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Wise Guy

Kevin Stevens

Saul Bellow: Letters, by Benjamin Taylor (ed), Penguin, 624 pp, $20, ISBN 978-0143120469

He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun … Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.

Saul Bellow, Herzog

It makes sense that the author of an epistolary masterpiece should himself be a keen correspondent. Like his creation Moses Herzog, Saul Bellow was never short of words, and never less than exacting in their use, whether writing the novels and stories that changed the landscape of American fiction or wrangling with an ex-wife (he had four) over alimony. This selection, just released in paperback, of seven hundred letters (40 per cent or so of what is extant), written over seventy years, is an apt companion to the biographies and to Bellow’s fiction, and for many reasons: for what he has to say about love and loss, friendship and marriage, art and the writing life; for his wit and his advice to fellow writers; for its extended sense of time and place; and for the privileged glimpse into the private life of one of America’s best writers and most interesting men.

However, the volume’s most enduring value is how, presented chronologically, the letters create an informal narrative of Bellow’s lifelong quest to express his vision and perfect his craft, to define the novelist’s role and responsibilities in a post-industrial age, and to strike the right balance in his work between his Jewish heritage, the Anglo-European tradition from which he emerged, and the swirling cultural realities of the American experience.

Bellow was the great chronicler of the American Century. Born in 1915 and blessed with a prodigious memory (as an old man he could recount in detail the Armistice celebrations of 1918), he grew up in the immigrant stew of Chicago, was a central figure in the postwar renaissance of American fiction, reached his peak in the sixties, won the Nobel Prize in 1976, and remained one of America’s leading intellectual figures for a further three decades. In 2000, a year after fathering his first daughter at age eighty-four, he published the novel Ravelstein, which Martin Amis called “a masterpiece with no analogues”. Its concluding line – “You don’t easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death” – would be a suitable epitaph for Bellow himself.

Bellow will be forever associated with Chicago. Though born in Montreal of Russian-Jewish immigrants, in 1924 he moved with his family to the Windy City, where he grew up amid the rough and tumble atmosphere of organised crime, heavy industry and railroads, big city politics and intellectual radicalism. It was a cold, harsh metropolis, not for the faint of heart. Bellow never grew tired of describing the city and its impact on his thought and work:

On winter afternoons when the soil was frozen to a depth of five feet, and the Chicago cold seemed to have the headhunter’s power of shrinking your face, you felt in the salt-whitened streets and amid the spattered car bodies the characteristic mixture of tedium and excitement, of narrowness of life together with a strong intimation of scope, a simultaneous expansion and constriction in the soul, a clumsy sense of inadequacy, poverty of means, desperate limitation, and, at the same time, a craving for more.

For Bellow this craving found sustenance in reading and writing. He was a bookish boy in an immigrant Jewish community that found refuge from privation in culture and politics. And because his family and those of so many of his contemporaries were part of the great turn-of-the-century Ashkenazi flight from Tsarist repression, the culture was high European, the politics radical. Bellow’s childhood reading included Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Maupassant and Flaubert. A formative book was Spengler’s The Decline of the West. By the time he reached Tuley High School, Bellow was a Trotskyist conversant with Marx and Schopenhauer and a fledging author who wrote on “coarse yellow paper” and carried “rolls of manuscript” in his pocket to read to his friends in the local cafeterias.

As the earliest letters attest, Bellow’s style as a young man was lively if verbose. He could be condescending and hypersensitive (traits that would never desert him), but he had a clear sense of his own destiny:

My father and probably all fathers like him have an extremely naïve idea of education. They think it something formal, apart from actual living, and that it should give one an air of highbrow eminence coupled with material substance (money). They do not expect it to have an effect on the moral life, on the intellectual life, and I doubt if they have ever heard of an aesthetic life. They are good folk, when they are not neurotic, and what after all can we expect? Such conflicts must come if we are to honestly follow out the concepts we learn or teach ourselves.

Bellow would come to appreciate the informal education his family environment provided, particularly the unique linguistic legacy that underlay his robust, energetic style. Yiddish, Russian, and English were spoken at home. “I didn’t even know they were different languages,” he wrote later. Letters from every phase of his life are peppered with Yiddish phrases, and his sense of humour is driven by the cadences and ironies of Yiddish speech. “If your mother called you an angel, it meant you were a devil,” he said. “If she said that your hands were clean, it meant that your hands were filthy; if your nose was running, you were complimented on your well-wiped nose.”

Part one of this volume, which includes about a hundred letters written up to 1949, when Bellow was thirty-four, charts clearly the evolution of his style and his growing confidence in his literary judgement. As this period progresses, his audience broadens from Chicago pals to agents, publishers, and fellow writers he had met teaching at the University of Minnesota and “mooching in New York”: Alfred Kazin, Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, Jean Stafford and others. His comments on contemporary fiction already demonstrate an assured ability to identify a work’s critical feature and to express it in language both figurative and precise. In a 1946 letter to David Bazelon, he says of Georgia novelist Calder Willingham’s novel End as a Man:

Calder hits savagely beside the mark. He’s very nervous. Very capable in some ways, a fine ear, but on the whole more vehement than imaginative. I don’t know what makes so many of the Southern writers so gratuitously violent. Faulkner comes closest to harnessing violence to tragedy, but the off-horse pulls harder with him, too.

Bellow’s own fiction at this time was marked by restraint and shaped by modernism and the radical intellectual environment of New York and journals like Commentary, Dissent and Partisan Review, which published his first story in May/June 1941 (the same issue included one of Eliot’s “Four Quartets”). Though he was inspired by the efforts of Chicago novelists like Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, his principal influences were the great European writers he had read during his apprenticeship: Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Stendhal, Kafka. His first two novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), are dark, introspective and carefully composed. They have a strong authorial voice but little stylistic verve. “I accepted a Flaubertian standard,” Bellow said. As Philip Rahv put it, the two works helped bring about “the Europeanization of American literature”.

The Victim is also the first of Bellow’s many explorations of his Jewish identity. At the core of the novel is a conflict between Asa Leventhal and his anti-Semitic doppelgänger Kirby Albee, who claims to be a descendant of the Puritan John Winthrop. Passive in the face of intimidation, Leventhal is nevertheless forced into self-examination and growth by the victimising goy. Bellow would later disparage the novel as a “repressive” book reflecting immigrant attitudes of identity. “‘Jewish’ equalled ghetto,” as Alfred Kazin succinctly said, and Bellow came to see his early novels as an attempt by an ambitious Jewish kid from Chicago to prove to the WASP establishment that he “had a right to claim the world’s attention”.

Early in his career, Bellow was caught between his desire to assert and explore his Jewishness and his fear of being pigeon-holed as a “Jewish novelist”. The letters reveal defensiveness in both directions. In a 1986 address to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters commemorating Bernard Malamud, Bellow described the cultural background to this inner conflict:

The sons of Eastern European immigrant Jews, we had gone early into the streets of our respective cities, were Americanized by schools, newspapers, subways, streetcars, sandlots. Melting Pot children, we had assumed the American program to be the real thing: no barriers to the freest and fullest American choices … But if you set out instead to find a small place for yourself as a writer, you were looking for trouble in uncharted waters, you were asking for it. Of course it was admiration, it was love that drew us to the dazzling company of the great masters, all of them belonging to the Protestant Majority – some of them explicitly anti-Semitic. You had only to think of Henry Adams, or to remember certain pages in Henry James’s The American Scene, the anguish of his recoil from East Side Jews.

These words, of course, were written from the vantage of advanced age and long-standing success. In the late forties Bellow was struggling with the practical difficulties of establishing himself as an American voice with a unique Jewish inflection. He would find a solution in language, the “spiritual mansion from which no-one can evict us”.

Dissatisfied with the constraints of modernist form and imposed definitions of identity, he wrote his next novel, The Adventures of Augie March, in iconoclastic high spirits. It would be his breakthrough, the fiction that gave free rein to the richness of his background while marking him as a major figure. And he knew it was a breakthrough, even before he had written it; you read it plainly in the letters. As early as 1948 he had written to his friend Mel Tumin: “I should like to write a purely comic book next in a spirit of le gai savoir, Nietzsche’s gaya scienza, ringing comedy, not the centerless irony of the New Yorker, which takes the name nowadays.” A year later he is mentioning work on “The Life of Augie March”, and after many false starts and hundreds of discarded pages he published his sprawling bildungsroman in 1953.

The novel’s famous opening is a declaration of independence – for Bellow and for his eponymous narrator:

I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.

The book is a headlong rush of language, voice and event that is everything the early books were not. As Philip Roth has written: “In Augie March, a very grand, assertive, freewheeling conception of both the novel and the world the novel represents breaks loose from all sorts of self-imposed strictures.” It is funny, breathless, and invigorating. It consciously emulates the nineteenth century masters of the extended form but is most indebted to Joyce, Ulysses in particular, for its linguistic conception. “In Augie March I wanted to invent a new sort of American sentence,” Bellow said. Joyce provided the model. “He brought to pork kidneys and privies and Dublin funerals a Miltonic power of language mixing elegance with street talk, popular ditties, obscenities and advertising slogans with Homeric echoes, poetry and silliness, the high and the low.”

Augie March won Bellow his first National Book Award and cemented his reputation as America’s leading young novelist. Judging from the letters, it also convinced him that he was on an equal footing with the critics and provided him with the confidence to take them on. Though he held university positions all his life – including over thirty years with the Committee for Social Thought at the University of Chicago – Bellow was never comfortable with academic definitions of literature, especially the reigning orthodoxy of the day, the New Criticism. In a 1950 letter to Kazin, he argued that New Critics such as Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren were “convinced that to write a story is to manipulate symbols. What are they going to make young writers in the colleges think but that they daren’t their most natural step but must learn ‘mythic’ footwork?”

The letters make clear that, after writing Augie March, Bellow grew convinced that ideas could not be imposed upon fiction but must rise organically from the aesthetic process. “No amount of assertion will make an ounce of art,” he wrote to Richard Stern. And to Ruth Miller: “Writing should derive from Creation, and not attempt to add to it.” One of the great pleasures of this book is reading Bellow’s advice on the craft and purpose of fiction. Especially when corresponding with other novelists – Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud, JF Powers, Alice Adams, Philip Roth – he consistently argues for the primacy in fiction of felt life over ideas.

His assessment of his contemporaries is invariably honest and stimulating. He wrote thus to Ruth Miller about his friend Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man:

I myself distinguish between the parts of the novel that were written and those that were constructed as part of the argument; they are not alike in quality. The first third of the book is beautiful, whereas the Brotherhood portion is ordinary. The sweet-potato seller, the eviction, the riot, can’t be compared with the mechanical symbols, the hospital, the seduction [which] are in full cry after the Meaning ... I think this is the 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.’ The rest doesn’t count a bit. Ralph is wrong to think that it did. I tell him so often.

This was not advice that Bellow always stuck to himself, especially in his later years, but in the decade that followed Augie March, his letters, criticism and, above all, his fiction presented an organic vision of the writer’s purpose. “Drama and comedy … are first, and the meanings are the comet’s tail – when there is a comet,” he advised Keith Opdahl. Comets there were: over these ten years he sent flying across the American firmament a trio of novels that, with Augie March and perhaps Humboldt’s Gift, form the core of his achievement: the tragic Seize the Day, the comic Henderson the Rain King and his masterpiece, Herzog.

The heroes of these books are anguished men who nurse large grievances, battle grasping wives and dominating fathers, and are out of sync with the rah-rah optimism of the times. They make their way through an America at the zenith of its postwar prestige, pre-Vietnam, with the dollar supreme, gas at thirty cents a gallon, and a military-industrial complex so powerful it frightened even the old warhorse Dwight Eisenhower. Within this purring beast of a nation, so at ease with itself on the surface, Bellow found disquiet. Consumerism, the language of advertising, mass entertainment, bland politics, and a new twist on classic American pragmatism had, in Bellow’s view, crowded out the deeper needs of the self and made it harder for the individual (and the novelist) to satisfy the “immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for” (to quote from his Nobel address). His characters are “feeling individuals”, sensitive types who know they are weak but in accepting weakness and separateness “discover solidarity with other isolated creatures”. And their stories are told in language that is broad, muscular, rich, and assured.

Bellow was not afraid to tackle these lofty themes. His novels supported what he argued in his letters: that in spite of the ennui of the age and the low esteem America had for serious fiction, the frequent assertion that the novel was dead or dying was critical escapism. What he wrote to Lionel Trilling is true sixty years later:

Are most novels poor today? Undoubtedly. But that is like saying mutilation exists, a broken world exists. More mutilated and broken than before? That is perhaps the world’s own secret. Really, things are now what they always were, and to be disappointed in them is extremely shallow … Yes, there’s a great disease, an ancient disease now greatly magnified by our numbers. Man is sick of man; man declares man superfluous. ‘But,’ some say, ‘there is no society which gives us our value and creates importance for us.’ And 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.

A man’s heart. That is the subject of these great novels: Tommy Wilhelm’s heart, Eugene Henderson’s, Moses Herzog’s. Seize the Day presents the culmination of a man’s breakdown over a single tragic day in New York City. Wilhelm’s anguished cry is help me. Henderson’s mantra is I want, I want, I want. Henderson the Rain King is set in Africa, where its larger than life hero travels to wake himself from his “spirit’s sleep” and escape from “my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my soul!” The novel has enormous energy and comedy, a screwball book, as Philip Roth calls it, with “great screwball authority”.

But Herzog is Bellow’s most complete book, Moses Herzog his greatest creation. Here he got exactly right the balance of ideas and life, language and form, rage and reflection, comedy and seriousness. He used a lifetime’s reading of the Great Books to give intellectual weight to the narrative while at the same time having huge fun with the failure of a deep intellect to illuminate the suffering of ordinary life. Cuckolded, separated from his daughter, bursting with grievance and indignation, adrift in memory and regret, Herzog writes his letters to the famous and infamous, the living and the dead, desperately trying to make sense of his predicament as his world unravels.

Again, Ulysses is a significant influence (the hero’s very name comes from a character mentioned in passing in the Cyclops episode). Herzog is American literature’s Leopold Bloom, though with a difference, as Philip Roth defines with typical acumen:

In Ulysses, the encyclopedic mind of the author is transmuted into the linguistic flesh of the novel, and Joyce never cedes to Bloom his own great erudition, intellect, and breadth of rhetoric, whereas in Herzog Bellow endows his hero with all of that, not only with a state of mind and cast of mind but with a mind that is a mind … This mind, so forceful, so tenacious, overstocked with the best that has been thought and said, a mind elegantly turning out the most informed generalizations about a lot of the world and its history, happens also to suspect its own most fundamental power, the very capacity for comprehension.

Bellow presents this mind via a masterful mix of first and third person limited point of view, and through the letters, which, as well as creating comic potential and adding richness to the novel’s texture, often capture the flow of Herzog’s thoughts with Joycean rhythm. In the narrative he is constantly stopping to write one of these missives, but he can also, in the midst of a scene, compose “mental letters” akin to stream of consciousness. This to a men’s clothing salesman who has just been rude to him:

Dear Mack. Dealing with poor jerks every day. Male pride. Effrontery. Conceit. Yourself obliged to be agreeable and winsome. Hard job if you happen to be an angry, grudging fellow. The candor of people in New York! Bless you, you are not nice. But in a false situation, as we all are. Must manage some civility.

And always in Herzog there is the language, a heady mix of high concept and street talk, carrying us along with huge power and subtlety. For all the emphasis on mental processes and ideas, the book is a wonder of observation and re-creation, with a faultless sense of place – past and present, New York and Chicago – and an almost anthropological sense of American Jewish life and its immigrant history:

The morning light could not free itself from gloom and frost. Up and down the street, the brick-recessed windows were dark, filled with darkness, and schoolgirls by twos in their black skirts marched toward the convent. And wagons, sledges, drays, the horses shuddering, the air drowned in leaden green, the dung-stained ice, trails of ashes. Moses and his brothers put on their caps and prayed together: ‘Ma tovu ohaleha Yaakov … / How goodly are thy tents, O Israel.’

In spite of its intellectual density and against all expectation (especially Bellow’s) Herzog was a huge commercial success, selling 142,000 copies in hardcover, spending forty-two weeks on the bestseller list, and creating a demand for his previous work that generated a fortune. It turned him into a celebrity and a wealthy man. And it won the National Book Award.

Bellow would struggle with this success for the rest of his career. From the late sixties, his correspondence increasingly mentions money, litigation (his ex-wives made sure he was in and out of court for decades), anxiety, separation from his children, and demands on his time. He never had trouble writing fiction, and he was always engaged with the great questions he had first encountered as a skinny kid in Chicago, but from middle age his letters often had a tone of persecution:

I can bear my difficulties pretty well; I am certainly equal to them mentally. I am not quite in control of them emotionally … I’ve been up to my chin in sewage for nearly ten years. It’s time I did whatever I need to do to extricate myself. The whole thing is monstrous – simply monstrous. It has taught me a great deal, though. I don’t say this menacingly, or with great bitterness. I plan no vengeance. I mean only to say that it has expanded my understanding of human beings very considerably.

Inevitably there is a significant slice of correspondence with or about his ex-wives, usually to do with their attempts to fleece him, as he would see it, or to make it difficult for him to see his sons (he had one by each of his first three wives). These letters are difficult to read, of course, though they do seem to support his biographer James Atlas’s contention that he “fled his marriages … when they could no longer provide the emotional sustenance he required … Bellow longed for a home and family, but he longed for them as a child might: the need for constant attention alternated in him with a powerful need to go off and explore the world on his own at will.”

But he missed his sons deeply, and some of the most affecting correspondence is to them. These words, wistful and comic, were written to Adam Bellow when the twenty-year-old was at college:

Your father, used to the decades zipping by, sure that there would always be more where they came from, is now beginning to understand that he is at the shorter end of time. This doesn’t bring a sad, bad feeling, but rather a sense that I’d better do the things I haven’t done. Not undo the things that I have done – there isn’t time for that. And when you write to me about your romances, I have a feeling of comfort (for your sake) seeing that you still have an endless perspective of decades. I shouldn’t have used the plural ‘romances’ – excuse me. But if patterns persist, the singular hasn’t much of a chance.

Bellow was sentimental about family connections, especially as he grew older, but his relationship with his own father, a tough businessman who had imported onions to St. Petersburg and coal to Chicago, was always difficult. When he received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1948, he had this to say to a friend about his father’s response:

In Chicago last week my father looked, when I told him of the award, as he looked at the gold star in my third-grade copybook. Yes, very fine, but there is still life with its markets, alleyways and bedrooms where such as you are conceived between a glass of schnapps and a dish of cucumbers and cream.

Yet Bellow also enjoyed his direct experience of the “white-knuckle” existence of Chicago, the city of stockyards and slums and hard politics with little regard for the subtleties of art. He liked to recall the time he received an award at City Hall from the Midland Author’s Society for Herzog and was presented with a five-hundred-dollar cheque by Mayor Richard Daley, the toughest of the tough Irish machine politicians. “Mr Mayor,” a troublemaking reporter asked, “have you read Herzog?” The mayor bluntly replied, “I’ve looked into it.” Bellow’s reflection years later? “Art is not the mayor’s dish. Indeed, why should it be? I much prefer his neglect to the sort of interest Stalin took in poetry.”

Sadly, the letters grew less frequent as the years passed. As he explained to his auditors many times, usually to account for the long time it took to respond to a letter he had received, he did not have the energy to keep up with his correspondence and write fiction at the same time – and his fiction always took priority. After 1980, his output grew uneven, but there were still wonderful works, especially in the short form: “Him with His Foot in His Mouth”, “A Silver Dish”, “Something to Remember Me By”. And of course, Ravelstein, his unique, controversial tribute to his friend Allan Bloom, and his swansong.

There are shortcomings to this collection. Though well edited and (presumably) well chosen, the letters only give us – as is the nature of such a book – one side of the correspondence. They often leave us wishing we could read the letters he received, or perhaps have more contextual detail from editor Benjamin Taylor, who keeps comment to a minimum. In the privacy of personal communication, Bellow could be thin-skinned and unreasonable. He was also given, publicly and privately, to the occasional politically insensitive remark. Indeed, throughout his life, from his time as a young Trotskyist to his neoconservative days as American fiction’s elder statesman, he ruffled many political feathers.

But Bellow was no ideologue. It is his stories we treasure, not his politics. And his correspondence supports our hope and belief that writing novels is necessary and worthy, and must be refreshed within each generation by works that seek to adapt the form’s strengths to the demands of the times. Bellow’s challenge was to find his voice while breaking through establishment prejudice and hardened notions of form – whether European formalism or the tough-guy simplicity of Hemingway and his followers – as he made himself into a great American writer. He did this the only way it can be done – by thinking long and hard about his purpose and working even harder to bring his books to life in a way that was thrilling and timeless, for him and for his readers.

He never stopped affirming his guiding principle, that the proper business of a novelist was arranging “the weak comic furniture of Life, that grand enterprise”. This he did himself over and over again, with American élan and sentences that rival Joyce. And he remained his own man, to the end. At age eighty he had this to say in a letter to Martin Amis, after chiding him gently for the way Amis’s novel The Information “stares into the void”:

Writers and characters alike are on ‘thought trips,’ squaring themselves one way or another with the prevailing nihilism. When the people one meets and/or writes about seek (and find) ideas it is more or less necessary for writers to cut their connections to the abstractions and to hang on to the phenomena, embrace them for dear life. We have no obligation to justify ourselves intellectually to the ruling philosophy, to be accepted as ‘authentic.’ Of course the mental misery is very great. We don’t want to abandon the sufferers. But one does them little good by joining them in their thought-idolatry.

We hang on to Bellow’s novels and stories; we embrace them for dear life. Because the letters, after all, are only gloss. It is the fiction that gives them value. It is the fiction we must celebrate.

Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz

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