Saul Bellow: Letters
by Saul Bellow
Reviewed by John G. Rodwan Jr.
The highest compliment Saul Bellow knew how to give was to call a fellow novelist "the real thing." In letters, he describes Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and Stanley Elkin this way. The bond forged by practitioners of the literary trade amounted to much more than professional respect.
For Bellow, true commitment to literature fostered love. "You were engaged, as a writer should be, in transforming yourself ... There's nothing that counts really except this transforming action of the soul," he wrote to John Cheever. "I loved you for this."
Over the course of his long life (1915-2005), Bellow sent such expression of affection to writers of various generations including Robert Penn Warren, Bernard Malamud, Ralph Ellison and Martin Amis. (A corollary to such art-rooted esteem was a dismissive attitude toward those who failed to meet his standards, such as Albert Camus, William Burroughs and Samuel Beckett.)
Though Bellow considered himself a comic novelist whose purpose was to entertain, and often is quite funny, he was earnestly serious about literature's importance. He frequently testified to its sustaining power, to its provision of oxygen for souls. As the Nobel Prize winner wrote to future Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, "our fragile enterprise remains one of the best hopes of humanity." When he wrote in another letter that "scribbling and survival go together," he was not joking, and he was not thinking only of his own endurance. He adhered to such beliefs even as readers disappoint him. ("True readers are about as small in number as the Apostles," he complained to Malamud.)
The 708 epistles editor Benjamin Taylor gathers in Letters may be more than readers other than the most ardent Bellow admirers might want, but they do make up a fragmentary autobiography offering intimate glimpses of an attempt to remain faithful to his chosen art. They contain predictable complaints about publishers not doing enough to promote books, incompetent proofreaders, uncomprehending reviewers and literary prizes going to undeserving recipients. The latter trail off as he began to win honor upon honor, just as success silenced gripes about the difficulty of making a living, but he never stopped sneering at critics. ("I'm afraid there's nothing we can do about the journalists," he wrote to Roth; "we can only hope that they will die off as the deerflies do toward the end of August.")
Though Bellow "learned to organize (his) daily life for a single purpose," he never could devote himself exclusively to writing. He also had to deal with such "antipoetic phenomena" as divorce lawyers (he married five times) and physicians, especially in the protracted deterioration of his later years. He didn't complain much though, since he had the "singular advantage" of being able to "use almost anything that happens" in the process of transmuting experience into fiction.
Letters confirms what novels such as his three National Book Award winners -- Herzog (which depicts a compulsive letter writer), The Adventures of Augie March and Mr. Sammler's Planet -- already demonstrated. Saul Bellow was the real thing.