Seize This Book

More than once in this collection of vigorous letters, Saul Bellow apologizes for his unsatisfactory epistolary habits: “I’ve never enjoyed writing letters,” he tells Ralph Ellison. “It’s part of some disagreeable reticence in me—laziness; worse; something very nasty.” Edited by Benjamin Taylor and making up roughly two-fifths of Bellow’s correspondence, the letters show absolutely no reticence and not a touch of laziness. About the “something very nasty” Bellow suggests is responsible for his dilatoriness, one can’t pronounce, although there’s a fair quotient of not-niceness in his dealings with others, both directly and indirectly.

The touchy hauteur that is strongly evident begins early on in relation to his Chicago friends from Tuley High School, some of them, as he testifies, close to his heart. “There were evenings when there could be no doubt about the fact that you detested me,” he informs Oscar Tarcov; later, writing to Tarcov that he has a teaching job at NYU, he mentions their mutual friend Isaac Rosenfeld, who doesn’t like Bellow’s teaching there: “He sent me a sore, and rather nasty note about it.... What’s wrong with people at home, anyway, and what’s the snarling for?” Judge David Bazelon receives one that is written “against my inclination, for your letter was horrible and wolfish, and ought not to be answered.” Bazelon is misguided to think “that everything can now be as before, which decidedly it can’t.” So the “snarling” that Bellow detected in others was surely on display in his own person and pen. He was not unaware of his reputation for being difficult: “Complaints about my unpleasantness come down to me,” he writes his publisher. But such complaints deterred him not at all from getting on with things.

It was important to Bellow that he not be perceived as an ideologue; rather, as a unique individual who persisted in going his own way. About to be divorced from his second wife, Sondra, he declares, “She does everything on principle, a perfect ideologist.” Despite the fact that the editors of Partisan Review had published and encouraged him, he took pains not to be identified with them, correcting Leslie Fiedler, who had mentioned his affiliation with the magazine: “I don’t consider myself part of the Partisan group. Not those dying beasts. (They posed as Phoenixes but were Dodos.) I always knew it. I have ever been unideological.” Just what did he believe? To the literary critic Lionel Trilling, with whom he would later have a falling-out, he rejects the notion that something called “society” is responsible for our value and importance as human beings. Bellow will have none of it, since “this is to argue that a man’s heart is not itself the origin and seat of importance. But to assert that it is so and to prove and proclaim it with all one’s powers—that is the work and duty of a writer now.” Keats would have agreed (“I am sure of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination”), and indeed it is hard to disagree with the assertion, since it’s not only beyond ideology but almost beyond language as well.

Despite Bellow’s growing conservatism over the years, the letters are relatively free of any committed political position or commentary, except for some adverse remarks about “the mad, ferocious Sixties,” which, he writes, “tore [literary life] all to bits.” Before those Sixties began their work of undoing, Bellow said he liked Norman Mailer, although “he’s such an ideologist.” Twenty years later in the 1980s, when Mailer was president of Pen International and hosting a conference, Bellow wrote the poet Karl Shapiro, detaching himself from “big-time subversives like Ginsberg, Nadine Gordimer, Grace Paley, E. L. Doctorow, and other representatives of affluent revolution,” including Mailer who wanted “a huge media event—that’s what he calls living.” If this sounds as though Bellow’s invective is directed only against the Left, it should be noted that the Right also receives his scorn, as when he resigns from the board of the Committee for the Free World, a neoconservative group formed to support Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, in a letter to Midge Decter: “About Nicaragua we can agree well enough but as soon as you begin to speak of culture you give me the willies.” With Matthew Arnold in mind, it might be said that Bellow wanted both culture (his version of it) and anarchy (his own).

The editorial notes to this volume consist of brief identifications of people and translations of foreign expressions, sometimes rather unnecessary, as in the note for “Rispondi, amico!” (Italian: “Answer, friend!”) But they are often lacking in information we would like to have for clarifying the issue raised in a particular letter. Reference to the “ferocious Sixties” tearing everything to bits occurs in a short missive to Ann Birstein, wife of the literary critic Alfred Kazin, with whom Bellow has had a “disagreeable” correspondence. He informs her that “nothing remains but gossip and touchiness and anger,” qualities that often animate his own letters, but may or may not refer specifically to his disagreeable correspondence with Kazin. A letter to Trilling that follows the one to Birstein expresses “regretful second thoughts” about a piece in which Bellow has mentioned Trilling. It is signed “Yours apologetically,” but the apology didn’t work, as we learn from the editorial note that Trilling responded angrily and ended all further contact with Bellow. More from the editor about just what Bellow wrote in the essay that annoyed Trilling, and what the content was of Trilling’s angry response, would be welcome. Taylor prefers editorial brevity to fuller explanation, which may be necessary in a collection of this size. (Yet, in her comparably sized edition of Robert Lowell’s letters five years ago, Saskia Hamilton provided 150 pages of helpful notes.) In any case, the “more” we would like to know about a particular letter of Bellow’s can’t be known from the letters alone.

Of course it’s unfair to confine the animating force of these letters solely to anger, touchiness, and gossip, for they crackle with wit, often wicked and nonetheless satisfying for that. Bellow writes his publisher, Pascal Covici, to “kindly instruct the lady [presumably sending him a publicity photo] not to send one of those dead-goose pictures which make me look like the Fred Allen of Nicaragua.” The head of the Guggenheim Foundation, to whom Bellow had just recommended a younger novelist, receives the following salute:

I was disturbed on your behalf and vexed with that obese Gordon Ray whom I sometimes see at the Century Club lowering his four-hundred-pound fanny into a greatly-to-be pitied chair. His role in the perfect Republic would have been that of third understudy to Laird Cregar (do you remember that fat actor?) in a vile Victorian thriller called The Lodger.

Readers who do indeed remember the corpulent English actor Laird Cregar will agree that the insult to Gordon Ray’s physique becomes something more memorable through the comparison. A conference call about an American Academy prize involves the prolific Yale literary critic Harold Bloom, about whom Bellow declares “Never met Bloom. He sounds like one of those new instruments, shaped like a sax and sounding like an oboe—I believe it’s called a basset-horn. A voice full of tremors, fluctuating between Oxford and the Bronx.” This is the authentic Bellovian voice as heard in his fiction, full of improvisatory brilliance.

As for the five wives and numerous other sexual partners, some words from a letter of 1968 sum things up: “All my ladies seem furious.” There is much here depicting Bellow as the hounded, sometimes hapless victim of female expectations and outrage. He takes the philosophic high road toward the erotic life in a letter to the novelist Alice Adams, when he claims to be puzzled by the “feminine belief” that love is a kind of salvation; thus “women, and sometimes men, too, demand of each other everything—everything! And isn’t it obvious by now that no human being has the power to give what we require from one another.” A more down-to-earth version of things erotic when it came to Bellow was provided (in James Atlas’s biography) by a young painter named Arlette Landes, who remarked, “He had a biblical Old World morality, but his fly was entirely unzipped at all times.” Another repeated attempt at the high road by Bellow involves Anthroposophy and the dictates of its architect, Rudolph Steiner. Bellow shares this interest with an English writer, Owen Barfield, who he is convinced knows what to do with the “consciousness-soul” and “who has managed to regenerate severed connections and found passage that lead from thought to feeling.” Knowing nothing about Anthroposophy and having never read Steiner, my untutored eye was unenlightened by the whole enterprise, which reminded me too much of Dr. Tamkin in Bellow’s short and much praised novel Seize the Day and his mumbo-jumbo about the real and the pretender soul.

What do we learn from these letters about Bellow the artist? He himself was an acute critic of some of his novels. Years after it had been published, Bellow noted that The Adventures of Augie March had been written “in a jail-breaking spirit,” but added that most prison breaks were unsuccessful. To Martin Amis in 1995, he confesses he couldn’t “read a page of the book without flinching” and went on to call it “disconcertingly amorphous, sound and fury signifying not too much.” Mr. Sammler’s Planet he later found to be “not even a novel” but “a dramatic essay of some sort, wrung from me by the crazy Sixties.” Yet both these novels seem clearly superior to his lesser ones: Henderson the Rain King, Humboldt’s Gift, The Dean’s December, and More Die of Heartbreak. This leaves Herzog as his best novel by far, with the magnificent Seize the Day, perhaps the single finest thing he ever wrote, as an unforgettable novella. (There is a recovery of powers in Ravelstein, his last book.) Increasingly he saw himself and invited others to see him as a comic novelist, “capable of anything, mixing desperation and humor just as I like.” Even earlier, before Augie, he aspired to write a “purely comic book next in a spirit of le gai savoir...ringing comedy, not the centerless irony of the New Yorker.” Such comedy can’t be appreciated by employing the stale terms of plot and character, since it’s very much a matter of words and sentences used in surprising and pleasing ways, the ways of wit.

That wit appears often in the letters, sometimes in quiet, sober-seeming guise as when Bellow writes to an old friend about being deathly ill from food poisoning contracted in the Caribbean:

I am not going to molest you with my deep thoughts today.... Since I came down a couple of years ago with a tremendous disease I have learned that people when they ask you how you are don’t really want a detailed reply. Naturally the sick man has given a great deal of thought to his condition and his disorder and is in a position to tell them something of deep and permanent value. But as you have probably had occasion to observe, their eyes glaze over just when you are getting to the best part.

It may be that some of the short stories written late in his career, such as “What Kind of Day Did You Have?,” “Him With His Foot in His Mouth,” “By the St. Lawrence,” and “Something to Remember Me By” (maybe his best story), will rank with Seize the Day and Herzog as Bellow’s most creative exploitation of—not plot or character, but a line of wit, of talk, in an idiom all his own. He called that idiom (in a letter to the novelist Cynthia Ozick written after the death of his two brothers) a “cranky” one, and provided her with the best self-portrait we have in these letters. After apologizing for not writing, and asking why the “challenge of writing to friends” feels like too much to meet, he answers his own question:

Because I have become such a solitary, and not in the Aristotelian sense: not a beast, not a god. Rather, a loner troubled by longings, incapable of finding a suitable language and despairing at the impossibility of composing messages in a playable key.... By now I have only the cranky idiom of my books—the letters-in-general of an occult personality, a desperately odd somebody who has, as a last resort, invented a technique of self-representation.

Herzog would have been pleased to write it.

Published in the 2011-01-28 issue: 

William H. Pritchard, a frequent contributor, is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst College.

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