‘By the St. Lawrence’ by Saul Bellow

‘By the St. Lawrence’ is Bellow’s last short story, published in 1995, when the novelist was 80. It travels deeply into the mysterious realm of childhood, with its indelible experiences still pin-sharp decades later. In this, it’s a universal story, though the scenes it revisits are unique to Bellow’s Canadian childhood. Bellow’s stand-in is Rexler, ‘the man who wrote all those books on theatre and cinema in Weimar Germany’, who returns to his home town of Lachine after an illness that almost ended his life. The time is right to revisit old haunts and meditate on existence before the inevitable: ‘He saw death as a magnetic field every living thing must enter’. The story’s core is Rexler’s incredibly vivid boyhood memory of seeing a man killed on a level crossing: ‘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’. That these images have travelled with him, buried, his whole life, is a wonder for Rexler. For him – and Bellow too, we imagine – such persistent memories are at the heart of what makes life such a maddening, insoluble mystery.

First published in Esquire, 1995, collected in Collected Stories, Penguin, 2001