‘By the St. Lawrence’ by Saul Bellow

Old age…

At his age the reprieve from death could be nothing but short…

Bellow’s last short story, ‘By the St. Lawrence’, concerns a typical Bellow protagonist-cum-surrogate: the elderly academic Rob Rexler – or, as the opening sentence puts it: “Not the Rob Rexler? […] the man who wrote all those books on theater and cinema in Weimar Germany, the author of Postwar Berlin and of the controversial study of Bertolt Brecht.”

Rexler is still convalescing after a near-fatal illness when he is invited to travel from New York to his childhood hometown of Lachine, Canada to give a lecture. Having described himself as a man “playing hopscotch at death’s door” Rexler perhaps realises he may never get this chance again to revisit old haunts, and accepts the invitation. Once at Lachine he tramps about his old neighbourhood, noticing how whole streets have been demolished, so that he is afforded an uninterrupted view of the great St. Lawrence river (with undoubtedly symbolic connotations regarding the river and Rexler’s closeness to death: what once was hidden is now in plain sight, with “its platinum rush towards the North Atlantic”).

This being Bellow, the narrative swings liberally between the past and present, Rexler giving full play to his childhood memories. He remembers growing up with his extended family of cousins and uncles and aunts; of having to wait outside in the car while his older cousin paid a visit to a local whorehouse; of the dead man they see on the way home, killed by a passing train, “his organs on the roadbed – first the man’s liver, shining on the white, egg-shaped stones, and a little beyond it his lungs.” Rexler’s recollections regarding sex and death and the ripeness of all are leant poignancy by their vividness (Bellow may well have been a convalescent himself at the time of writing ‘By the St. Lawrence’, but his prose is as sharply observed as ever) and by the knowledge that all these remembered individuals are now dead; that Rexler is the last man standing and that he himself is fast approaching “the magnetic field that every living thing must enter.”

Ultimately ‘By the St. Lawrence’ is more than a mere jaunt down memory lane. Nor is it a simple memento mori. Rather, it seems to be a paean to the vitality of memory and of the knowledge that comes to one towards the end: 

These observations […] were his whole life – his being – and love was what produced them.

First published in Esquire, 1995, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Collected Stories, Viking, 2001

‘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