The Atlantic

Can Writing Be Both True and Beautiful?

The author Ethan Canin probes the depths of a single sentence in Saul Bellow’s short story “A Silver Dish.”
Source: Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

For Ethan Canin, the author of A Doubter’s Almanac, Saul Bellow’s short story “A Silver Dish” is a masterwork. The protagonist is a businessman named Woody Selbst who’s unsure of how to mourn his con artist father. Pop didn’t just abandon the family when Woody was a teenager. He tricked his son into becoming an accomplice in his escape—a cruel ruse that permanently thwarted Woody’s ambitions in the process.

In our conversation for this series, Canin explained that his favorite part comes at the very end. As Pop pulls off one last con on his deathbed, Woody’s coming-to-terms is expressed in a simple final sentence: “That was how he was.” We discussed how Bellow infuses five ordinary words with such uncanny power; why endings should make us feel, not think; and what “A Silver Dish” teaches about dialogue, plot, and character.

A Doubter’s Almanac is a family saga about the destructive power of genius, and like “A Silver Dish” it concerns a complex father/son legacy. It’s the story of a groundbreaking mathematician from northern Michigan, whose brilliance is only equaled by his capacity for betrayal and violence. A cast of long-suffering characters support the celebrated work, including the son who fears he’s inherited his father’s gifts and penchant for self-destruction.

In 1998, Ethan Canin left medicine to teach fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (where he was my professor). The best-selling author of the story collections and and novels including and , his fiction has been published in , , and . We spoke at a coffee shop in downtown Manhattan.

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