Saul Bellow letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor, reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

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Friday, November 5, 2010; 12:00 PM

SAUL BELLOW

Letters

Edited by Benjamin Taylor

Viking. 571 pp. $35

In the march of what we like to believe is progress, we win some and we lose some. We now enjoy the convenience and ease of instantaneous professional and personal electronic communication, which on the whole is good, but we no longer write letters, which is not. This by now is a commonplace, so there is no point in laboring it, but "Saul Bellow: Letters" is close to, if not exactly, the last of its kind. The long history of published collections of correspondence, from Lord Chesterfield to Abraham Lincoln to Virginia Woolf to Flannery O'Connor, is coming to an end. The loss, as Bellow's letters remind us, is very much our own.

Bellow, who died in 2005 just two months shy of his 90th birthday, was a prolific correspondent but not an unduly brilliant one. "I'd be a better correspondent if I weren't writing all the time," he told an old friend in 1980. "You have to be a graphomaniac to spend hours on a manuscript and then turn, for relaxation, to letters. A critic, years ago in Paris, said I had bureaucratic tendencies. He offended me then. Now I'm inclined to see it his way. I learned to organize my daily life for a single purpose." This was the writing of the novels, novellas and short stories that made him one of the most important writers of the 20th century. His letters are well-written and interesting (of course!), but mostly they do not have the depth or passion of those written by his contemporary O'Connor, collected so brilliantly by Sally Fitzgerald three decades ago in "The Habit of Being."

The several hundred letters published here have been edited rather lightly by Benjamin Taylor, a novelist and essayist. Though excesses of annotation usually are more annoying than helpful in letters collections, Taylor tends to err on the side of minimalism, not always providing as much information (if any) about people, events and issues under discussion. He also puts such information as he does provide at the end of a letter rather than at the beginning, a minor annoyance but an annoyance all the same. Finally, the selection of letters is a bit odd. There are a great many very brief notes of little or no import, yet I sense that some letters of real value have either been missed or rejected. Some years ago a mutual friend sent me a photocopy of a superb letter he'd received from Bellow about popular democracy and the mass audience; I was surprised, and disappointed, not to find it here.

Still, there is far more to celebrate than to lament in "Saul Bellow: Letters." He was by all accounts, including his own, a difficult man, possessed of what he called an "austere-critical mind," but he was also keenly observant, generous in his fashion, unfailingly forthright and often very funny. The letters trace the arc of his long career, from the predictable struggles and frustrations of a young writer trying to find readers and, literally, to put food on the table, to the entirely different yet no less vexing problems attendant to the great fame that descended on him in 1976 with the receipt of a Nobel Prize in Literature. As he wrote in 1982 to a boyhood friend:

"I have become a sort of public man, which was not at all my intent. I thought, in my adolescent way, that I would write good books (as writing and books were understood in the Thirties) and would have been happy in the middle ranks of my trade. It would have made me wretched to be overlooked, but I wasn't at all prepared for so much notice, and I haven't been good at managing 'celebrity.' That's a long story and I shan't go into details. I can't do the many things I'm asked to do, answer the huge volume of mail, keep up with books and manuscripts and at the same time write such things as I want and need to write."

Or, as he put it many years before, "I really don't care for the sort of life that has formed about me in the last few years - accountants, tax-experts, investment counselors, organizations and fronts, fund raising, autobiographing, speechifying, mail-answering, lawsuits, interior decorations, spleen and other antipoetic phenomena." As the letters make plain, a lot went on in his life apart from writing - five marriages and a number of affairs, four children, numerous travels sometimes to distant places, award ceremonies and other distractions - but his life centered on his writing, and he never allowed himself to drift far from it.

He had many literary friendships (and a few rivalries), and a certain amount of literary talk goes on in these letters, but there's less of it than one might expect. His letters to the poet John Berryman are full of joshing and affectionate encouragement, and he was saddened but not surprised by Berryman's suicide. He was fond of that other tormented poet, Delmore Schwartz, but vexed by his decline; Schwartz was the inspiration for Von Humboldt Fleischer, the protagonist of Bellow's "Humboldt's Gift" (1975), for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He and Ralph Ellison were close and corresponded regularly; he and Alfred Kazin were friends for many years, a friendship interrupted by a long falling out. There is a rather remarkable letter to William Faulkner in which, after dealing briefly with the business of a writers' committee on which both of them served, he raises the matter of Faulkner's support for the release from St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington of Ezra Pound, who "advocated in his poems and in his broadcasts enmity to the Jews and preached hatred and murder." Bellow goes on:

"What staggers me is that you and Mr. Steinbeck who have dealt for so many years in words should fail to understand the import of Ezra Pound's plain and brutal statements about the 'kikes' leading the 'goy' to slaughter. Is this - from 'The Pisan Cantos' - the stuff of poetry? It is a call to murder. If it were spoken by a farmer or a shoemaker we would call him mad. The whole world conspires to ignore what has happened, the giant wars, the colossal hatreds, the unimaginable murders, the destruction of the very image of man. And we - 'a representative group of American writers' - is this what we come out for, too? A fine mess!"

That letter was written in 1956, when Bellow was 40 years old. "The Adventures of Augie March" had established him three years earlier, but Faulkner was more than a decade and a half older than he and one of the most famous writers in the world. It took real courage to write that letter, and real conviction as well. For once we see Bellow in a moment of passion, and it is most impressive.

His other passions revolved around the women in his life. They ranged from great ardor - see, for example, two letters to his lover Margaret Staats written in April 1966 - to fury, especially as aroused by his second wife, Susan Glassman, with whom he waged wars over money, property and just about everything else. Mostly, though, what is on display is his "austere critical mind," as in this comment to a protégé searching for "meaning" in fiction: "I think this is a fault of all American books, including my own. They pant so after meaning. They are earnestly moral, didactic; they build them ever more stately mansions, and they exhort and plead and refine, and they are, insofar, books of error. A work of art should rest on perception. 'Here' in other words, 'is my vision, be meaning what it may.' "

That is an exceptionally astute observation, but then Bellow was an exceptionally astute man. He was also formidably well-read, an intellectual in the deepest sense of the word but also a lover of pleasure in many forms. His collected letters are probably the last book we shall have from him, and despite some editorial lapses a very good one.

yardleyj@washpost.com


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