June 25, 2013

This Bellow scholar surpasses all expectations

Posted by WARREN PERLEY – Editor, BestStory.ca
Writing from Montreal

As an editor, it’s always a bonus when a piece of writing and its author are both brimming with fascinating anecdotes. So it was when Ann Weinstein, a retired English literature professor from Dawson College in Montreal and a life-long scholar of Saul Bellow’s works, unexpectedly contacted me a few weeks ago to offer BestStory.ca a review of Greg Bellow’s memoir about his famous writer-father:

Of course, there have been many reviews published worldwide since Greg’s book titled Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir came out two months ago. But on my first reading of Ann’s piece, I realized it had been written not only by an academic with expert knowledge of all Saul Bellow’s works, but by someone with personal insights into the man himself.

I later discovered that over the years Ann had met with Saul Bellow a dozen times and was one of a small group of scholars granted access by him prior to his death in 2005 to the 45 boxes of archives he had donated to the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, where he taught.

What makes Ann’s book review [see below] so different and special is her ability to put into context what Greg Bellow has to say about his father with what Saul Bellow actually wrote and did, as well as what other scholars, including Ann herself, have written and learned over the years about the Montreal-born, Chicago-raised Bellow.

Published: JUNE 2013
Saul Bellow’s fame and foibles as seen through his eldest son’s eyes

Writing from Montreal

“Was I a man or a jerk?” Saul Bellow asked a longtime friend shortly before the world-famous novelist, who was married five times, died in 2005. English literature professor Ann Weinstein, an acknowledged “Bellowphile”, answers that question in spades after reviewing Greg Bellow’s enlightening 2013 book, Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir, and sharing with readers insights gleaned from 40 years of study and her own very unusual relationship with the Montreal-born, Chicago-raised novelist, considered one of the literary giants of the 20th century.

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Their relationship at the beginning was not what Bellow might have described in his own vernacular as “hunky-dory”. Ann, who had become hooked on his writing in 1958 as a mature student at Sir George Williams University, awoke one summer more than two decades later imbued with a biblical-like vision which “commanded” her to trace Bellow’s Canadian roots to the working-class, Montreal municipality of Lachine, where he was born before moving to gritty Napoleon Street near fabled St. Lawrence Boulevard, which marks the unofficial demarcation of the English and French areas of Montreal. At age 9, Saul moved with his family to Chicago.

Ringing doorbells in Bellow’s old Lachine neighborhood, trying to find friends or relatives who might share their memories of him as a toddler did not endear her to the maestro, who by this point had won the Nobel Prize for Literature [1976] and numerous other awards, placing him in the pantheon of great 20th century novelists.

In a letter dated April 18, 1984 bearing a University of Chicago letterhead, Bellow wrote concerning her quest to trace his Canadian roots:

Dear Mrs. Weinstein:

I gather from earlier letters that some of my books have given you some pleasure, and for this reason I find it difficult to see why you must for your part complicate my life and distress me by converting me into a project. It isn’t that I mind being useful and ornamental: it does, however, seem unfair to involve me in research. I don’t much liked being the subject of “studies”: I do prefer to be let alone, and it is a point of honor with me not to molest aged cousins who face death. I assure you that in their time of maturity and vigor their interest in me was very slight, and I greatly doubt that they would have much to tell you. I have no intention of sabotaging your grant application, but you no more require blessings from me than any anthropologist gets from a tribe of Eskimos. I would be delighted to have a drink with you and your friends in Montreal, and you are welcome to use any information that you might informally pick up somewhere between utter sobriety and total drunkenness. I am acquainted with very few Montreal writers — Leonard Cohen is one of them, and Louis Dudek of McGill is another.

Best wishes,

Saul Bellow

Bellow was beginning to discover what Ann’s immediate family — husband, Oscar, sons Joel, Ralph, and daughter, Donna Kuzmarov — already knew: she had a single-minded devotion to scholarship which propelled her from a Brooklyn-born schoolgirl too poor to attend college to a mature student, married to a Montrealer, who went to university in her mid-30s, becoming an English professor and a world-class expert on the works of Saul Bellow.

Daughter Donna, a psychologist at McGill University and a former English teacher, remembers her mother as “a bundle of energy who juggled many tasks” bringing up a family in the 1950s, 60s and 70s while honing her literary and scholastic skills.

She was a homemaker par excellence, known in Yiddish as a balabusta, who when not studying and writing would bake up a storm of pies and other sweet treats. She won a $50 prize from a homemaking magazine for her “sour dough twisty cookies”, Donna fondly recalls.

After her children were grown, Ann still volunteered to babysit for neighbors on their verdant Snowdon-area street, where she was known to youngsters in the 1970s and early 80s as the “mommy of Bijou”, the family’s pet beagle.

Ann’s husband, Oscar, an accountant 13 years her elder who had met her at a Schroon Lake resort in the Adirondack mountains in northern New York state during the Second World War, was very supportive of Ann and her literary ambitions, including her scholarship involving Bellow’s writings.

Oscar, who stayed active as an accountant right up to the time he passed away in 2009 at age 98, would drive Ann everywhere, including down to Brattleboro, Vermont, where she dropped in unannounced at the country home of an astonished Saul Bellow shortly after he wrote her the letter of April 18, 1984 [cited above]. It was at that meeting in Vermont that he gave her permission to consult his archives at the University of Chicago on the understanding that she would stop pestering his relatives and former neighbors in Montreal.

In answer to some questions I emailed Ann recently, she told me that she found Bellow to be “intimidating” in person. “He spoke like he wrote,” she told me. “He was more of an observer and listener than warm and friendly….I was always nervous in his presence, knowing how erudite he was.”

In one of her final emails to me before we posted her story, Ann let drop an intimate detail about her own father who had not been receptive to her university ambitions as a young woman growing up in Brooklyn prior to, and during, the Second World War. Ann sent me a Quote of the Day she had read in The Gazette of June 17, 2013: “Whoever does not have a good father should procure one.”

She went on to tell me: “Because my own father might just as well have been mute since I don’t remember having a solid conversation with him, it’s no wonder I adopted him [Saul Bellow].”

But over the years as she and Bellow met at various conferences and speaking engagements, the relationship seemed to warm, perhaps because Bellow was flattered by Ann’s single-minded attention to his works. Or, perhaps, because Ann’s probing brought back vivid memories from his early boyhood days in Montreal, growing up poor on Napolean Street with a Russian immigrant father struggling to support a Jewish Orthodox family by bootlegging on the side.

In his 1964 breakout novel Herzog, which contains autobiographical elements, Bellow has protagonist Moses Herzog expressing the following sentiments:

Napoleon Street, rotten, toylike, crazy and filthy, riddled, flogged with harsh weather — the bootlegger’s boys reciting ancient prayers. To this Moses’ heart was attached with great power. Here was a wider range of human feelings than he had ever again been able to find….What was wrong with Napoleon Street? thought Herzog. All he ever wanted was there.

Whatever the reasons for Bellow’s warming towards Ann Weinstein, the respect was obvious, judging by an August 24, 1990, letter he sent to her Montreal home, wherein he addressed her as Ann, rather than Mrs. Weinstein:

Dear Ann:

You are clearly a devoted fan and I am grateful to you as such. To read discussions or explanations of what I have written makes me absolutely wretched, to talk about my books and stories throws me into a state of depression. Long ago I gave up reading reviews and it may surprise you to learn that I have not read what people have written and published about me. Thus I was able to reply to Ruth Wisse. We are acquaintances, not a scholar and subject matter. I do not exaggerate when I say that reading about myself drives me up the wall — yes, and across the ceiling too.

So don’t be vexed with me.

Yours with best wishes,

Saul Bellow

In 2007, Ann published Me and My (Tor)Mentor: Saul Bellow, A Memoir of My Literary Love Affair — “a record of what my mentor’s work has meant to me and the interesting people my interest in Bellow led me to meet.” Ann’s memoir can found at:


A member of the McGill Institute for Lifelong Learning, Ann should serve as an inspiration to young, aspiring writers who could learn from her the importance of patience, perseverance and humility.

Despite her impressive literary and scholastic accomplishments, fulfilled under challenging circumstances, Ann still maintains a low-key, deprecating sense of self as evidenced by her recent emails to me during our editing process. “I don’t consider myself scholarly,” she told me. “I am sloppy with footnotes and do not possess the jargon of academics and critics. But I do take pride in making Saul Bellow more accessible to the average reader.”