In the first week of April, Holy Father, John Paul II, Pope of the world’s Catholics, died at 84 in Rome. Three days later, he was followed in death by the sole contemporary individual who could be called the Pope of the Jews, if that community were to acknowledge such a figure of authority: Saul Bellow, the Canadian-born American author and Nobel laureate. Bellow died, aged 89, in Massachusetts.
As the Pope represented the Catholic virtues, Bellow embodied the Jewish values of high intelligence, dedication to the written word, spirituality, rigorous integrity and honesty, and humor.
In his youth, Bellow was a partisan of Leon Trotsky, the exiled Soviet revolutionary, and the spectre of Trotsky, as well as the Mexican environment in which Trotsky spent his final years, are prominently featured in Bellow’s third novel, which made his reputation: The Adventures of Augie March, issued in 1953.
Augie March describes the maturation of a self-educated American in the 1930s, and it was doubtless predictable that revolutionary politics, including the bloody conflict between Stalin and Trotsky that had its dramatic denouement on the territory of the Aztec republic, would figure prominently therein.
Bellow recalled, in an essay printed by the London Guardian in 1993, that exactly sixty years before, at 18, “I was a Trotskyist. Trotsky instilled into his young followers the orthodoxy peculiar to the defeated and ousted. We belonged to the Movement, we were faithful to Leninism, and could expound the historical lessons and describe Stalin’s crimes.”
The young writer had been drawn to the dissident Bolshevik by the greatest chapter in Trotsky’s long and prolific indictment of Stalinism: his devastating examination of Muscovite complicity in the triumph of Nazism. As Bellow remembered, “I had already read Trotsky’s pamphlet on the German question and was convinced that Stalin’s errors had brought Hitler to power.”
But Bellow, always driven more by his heart and his literary talent than by intellectual abstractions, also recalled in 1996, on the occasion of her death, the role in his radicalization of a Chicago woman named Yetta Barshevsky. Both Bellow and Barshevsky came from immigrant Russian Jewish families that had been deeply affected by the October revolution. Bellow wrote of his own home, “When the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 I was two years old. My parents had emigrated from St. Petersburg to Montreal in 1913, so events in Russia were on their minds, and at the dinner table the Tsar, the war, the front, Lenin, Trotsky were mentioned as often as parents, sisters and brothers in the old country.”
In a memorial for his youthful woman friend, Bellow remarked, “in the Humboldt Park District of Chicago, Yetta Barshevsky and I were students at the Tuley High School. Although we were born in the same year, she was just a bit ahead of me, graduating in June 1932. Yetta was class orator. The title of her speech, a speech I remember very well, was ‘The Future Belongs to the Youth.’ ” Yetta Barshevsky had been a member of the official, Stalinist Young Communist League, but had also become an adherent of Trotsky. Bellow recollected, “Perhaps she was expelled. She was far too good, too gentle, too charming to be a hardfaced Third Period Stalinist… Yetta introduced me, after a fashion, to world politics… I was even then ‘literary,’ while she was political. She gave me Trotsky’s pamphlet on the German question.” (Yetta Barsh, as she was later known, would play a significant role in the emergence of the neoconservative movement in New York.)
In The Adventures of Augie March, Mexico is introduced in the form of a desperately poor college classmate, Padilla. The latter is a genius at mathematics and physics who has come to Chicago on a scholarship, as Chicago even today remains a leading center of the Mexican diaspora. For a time, Padilla is Augie’s close companion. Trotskyism makes its appearance when Augie evokes two characters, Frazer and Sylvester, who have been expelled from the Communist Party – the first “over the German question.” Sylvester describes his removal from the ranks of the politically orthodox “on charges of Infantile Leftism and Trotskyist Deviationism,” leading Augie to observe, “the terms were queer… and just as queer was his assuming I understood them.”
Augie March follows Thea Fenchel, a married woman he loves, to Mexico when she seeks a divorce. She travels in the style typical of North American tourists in Mexico during the 1930s: “with her money, her decided mind set on love and great circumstances, her car, her guns and Leicas and boots, her talk about Mexico, her ideas. One of the chiefest of these ideas being that there must be something better than what people call reality.” To Augie March, Mexico is equally a place of stereotypes, then common among North Americans: “It sounded like a risky place when she talked of the mountains, hunting, diseases, robbery, and the dangerous population.” Further, his friend Padilla “wasn’t so terribly pleased that I was bound for Mexico, and he warned me not to go near Chihuahua,” the place of origin of the Mexican student, who, in the novel, has become a scientific researcher.
Bellow’s fictional Mexico was based on his own trip to the country in 1940. His 1993 memoir of the trip preserved, through its idiom, the passion of a great and tragic historical turning point: “Nineteen-forty was also the year of Trotsky’s assassination.”
“I was in Mexico at the time, and an acquaintance of the Old Man, a European lady whom I had met in Taxco, arranged a meeting. Trotsky agreed to receive my friend Herbert Passin and me in Coyoacán. It was on the morning of our appointment that he was struck down, and when we reached Mexico City we were met by the headlines. When we went to his villa we must have been taken for foreign journalists, and we were directed to the hospital. The emergency room was in disorder. We had only to ask for Trotsky. A door into a small room was opened for us and there we saw him. He had just died. A cone of bloody bandages was on his head. His cheeks, his nose, his beard, his throat were streaked with blood and with dried trickles of iodine.”
In Bellow’s novel, March and his female companion travel with an eagle, the symbol of Mexican nationality, named Caligula by Augie, and which greatly complicates their journey. Wherever they go, the local populace, children and adults, observe, in whispers as well as astonished outcries, “¡mira, mira, el águila, el águila!” Mexico is exotic to the narrator, but its landscape possesses the mystical power encountered by Bellow’s Anglo-Saxon contemporaries, such as Malcolm Lowry. Amid typical scenes of rural vitality and poverty, the narration proceeds: “The more south we were, the more deep a sky it seemed, till, in the Valley of Mexico, I thought it held an element too strong for life, and that the flamy brilliance of blue stood off this menace, and sometimes like a sheath or silk membrane, showed the weight it held in sags.” The author continues by evoking indigenous religion prior to the Spanish conquest, with its astronomical studies, human sacrifices, the avian costumes of worshippers, and the permanent presence of death.
Eventually, Augie March crosses the path of Trotsky himself, and in a famous passage, he offers a portrait of the old rebel, accompanied by, as it turned out, his pathetically inept guards, described by Bellow as “Europeans or Americans… they were jittery; it seemed to me they didn’t know the first thing about their jobs. So I judged, having now and again, in Chicago, seen the real thing.”
For Augie March as for Bellow himself, Trotsky is an ideal figure: stepping “with a spring, he was very gingery and energetic, debonair, sharp, acute in the beard… I always knew my entire life would not go by without my having seen a great man… I was excited by this great figure; and I believe what it was about him that stirred me up was the instant impression he gave… of navigation by the great stars, of the highest considerations, of being fit to speak the most important human words and universal terms… And even more than an established, an exiled greatness, because the exile was a sign to me of persistence of the highest things.”
Soon Augie’s friend Frazer, the Trotskyist from Chicago, appears, and seeks to recruit March for service as a guard for “the Old Man.” The plotting of the Russian secret police is invoked, along with the belief among Trotskyists then and later that a Soviet assassin named Mink had been charged with the murder mission. In reality, by that time George Mink, born in the U.S. and a prominent agent of the Communist International, had been consigned to the Soviet gulag.
The defiant Russian was nonetheless doomed. In the voice of Augie March, Bellow wrote of Trotsky, “I had to stop and ask myself about martyrdom. Out in Russia was his enemy who didn’t mind obliging him. He’d kill him. Death discredits. Survival is the whole success. The voice of the dead goes away. The power that’s established fills the earth and destiny is whatever survives, so whatever is is right.” Augie March rejects the appeal to serve as a guard, and returns to the United States.
Nevertheless, death did not discredit Trotsky, and the voice of the dead did not go away. We may say the same of Saul Bellow. His masterworks remain with us; his death is unbelievable – as Trotsky once, long ago, found the death of Tolstoy unbelievable. The Adventures of Augie March stands as a classic expression, with the works of D.H. Lawrence, Lowry, Aldous Huxley, and others, of the effect of Mexico on the Anglo-Saxon sensibility. Trotsky wrote that for his generation, even Heinrich Heine appeared a contemporary, and thanks to Bellow the men and women of the 1930s, that epoch of great wars and revolutions, remain alive for us. But our grand mentors and examples are passing – younger authors like the Cuban satirist Guillermo Cabrera Infante and the American surrealist poet Philip Lamantia, no less than transcendent figures like Pope John Paul II and Saul Bellow. The torch is being passed, and its burden will be heavy. It remains to be seen if we who inherit these legacies will be worthy of them.