Friday, November 12, 2010

Bellow’s 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 Messages or 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 the New 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 if fiction 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.


R/T said...

I am cautious about relying upon an author's correspondence as any sort of "key" to the author's fiction. Consider, for example, Flannery O'Connor's letters, which have become quite a popular resource but showcase a personality that is sometimes very much at odds with the narrative persona in O'Connor's her fiction; a reader of O'Connor's fiction must be wary of conflating the narrator with the correspondent. Do you find a similar hazard in Bellow's writings?

Jonathan said...


Good to hear from you again!

Stephen Cahaly said...

Professor Myers,

I just discovered your blog through the excellent "Cancer Etiquette" posting, and I've begun reading through your essays. My apologies if you've already addressed this, but in relation to "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,” and your essay "Michael Chabon's Imaginary Jews" (great opening line here about the collected tweets, by the way), I wonder what thoughts you might have about Bellow's profound engagement with the Jewish experience as background experience for his literature, as opposed to what appears to be Chabon's disengaged, appropriation of it for novelistic purposes. Specifically I have in mind Chabon's "Chosen, Not Special" New York Times piece, June 5, 2010. Have you addressed this elsewhere?

The quotes in your post implies that "the destruction of European Jewry" was a part of Bellow's makeup, regardless of whether he wished to be explicit about it - excellent literature itself is the argument - while in Chabon you have a writer feeling the need to state to everyone, "This is why, to a Jew, it always comes as a shock to encounter stupid Jews," or "Jews are stupid in roughly the same proportion as all the world’s people", the point, apparently, of his piece. Jewish people are taught that they're smarter than everyone, but then as they get older they discover that apparently this might not be true, and as a result, this kind of uncanniness makes for quite some great literature, as the work of Philip Roth attests, Chabon argues. As long as there's a good metaphor to make the point, "A stupid Jew is like a hole in the pocket of your pants, there every time you put them on, always forgotten until the instant your quarters run clattering across the floor," then we can all assume that there must be some truth to this because metaphors work.

I think Chabon's unhelpful, politically expedient essay proves Bellow's point, but I was wondering what you thought about it? Specifically, I'm hoping you could flesh out the final two paragraphs of your "Imaginary Jews" piece, all things considered since then. I apologize if this is too fat a question for a comments post, but I would really be interested to hear what you have to say on Chabon's political stance, especially since you've written so well on Bellow and Roth. "Let us not forget the eternal hole in our human pocket," writes Chabon. I won't if he won't. Especially since he has a much larger audience than most of us mere mortals.

Stephen Cahaly

D. G. Myers said...

Mr Cahaly,

As a matter of fact, I replied to Chabon’s op-ed “Chosen, Not Special” here.

Stephen Cahaly said...

Just as I suspected! My apologies; I hadn't read that far yet.

A terrible consequence of seeing primarily through pat political formulations is that it doesn't allow you to do anything more than mix and match them. All those novels for Chabon to do no more than this. "A Jewish ignoramus who trades on his Jewishness," as you so excellently put it, unfortunately for those who don't see it this way, the charge of "subtle" anti-semitism gets applied, such as a recent commmenter at The Elegant Variation did regarding James Wood's review of "The Finkler Question" for Wood expecting what you expect, Professor Myers, that those who love Israel would honor the past and not make a mockery of it. When Wood writes into his margins "I don't believe you" when reading writers like Nicole Krauss too, he's doing so for a very good reason. "...he craves the Jews’ reputation for moral passion; on the other hand, he does not want to be held to account for his own moral cowardice in separating himself from the Jews whenever it suits his self-image to do so." I couldn't agree with you more.

Chabon's "Manhood for Amateurs" is an embarrassment too. He doesn't recognize that the need for attention that wrote these essays and compiled them, along with his vile essay this summer, is by nature political. Look, ladies, what an attentive, communicative, downright verbose husband I am that can actually do the dishes too, aren't I someone special? Not like the men of the previous generations who kept households in tact by working hard and saving, but all with such tyrannical modes of silence and reserve. What a joke.

The questions you raise with all this fascinates me with writers of the Catholic tradition struggling with their own upbringing. You find this in those like W.G. Sebald whose own parents, which is strictly implicit to his writings, were part of the European disaster that still keeps us puzzled. That wrote his books, and would you look at that, somehow he avoided leading the cheer in the op-ed pages.

Thanks for your excellent posts.

Shelley said...

I agree with R/T's caution; but I know that reading Bellow's letters makes me like him, and reading his novels does the opposite.

Of course liking is not the point....