An Epistolary Performer

A Nobel Prize-winning novelist’s humorous and impassioned dialogue with friends, enemies—and himself

“It’s been ten years since Katie excommunicated me. She used to keep a lightweight typewriter for me in London when she worked for Oxford Press in Dover Street, but I offended her after John Berryman’s death while she and I were having a beer, and she said, ‘How dare you speak of John in a place like this?’ As John’s death was hastened by alcoholism I didn’t see that there was anything improper in reminiscing in the presence of so many bottles. But Katie said in a trembling voice: ‘Take your typewriter away and never come to see me again.’ ”

So wrote Saul Bellow (1915-2005) to the playwright Robert Hivnor in 1985. The vignette tells us a great deal. That Bellow could always tell a good story. That he could inspire great affection, which could quickly turn into abrupt dismissal, especially on the part of women. That he always thought of himself as the innocent party. And that such episodes troubled him perhaps more than he let on.

An American, Montreal-born Saul Bellow in 1964.

“Katie” was Catharine Carver, who had been Bellow’s editor at Viking. She was as passionate in her support of “her” authors as she was of their privacy. That you do not speak ill of the dead or gossip about those who are not present were central tenets of her life. She invariably refused to release the private letters of the authors she had worked with and who had become her friends, no matter how much editors and biographers begged her.

I have a lot of respect for her position. I wouldn’t want my private letters to be made public. On the other hand, I’m not willing to forgo the experience of reading the letters of Keats, van Gogh or Kafka just because they were not written to me. And I’m sorry that the fascinating new volume of Bellow’s letters does not contain the ones he wrote to Catharine Carver.

The publication of the letters of Keats and van Gogh would have ensured their immortality even if not a single poem or painting by them had survived. Saul Bellow’s letters are not in that league, but their publication is a major event, offering not only a rich mine of information for those interested in his work but also a fascinating book in its own right. That they don’t quite reach the heights of the genre may not even be a reflection on Bellow but may be the result of the vagaries of history. For though the first letter here dates from 1932, when Bellow was just 17, there are a mere 120 pages of letters covering the years before the publication of “The Adventures of Augie March” in 1953 and his sudden rise to fame.

But the years before public recognition, when an artist is pouring out his hopes and frustrations (usually to one devoted friend, a Theo van Gogh or Max Brod), are usually the most interesting ones—and perhaps one of the reasons why the letters of Keats, van Gogh and Kafka are so moving is that fame only came to them posthumously. In a 1992 letter to the novelist Stanley Elkin, Bellow wrote: “When I was young I used to correspond actively with Isaac Rosenfeld and other friends. He died in 1956, and several more went in the same decade, and somehow I lost the habit of writing long personal letters—a sad fact I only now begin to understand.” He goes on to suggest that these deaths threw him back upon himself. “I suppose the letters in ‘Herzog’ reflect this solipsistic condition. . . . With me, for a long time, it’s been fiction or nothing.”

There are no letters to Rosenfeld here (he informed Bellow that he had thrown them away in the course of one of his moves, and Bellow professed to be relieved) or to close friends such as Delmore Schwartz, and so it may be that the best of Bellow’s correspondence is, necessarily, missing from this volume.

But it’s also possible that Bellow never opened up completely to anyone, even in his youth. On her return from a tour of Eastern Europe with him in 1960, Mary McCarthy wrote to Hannah Arendt: “Saul and I parted good friends, though he is too wary and raw-nerved to be friends, really, even with people he decides to like.” And in the 1992 letter to Elkin, Bellow confessed: “We were so Russian, as adolescents, and perhaps we were also practicing to be writers.”

The letters do often feel like performances. This can be part of their charm. His mock-letters to old and trusted friends are hilarious: “Dear Mr. Berrimon,” he writes to the poet John Berryman, “I ‘ave souvent theenk of your conference sur I-do-and-do-not-wish-to-be-cast-upon-your-shore. It is a titre sublime. Et sérieusement, vous avez peint ze human situation more better than J.-P. Sartre avec une seule strook.” “Dear Yevgeny Pavlovitch,” he writes to the critic Alfred Kazin, “You know me, Yevgeny, and my Russian lack of organization. I am a poor lost woof from the kennel of Fate looking for a dog to belong to. So, do I have that letter from the man? Of course not.”

The one-liners that are a glory of the novels abound here. “To have a holiday in Jerusalem is something like consummating a marriage in a laundromat.” “Will I read your book?” he writes to John Cheever. “Would I accept a free trip to Xanadu with Helen of Troy as my valet?” Of an official visit by Václav Havel to New York: “Havel and I chatted for about three minutes and were separated as if we were tomato seeds in the digestive tract.” There is nothing studied about such images: They seem to burst out of him as soon as he puts pen to paper.

The letters are also full of those wonderful vignettes that pepper his books, comic and perceptive at the same time: “Just now we’re in Positano, on the gulf of Salerno,” he wrote in a 1950 letter, “in the midst of the mountains and hanging over the sea. . . . On holy days the Saints are taken for a walk by a procession. It would seem incredible for the gods never to see the sun, and they are shown it on Sunday.” Or from Chicago in 1968: “I saw N Leites [a Sovietologist at the University of Chicago] with his bald musclebound skull hurrying through melting slush, moving with ballistic energy from 53rd to 55th, a bottle under his arm—moving with such force, and the muscles of shyness and analytic subtlety (probably pointless) gathered up on his shaven head.”

There’s so much going on here, such swift and impassioned dialogue between the spiritual and the physical, the place and those who inhabit it, that, as so often in his books, we can only gasp in joyful wonder. Just as the volume brings out how much a part of a group of the children of immigrants Bellow was, both in his early days in Chicago and in his New York years and later life—when his editors, his agents and most of his friends were nearly all first- or second-generation Jewish-Americans (Berryman and Cheever are notable exceptions)—it also reveals how unique he was in his gifts and energy. At the age of 3, in Montreal, he was speaking French in the streets and Yiddish at home and working his way through Genesis and Exodus in Hebrew with a rabbi. At 8, desperately sick in a hospital in Chicago, he was devouring a New Testament he found there, falling in love with Jesus, sensing that he must keep this from his family. As a young man, he writes that he is working hard at his music and his Hebrew. In his old age, he takes up Latin and Caesar’s “Commentaries,” reads the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard and corresponds with Owen Barfield, the anthroposophist and cultural historian.

If playfully turning T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into Yiddish with Isaac Rosenfeld at 13 was not all that different from what his contemporaries at Eton might have been doing with Homer or at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand with Racine, there is the added sense here that it is an amazing thing for little Jewish boys from Chicago to be entering such a world. Remembering his youth in an essay, he later wrote: “The children of Chicago bakers, tailors, peddlers, insurance agents, pressers, cutters, grocers, the sons of families on relief, were reading buckram-bound books from the public library and were in a state of enthusiasm. . . discovering their birthright, hearing incredible news from the great world of culture, talking to one another about the mind, society, art, religion, epistemology, and doing all this in Chicago.”

But of them all only Bellow found a way to channel both the energy and the newfound learning into a sustained oeuvre. How he did this is one of the stories that unfolds in the course of this book. Utterly confident from the start, he coped with the usual rebuffs of youth and finally got a novel published when he was 29. “Dangling Man” appeared in 1944 to warm reviews and was quickly followed by “The Victim” (1947). But at the same time, even as he defended his work to friends and editors, he admitted to being dissatisfied with what he was writing. It felt too tight, constricted, too willed. But how to find freedom and not descend into chaos?

The years 1948-52 were crucial. Living on a Guggenheim grant in Paris with wife and child, he began to find an answer. A voice was released in him, and Augie March was born: “I am American, Chicago born . . . 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.”

“I knew . . . that I’d put my hand strongly to a good thing and was making it resound,” he wrote to his editor Monroe Engel as he was working on it. “Easily or not at all,” became his motto in the writing of the book, and, as with Samuel Beckett in the same years, the breakthrough took him to where his real interests lay. He never looked back.

Although in later life he felt that “Augie March” was too loose, it was the key that unlocked his genius. The next 20 years were miraculous, as one masterpiece followed another: “Seize the Day” (1956), “Henderson the Rain King” (1959), “Herzog” (1964), “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” (1970). All were greeted with acclaim, and prizes were showered upon him, culminating with the Nobel in 1976.

After that, a decline set in, not helped, in my opinion, by his continuing to teach, first at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought and then at Boston University. Unlike Beckett or even his great rival, Bernard Malamud, Bellow was unable to reinvent himself with success. From “Humboldt’s Gift” (1975) to “Ravelstein” (2000), works that would have been admirable from anyone else were, for him, merely repetitive. “Humboldt” is baggy, overblown and irretrievably sentimental in its belief that to be a businessman or a crook is somehow to be more in touch with life than to be an intellectual, “Ravelstein” a lesser version of “Henderson” and “Herzog.”

Bellow confessed late in life that he had never expected the degree of fame he got and that perhaps he had not known how to deal with it. The middle portion of this book consists of rather too many letters in which we find him complaining of how his ex-wives are treating him, never recognizing that he might be partly to blame. He married, divorced, married again, divorced again, until, at the fifth attempt, in his 70s, he settled into a contented old age with a wife almost 50 years his junior. He fathered a fourth child at 84, and spent more and more time giving speeches at the memorial services of old friends and writing to others about the old times.

The last letters—suddenly more natural, less defensive—are the surprise of the book. Bellow’s sharpness of observation and his way with words is unabated, as in this account of the grandfather of the girl to whom the first letter in this volume is addressed, Yetta Barshevsky: “I even came to know Yetta’s grandfather, whom I would often see at the synagogue when I came to say Kaddish for my mother. He was an extremely, primitively orthodox short bent man with a beard that seemed to have rushed out of him and muffled his face. He wore a bowler hat and elastic-sided boots. The old women, it seems, were wildly radical communist sympathizers. The grandfathers were the pious ones.”

It is in this funeral address, given 64 years after his letter to Yetta, that he struggles for the last time with the great mystery which his whole writing life had been devoted to articulating: “There is something radically mysterious in the specificity of another human being which everybody somehow responds to. Love is not a bad word for this response. Today’s memorial testifies to Yetta’s secret power, the power of being Yetta.”

Since his death, Bellow has to some extent come to be taken for granted. These letters—introduced with a fine essay by Benjamin Taylor and lightly annotated by him (sometimes too lightly, but better that than the overkill of a scholarly edition)—may help to remind us of his essential qualities of linguistic brilliance, comic exuberance and a very Russian and very Jewish awareness of the depths as well as the foibles of men.

Let’s re-acquaint ourselves with him.

Mr. Josipovici’s most recent book is “What Ever Happened to Modernism?”


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