NEW YORK — First there was Norman Mailer, talking about how wonderful Kurt Vonnegut is. Then Vonnegut praised Nobel Prize-winner Saul Bellow, calling him "the United States' most honored and most justly honored writer." Back on stage after Bellow's one-hour reading, Mailer first extended kind words to the absent poet Allen Ginsberg, then heaped admiration on "mystery guest" Joyce Carol Oates, who responded with equal enthusiasm.
So effusive in fact were the commendations exchanged by the principals at Sunday's PEN celebration, benefiting the international writers' organization's forthcoming international congress, that Oates confessed she had had a backstage fantasy about the ultimate PEN event, consisting of "nothing but writers introducing each other."
'Land of Enduring Myth'
Then Oates, in turn, introduced 76-year-old writer Eudora Welty, observing that "her Mississippi has entered the land of enduring myth."
At $100 apiece, all 774 seats in Broadway's Booth Theater were sold out (if not fully occupied) for this first of eight Sunday evening readings and appearances by two noted writers each time. PEN American Center President Mailer described the participants as "16 of the best writers in America."
One of those writers, certainly, was Bellow, the 70-year-old novelist, short story writer and University of Chicago professor who nearly nine years ago became the seventh American to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
"I don't believe it is generally known that he holds a doctorate in literature," Vonnegut said, "which may be the key as to why he writes so good."
And, bowing to the unabashed chauvinism of his audience of New York literati, Vonnegut admitted of Bellow that "being provincial people, we might wish he were a New Yorker, but he is from Chicago, wherever that is."
The "least he could have done," Vonnegut said of Bellow, was to have been born in New York. But no, the internationally honored Bellow had to have been born in Quebec.
Bellow appeared on the stage, which was set for its weekday occupants, the cast of the Broadway musical "Sunday in the Park With George," and smiled broadly at Vonnegut's extensive praise.
"For me," Bellow said, "the evening is over after an introduction like that."
Then, explaining that he had "only one hour to read because I have to catch a plane back to that lesser rotten apple, Chicago," Bellow served up selections from the title story of "Him With His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories."
"You'll forgive me," Bellow said as he began, "if I break up from time to time."
The epistolary story centers around a one-time instructor in fine arts at a New England college who has settled in British Columbia. Now facing extradition, he recounts his story in the form of a lengthy letter of apology to a "pre-computer librarian" he feels he has slighted.
"You look like an archeologist," he remembers the librarian once telling him. "And before I could stop myself, I said 'and you look like something I just dug up.'
"I have become dead sober," Bellow's protagonist writes, "as I generally do after one of my cracks. I am as astonished by them as anyone else."
And he laments: "And my joke was not even witty, just vile. Certainly not inspirational."
Later, Bellow's hero offers this admonition: "People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned."
Following an intermission and Bellow's hasty departure, Mailer returned to the stage to tell his audience that "this was the first time I heard Saul Bellow read, and I was immensely moved, for many reasons." Not the least of those reasons, Mailer said, was that Bellow's uncle had died two days earlier, leaving the author as the oldest male in his family. Only to fulfill his "promise to PEN," Mailer said, had Bellow left the family's ongoing period of mourning.
Gliding on to the stage in silver slippers and an ankle-length gown of peach-colored crepe, Eudora Welty began by announcing that "with your permission, I am going to read a couple of early stories." Clutching a battered copy of her stories, the green binding holding on by threads, Welty explained that "the reason I am reading early stories is that they are short. As I got older, I got too long."
Reading in the soft lilt of her native Jackson, Miss., Welty's appearance was marred momentarily by the misbehavior of a recalcitrant microphone. "I'll just keep going," Welty said. "Maybe it'll warm up."
Fats Waller Comes to Town
In the author's voice, "Petrified Man" became not merely the story of a visit to a small Southern beauty parlor but a serious slice of sociology. "Powerhouse," another of Welty's youthful tales, recounted a visit to Jackson by Fats Waller and his band.