We arrived [in Paris] in the fall and when spring came I was deep in the dumps. I worked in a small studio, and as I was walking toward it one morning to wrestle yet again with death in a Chicago hospital room*, I made the odd discovery that the streets of Paris were offering me some sort of relief… My first thought was that I must get rid of the hospital novel – it was poisoning my life. And next I recognized that this was not what being a novelist was supposed to have meant. This bitterness of mine was intolerable, it was disgraceful, a symptom of slavery. I think I’ve always been inclined to accept the depressions that overtook me and I felt just now that I had allowed myself to be dominated by the atmosphere of misery or surliness, that I had agreed somehow to be shut in or bottled up. I seem then to have gone back to childhood in my thoughts and remembered a pal of mine whose surname was August – a handsome, breezy, freewheeling kid who used to yell out when we were playing checkers, “I got a scheme!” He lived in the adjoining building and we used to try to have telephone conversations with tin cans connected by waxed grocery string. His father had deserted the family, his mother was, even to a nine-year-old kid, visibly abnormal, he had a strong and handsome older brother. There was a younger child who was retarded – a case of Down syndrome, perhaps – and they had a granny who ran the show. (She was not really the granny; she’d perhaps been placed there by a social agency that had some program for getting old people to take charge of broken families.) Now, just what had happened to handsome, cheerful Chuckie and his brothers, his mother, and the stranger whom they called granny? I hadn’t seen anything of these people for three decades and hadn’t a clue. So I decided to describe their lives. This came on me in a tremendous jump. Subject and language appeared at the same moment. The language was immediately present – I can’t say how it happened, but I was suddenly enriched with words and phrases. The gloom went out of me and I found myself with magical suddenness writing a first paragraph.
I was too busy and happy to make any diagnoses or to look for causes and effects. I had the triumphant feeling that this is what I had been born for. I pushed the hospital manuscript aside and began immediately to write in a spirit of reunion with the kid who had shouted “I got a scheme!” It poured out of me. I was writing many hours every day. In the next two years I seldom looked into Fowler’s “Modern English Usage.”
Perhaps I should also add that it has been a lifelong pattern with me to come back to strength from a position of extreme weakness: I had been almost suffocated and then found that I was breathing more deeply than ever.
It was enormously exhilarating to take liberties with the language. I said what I pleased and I didn’t hesitate to generalize wildly and to invoke and dismiss epochs and worlds. For the first time I felt that the language was mine to do with as I wished.”
*[A novel Bellow was working on at the time.]
–“I Got A Scheme!” The words of Saul Bellow, by Philip Roth
The New Yorker, April 25, 2005