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May 19, 2011

Saul Bellow, Letters

Saul Bellow, Letters, ed. Benjamin Taylor (New York: Viking, 2010). 571 pp. $35.00.

Not many more collections of letters written by American masters are likely to appear, although readers half a century from now might look forward to Michael Chabon’s Collected Text Messagesor Jonathan Franzen’s Tweets. Saul Bellow is one of the last great novelists for whom letters were not really a convenient way to stay in touch,  
but a literary genre with unique opportunities for expression and equally unique demands. For him, personal letters were only rarely personal (and then they were not unique in any respect), but might be best described as a kind of informal literary reflection.

Rather late in life, Bellow wrote to Cynthia Ozick, wondering how it happened that “Jewish Writers in America”—a category that he calls “repulsive”—should have overlooked “the central event of their time, the destruction of European Jewry.” He can speak only for himself: “I was too busy becoming a novelist to take note of what was happening in the Forties,” he tells Ozick. “I was involved with ‘literature’ and given over to preoccupations with art, with language, with my struggle on the American scene, with claims for recognition of my talent or, like my pals of the Partisan Review, with modernism, Marxism, New Criticim, with Eliot, Yeats, Proust, etc.—with anything except the terrible events in Poland.”

But not only the events in Poland, and not only in the ’forties. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 is not mentioned even once, and the revolutionary events two years later are occasion merely to observe that “one still meets people from Harvard with a hear-no-evil fixation on the essential benevolence of the Soviet Union from first to last.” From first to last, Bellow is preoccupied with “literature”—that is, the high claims for the artistic status of certain modern masterpieces—and more regularly with the day-to-day business of writing.

Bellow’s first surviving letter, written a few days short of his seventeenth birthday to “sever relations” with a high-school flame, is a half-serious catalogue of a young writer’s values. Although the girl, with her “Young Communist League mind,” may dismiss him as a “[p]hrase-monger,” Bellow declares that he is in his element as long as he has his pen. Indeed he is. He resorts to letters for the rest of his life to commit himself to paper, to praise other writers, to carp behind their backs, to refine his literary thinking, and to perfect his phrasing. What is astonishing, in fact, is how much Bellow in his letters sounds like Bellow in his novels, darting unpredictably from topic to topic, plumbing philosophical depths with the lightness of a water strider, braiding his ideas into memorable sentences. How many other writers can write first drafts with such distinction and distinctiveness?

Apologizing for not writing sooner to tell Stanley Elkin that he was “the real thing,” for example, Bellow shrugs, “But that’s how lives are lived—one aimless good intention after another, impulses buried and occasions missed or frittered away.” Despite its semblance of generality, this is a comment on the writer’s life, a subject that was never far from his mind. Bellow was jealous of the writer’s prerogatives, and unwilling to claim more for novelists than they were equipped to provide. He writes to the critic Granville Hicks: “[T]here is only one way to defeat the enemy”—the enemy of literature, he means—“and that is to write as well as one can.” Argument is for philosophers, he says elsewhere. “Writers can only try to demonstrate in close detail without opinion,” he says to Louis Gallo while working on Herzog

Not everything in this thick volume edited by the novelist and creative writing professor Benjamin Taylor is preoccupied with literature. I only wish it were. Am I the only one in the literary commonwealth who is embarrassed by Bellow’s marital gambols? In April 1962, after marrying Susan Glassman, he writes to his old friend Richard Stern, “One wife is becoming enough for me (O Bellowius senex!).” To Ralph Ross, in November, he says that he is “extremely lucky in [his] new wife Susan.” His third son is born two years later, an event that he notices in an aside (“Susie and Daniel will come home”—from the hospital—“on Sunday”).

And a year after that he tells David Bazelon that he is “not in a position to tease [him] about multiple marriages, for perfectly obvious reasons. . . . I think we were both meant to set records,” he adds. And sure enough, in March 1966, he meets a 24-year-old girl, a typist at theNew Yorker, and soon he is writing that he misses her so much “it’s like sickness, or hunger.” His “whole soul” goes out to her. With her he has a feeling he’s never had before, “that of being infinitely satisfied with another. . . .” Meeting her has made “humankind and the world look different.” True, he has been with many women, but “don’t you think I know how different from those women you are?”

Get back to literature—please. And luckily, Bellow does. Again and again. Thank God or the muse or whoever deserves thanks. There is just enough scandal here to arouse the secret gossip in every reader of great literature (Bellow detests Malamud’s New Life, as he repeats to several correspondents, finds “so many of the Southern writers gratuitously violent,” and has a famous falling-out with University of Chicago colleague Edward Shils, whom he describes as an “unlanced boil”), but more usual for him is the praise and encouragement of peers (Ralph Ellison, Wright Morris, John Cheever) and his inconsolable grief over lost friends (Isaac Rosenfeld, Oscar Tarcov, John Berryman). 

In one of his last letters, he thanks the novelist William Kennedy for “bringing together” in his 2002 novel Roscoe “your singular and wonderful view of things with the idea of a large fiction. . . .” But this is something that Saul Bellow managed to do in nearly everything he wrote, especially iffiction means, at its best, what he describes to Martin Amis: here and there, “a single page containing what is absolutely essential to expansion or survival.” The Letters contain many such pages, establishing it immediately as a true masterpiece of American literature.

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