental vitality kept him sharp well into old age. At 85, besides for being a father to an infant, he published one of his best books, Ravelstein. In it, he settled scores with his latest ex, Alexandra – she was the inspiration for the character of Vela, a cool and obsessive astrophysicist. The book also publicly outed his good friend, the philosopher and literary critic Allan Bloom, author of “The Closing of the American Mind,” which became the official manifesto of America’s new conservative right. In Ravelstein, not only did Bellow freely describe the revered intellectual’s active sex life, his love of designer clothes and profligate spending habits that reached Kardashian-like proportions, he also revealed that Bloom died of AIDS.

“It was a shock to discover that the towering beacon of the conservative movement was gay, and what’s more, that he died of AIDS,” Galay says. At the time, “AIDS was thought of as a disease of gay men on the margins, of the bathhouses, and the media reports about Bloom’s death said he died of an autoimmune disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome. Bellow explicitly says in the book that Bloom asked him to write his posthumous biography, and that he fulfilled his wishes. But Bloom’s close friends accused him of betrayal – to the point where he was forced to leave his position at the University of Chicago, and moved to Boston.”

Proud Ashkenazi roots

Galay is not a typical documentary filmmaker. He didn’t study cinema, but literature, and got into documentaries as part of an intellectual exploration of Jewish culture. He works as a senior curator at ANU –Museum of the Jewish People (formerly the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora), a job that fuels his interest in Yiddish culture and Ashkenazi identity. Fittingly, his daughters are named Ruth and Leah, after their grandmothers.

“The interest in Ashkenazi identity comes from my father, who was a writer and activist for Yiddish. I remember myself as a boy sitting in the living rooms of people like Feivel Zigelboim or Issakhar Fater or Musia Landau – people whose names alone express their alienness in the Israeli culture of jeans and sandals. and they have European mannerisms and [wear] button-down shirts and ties and suspenders and sometimes a vest. I didn’t understand what they were talking about, but these were formative experiences.”

In a popular culture that glorifies Middle Eastern roots, in which people like Dudi Amsalem and others have made Ashkenazi a dirty word – Galay seems to have chosen the least fashionable pursuit possible. But, he says, “It was always this way. The new Sabra who was born in Israel indeed repressed the Ashkenazi diaspora side of his identity. Modern Israeliness is starting to take on an ethnic Mizrahi hue and that’s a positive thing, but I want Ashkenazim to be proud of their roots, too.”

Saul Bellow. 'You realize what a physical and mental effort writing was for him, like an Ironman race.'Credit: Courtesy of the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival

His early films also gave expression to his interest in these ethnic elements: From “The Muses of Bashevis Singer” to “The Hebrew Superhero,” in which he explored the world of Israeli comics. Also in the two episodes he directed of the miniseries Hasidistock, about contemporary Hasidic music, and “Army of Lovers in the Holy Land,” about the Swedish pop group that wove high camp and Jewish references into its music and gained international success in the 1990s. The latter film focuses on lead singer Jean-Pierre Barda, a Jew of Algerian descent who decided to leave Sweden and make aliya.

“I’ve been a big fan of Army of Lovers since I was a kid,” Galay says. “Everyone around me liked Kurt Cobain and Metallica, but I hated that, it looked dirty to me. I chased them for years, I kept bugging them. They recently broke up, but they were active on and off for 30 years. At one stage, they were very successful in Eastern Europe. Oligarchs started inviting them to play at weddings; they performed at a party thrown by the leader of Tajikstan, at weddings of sheikhs in Dubai. I sent them emails, just as I did with the writers who were interviewed for the film about Bellow. I told them that I’ve been a fan since I was a kid and eventually they said, ‘Come to Stockholm and we’ll meet you.’ When I met them, the band’s popularity had started to wane, and I learned that Barda planned to make aliya.”

Barda, whose parents threw him out of the house when he was 16 after they discovered that he is gay, has been living in Tel Aviv for several years and working as a barber. “He found a new homeland here, a sense of community, even family. He is happy for the opportunity to live as a normal person, not as someone who has paparazzi after him all day long. In his regular life he’s not at all flamboyant. He’s very quiet, very normal. We’re still good friends. That’s the fun thing about making movies about living people – you get to be their friend.”

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