Fine Jewish whine
Despite his manifest successes, Saul Bellow’s letters – by turns courtly or tender, brooding or bristling or buoyant – are full of complaint, including about the challenges of letter writing
Saul Bellow: Letters
Edited by Benjamin Taylor. Viking, 571 pages, $35
In a letter to fellow American writer Harold Brodkey, Saul Bellow remarks that in the making of fiction, “intelligence belongs under the lining,” hidden from view. A new collection of Bellow’s letters offers a revealing look under the skillfully sewn linings of one of our greatest -- and most intelligent – word-tailors.
The volume’s editor, Benjamin Taylor, a member of the graduate writing faculty of The New School in New York, has assembled more than 700 letters – only two-fifths of Bellow’s output, he estimates – covering the years from 1932, when Bellow was 17, through 2004, the year before his death. It is a gale of correspondence that gives lift to a spirited and sometimes surprising self-portrait. This is the autobiography Bellow never paused to compose, and the feeling of reading it is one of revelation, of stumbling
upon, as Philip Roth said about this collection, “a lost Bellow masterpiece only recently unearthed.”
The first explanation for this feeling is that letters, precisely those not intended for publication, take the reader with unmatched immediacy to what Bellow once called “the inmost track of a man’s life” – in this instance, a man learning to write on his own terms, working at what he calls a “self-taught trade,” measuring himself against the world, fashioning a mode of Jewish self-assertion in the American vernacular.
This, in fact, supplies the letters’ earliest theme: How a Yiddish-speaking boy, “the child of a despised people in the Montreal slums,” as Bellow calls himself, the first in his family born in the New World (he moved from Canada to Chicago at age 9), became fixated on making it as an American author. Even the very earliest of his letters reveal a young man determined to cut a figure, alert to what one of his best-known creations, Augie March, would call “this universal eligibility to be noble.”
As the decades pass, and as we glimpse through Bellow’s eyes the Guggenheim-funded apprentice years in postwar Paris, the breakthrough novels – “The Adventures of Augie March” (1953), “Herzog” (1964), “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” (1970), “Ravelstein” (2000) – the trips to Jerusalem and back, the news of receiving the Nobel Prize in 1976 and the unofficial coronation as elder statesman of American fiction, the burning ambition hardly cools.
And yet despite the manifest successes, the author’s letters – by turns courtly or tender, brooding or bristling or buoyant – are full of complaint. Bellow turns out to be a practiced sufferer. He complains of loneliness (“I am the solitary of solitaries”), of marital agonies and the turbulences of divorce (he married five times), of generally feeling pummeled by life. To one correspondent after another, he unspools a litany of lament: He is beset by distractions, dejected and depleted, unable to pull himself together; he fights wretchedly against ebbing energies for scraps of time. He reports feeling haggard and heavy-hearted, he feels paralyzed, “covered with a thick ice of Jewish inhibitions.” To his friend the poet John Berryman he describes himself as “more barnacles than hull.”
Bellow grumbles too about the strenuousness of writing (“from lack of foresight, I have no better profession”), and of letter writing most of all. “I’ve never enjoyed writing letters,” Bellow writes to Ralph Ellison. “It’s part of some disagreeable reticence in me – laziness; worse; something very nasty.”
With greater urgency, taking his compass of complaint ever wider, Bellow also registers his abiding abhorrence of “literary culture,” with its earnestness and heavy didacticism. He reports on “the nausea that comes over me when I pick up a Little Magazine or a Literary Review.” He has no use for “deep readers” who search for meanings and abstractions at the expense of feelings and concreteness. A fierce guardian of his autonomy, Bellow shuns all of this. By 1974, he observes in one letter that after “the mad, ferocious Sixties,” nothing remains of literary life in America except “gossip and touchiness and anger.”
Not that Bellow himself escaped such vices. Though he sometimes waxes generous in offering counsel and encouragement to friends (Philip Roth, Robert Penn Warren, John Auerbach, Martin Amis), his correspondence brims with sharp-edged gossip about other literary figures. The British writer Anthony West, who reviewed “Augie March” in The New Yorker, is a “mamzer”; Norman Mailer “an ideologist”; Hannah Arendt a “superior Krautess.” On the literary critic Cleanth Brooks: “How I detest these ‘rooted’ Southerners among us poor deracinated Hebes of the north.” On the literary agent Candida Donadio: “May God fall asleep when she reads her apologia before His throne.” The mandarin critic George Steiner is, “of all pains in the ass, the most unbearable because of his high polish and his snobbery.” And the journalist Christopher Hitchens is one of those “Fourth-Estate playboys, thriving on agitation.”
There is more. The writers and editors who gathered around Partisan Review, Bellow says, “posed as Phoenixes but were Dodos,” and in 1972 he remarks that the journal that had three decades earlier helped launch his career “has become the breeding place of a sort of fashionable extremism, of the hysterical, shallow, and ignorant academic ‘counter-culture.’” About the editors of Commentary, another magazine to which he contributed: “I could make those people very unhappy by describing them.” In a letter to Alfred Kazin, meanwhile, he makes reference to “those sophisticated brutes of the New York Review of Books.”
Notes of touchiness and vanity – not to mention self-pity, self-absorption and self-exoneration – are struck con brio in these letters. But so, occasionally, are softer chords of self-criticism, none more moving than when Bellow writes to Cynthia Ozick about the Holocaust: “I was too busy becoming a novelist to take note of what was happening in the Forties, I was involved with ‘literature’ and given over to preoccupations with art, with language, with my struggle on the American scene, with claims for the recognition of my talent ... with anything except the terrible events in Poland. Growing slowly aware of this unspeakable evasion I didn’t even know how to begin to admit it into my inner life.”
In offering glimpses of that inner life, Taylor’s collection affords a new understanding of how Bellow understood what he was doing.
For the best instance, take Bellow’s view of how novels aspire to the directness and intimacy of letters, to their free-form lightness of touch. “A novel,” Bellow writes to Bernard Malamud, “like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risks of mortality and decay.” To the novelist Stanley Elkin, Bellow writes: “I prefer to think of the pages of fiction I write as letters to the very best of non-correspondents.”
Novels, strange though it seems, are easier for him to swing. “Letters,” Bellow tells Ozick, “real-life communications, are too much for me.” Letters are a more difficult − and higher – form, he tells another correspondent: “I sometimes think I write books in lieu of letters and that real letters have more kindness in them, addressed as they are to one friend.”
Which brings us to the true marvel of this collection: the discovery that Bellow’s epistolary style so closely resembles the novelistic – the same unerring ear for language, the playful urban wit, the familiar jaunty blend of high seriousness and low grit, the characteristic supple exuberance and vigor, steeped in irony. This is what Bellow’s friend and correspondent Martin Amis meant when he remarked that the novel “Augie March” “resembles a lecture on destiny fed through a thesaurus of low-life patois.”
In letters and stories alike, Saul Bellow intended “to invent a new sort of American sentence,” he recalled in his 1994 nonfiction collection “It All Adds Up”: “Something like a fusion of colloquialism and elegance.” To his enormous credit – and to our lasting delight – he succeeded.
Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is author of “Running Commentary” (PublicAffairs, 2010).