In 1949, Saul Bellow, thirty-three years old, with two books under his belt (Dangling Man and The Victim), was living in Paris on a Guggenheim fellowship, feeling pressured to produce a third book in line with the modernist minimalism that had ensured the critical success of the first two, and soon realized that he was harnessed to a novel for which he had no heart: the writing felt cramped, the vision received, the connection between himself and his material severely strained.
The situation made his face ache. Every morning he went off to work at his rented studio as though he were going to the dentist.
But one day, the sight of an unremarkable image changed everything. The Paris streets were flushed daily by open hydrants that allowed water to run along the curb, and on this particular morning Bellow noticed a dazzle of sunlight on the water that accentuated its flow. His spirits lifted, and he was made restless rather than depressed.
Suddenly there opened up before him the memory of a kid from his boyhood who used to yell out, “I got a scheme!” when they were playing checkers; then he recalled this kid’s vividly abnormal family; and then the Chicago streets from which they had all sprung up like weeds pushing through concrete. An urge to describe that long-ago life overcame him.