Excellent writing about a master of fiction and American life.
Saul Bellow: Letters
In the newly published collected correspondence of Saul Bellow…
BY LEO ROBSON PUBLISHED 11 NOVEMBER 2010
Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor
Penguin, 571pp, £30
“Of course I am not a Freudian,” Saul Bellow wrote to Philip Roth in 1974. “For one fierce interval I was a Reichian. At the moment I have no handle of any sort. I can neither be picked up nor put down.” But it wasn’t true. While at work on Humboldt’s Gift (1975), Bellow had developed an interest in the work of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy. And although he insisted, in a letter to the English barrister and “historian of consciousness” Owen Barfield, that he could not call himself a Steinerian, he was using – and refusing – the handle as a measure of knowledge rather than appetite. In 1973, he started attending meetings of the Anthroposophical Society of Chicago; two decades on, he wrote that he had read Steiner’s books “by the score”. Asked by an interviewer to account for the appeal of this work, he said: “When Steiner tells me I have a soul and a spirit, I say, yes, I always knew that.”
So while Bellow, who was happy to identify himself as “American, Jew, novelist, modernist”, did not deem himself fit to be called a Steinerian, he had, in another sense, “always” been one. Some of the most fascinating letters in this book are addressed to Barfield, for whose work Bellow expressed great admiration but from whom he received little in return. This was a rare case. Though he showed a tendency towards paranoia (in 1948, “I am a born slightee”; in 1980, “a favourable letter from me is a kiss of death”), most of his correspondence was conducted on the understanding that he was the senior – and busier – figure. And while Barfield evidently enjoyed Bellow’s company and encouraged his interest in Steiner, he was unable to finish the Steiner-heavy Humboldt’s Gift. Almost desperate, Bellow wrote in 1979, “I can’t easily accept your dismissal of so much investment of soul.” In defence of “‘novelistic’ expression”, he quoted Steiner: “If a man has no ordinary sense of realities, no interest in the details of others’ lives, if he is so ‘superior’ that he sails through life without troubling about its details, he shows he is not a genuine seer.”
To Bellow, the brainy product of immigrant Chicago, anthroposophy offered support for his lifelong intuitions about the relationship between the street and the universe. It was a matter of discrimination. To locate the possibilities for transcendence in city life, you must first identify what Charlie Citrine, the Steiner-mad narrator of Humboldt’s Gift, calls “the accidental, the merely phenomenal, the wastefully and randomly human”; Bellow and Citrine also borrowed Wyndham Lewis’s phrase “the moronic inferno” (a place, according to a 1981 letter, “as hot as ever”). In 1978, during an alimony dispute, Bellow wrote to Barfield: “Today I was asked for an inventory of my personal belongings, and I wonder whether the court would hesitate to put them on auction. One never knows. I manage nevertheless to concentrate daily on the distinctions between the essential and the inessential.” And in the final letter printed here – from 2004, when Bellow was 88 – he recalls: “My mother coveted for me a pair of patent-leather sandals with an elegantissimo strap. I finally got them – I rubbed them with butter to preserve the leather. This is when I was six or seven years old. Amazing how it all boils down to a pair of patent-leather sandals.” And what do the sandals boil down from? What is “it”? In one letter, Bellow talks of “the total human situation”; in another, with a hint of irony, “Life, that grand enterprise”.
Bellow’s spiritual or metaphysical vocabulary was intimately related to a bodily one. In 1966, he reread War and Peace and saw a kindred spirit: “I’m convinced that Leo was a somatological moralist. Eyes, lips and noses, the colour of the skin, the knuckles and the feet do not lie . . . It’s not a bad system. I seem to have used it myself, most of the time.” He was right to spot the connection; much of his own art lay in finding the mind’s construction in the face. (“Your looking things in the face is not inferior to mine,” he told Roth in 1981, the metaphor slipping its moorings.) Through the corporeal, Bellow believed, he could reach something, even somewhere, else. The belief persisted until the end. Chick, the narrator of his last novel, Ravelstein(2000), reflects: “I have always been inclined to give a special diagnostic importance to the upper lip. If there is a despotic tendency it will reveal itself there.” The swift-nibbed describer is at one with the novelist of ideas.
Broadly, Bellow’s work has two modes: third-person monochrome and first-person technicolour. In each mode, he produced stunning work – Seize the Day (1956) and Herzog (1964) in the former, The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and Humboldt’s Gift in the latter. When we read of Augie as “a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand” and of Herzog as “the nemesis of the would-be forgotten”, we know that these books, though scrawled in ink of different colours, come from the same pen. My view, supported by these letters, is that we encounter the true Bellow in the gabby wonder of the first-person books, which also include Henderson the Rain King (1959), and that his other, more reticent mode, which also produced Mr Sammler’s Planet(1970) and The Dean’s December (1982), reflected not so much his world-view as his take on American society
at the time of writing – always disappointed, often appalled.
Whatever his temperament, Bellow was obsessed with rumination. Ideas are what his characters cleave to, for all the good it does them. These ideas served thematic and narrative purposes; they were not to be propounded. To Roth, he writes that “there should be a certain detachment from the writer’s own passions”. Fiction had powerful advantages over other approaches; it was, he thought, the only way to get human beings down on paper. In another letter to Roth, he expresses annoyance with the Freudian idea that “a man’s life is nothing but a front for the operations of his unconscious”. “The trouble with anthropology,” he writes elsewhere, “is that it doesn’t consider people at full depth.” As for sociologists: “I can’t make out their Man. Surely that’s not homo sapiens, mon semblable!” To look at man in terms of his environment, or rituals, or traumas was to miss each man’s quiddity; Charlie Citrine is no distance at all from Bellow’s own passions when he reflects, “there are no nonpeculiar people”. Here, in these letters, we are given extended access to Bellow’s man, a spiritual being washed up on the corporeal earth, “writing Ulysses all day long, within himself”.
These beautifully sincere letters reveal Bellow’s constancy. In 1949, he writes that Europe, where he has been living in Paris, “has taught me a great deal about what and who I am. That is, really, what and who others are”; and 47 years later: “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.” Bellow is forever issuing professions of love, friendship and desire, together with reassurances, apologies and tributes. To Martin Amis: “you have found a way of writing entirely your own”. To an unhappy novelist friend: “Don’t forget that you are Wright Morris and the books you’ve given your countrymen are beyond price.” Remembering (in a eulogy) his friend and one-time housemate Ralph Ellison, he writes hat Invisible Man “holds its own among the best novels of the century”. He describes the portrayal of friends in his fiction as “a diabolically complex problem”; letters show that he thought hard about the problem when writing his most autobiographical (and biographical) books, Humboldt’s Gift andRavelstein.
There is also a generous helping of contempt, the sine qua non of literary letters. To Cynthia Ozick, one of the few younger writers he admired, he wrote: “It gives me something less than pleasure to be listed with the Styrons, Vonneguts, Mailers.” He acquiesces in a friend’s description of John Updike as “an anti-Semitic pornographer” and doesn’t much like Updike’s chief outlet, the New Yorker. Or, for that matter, the journal he calls the New York Review of Each Other’s Books. Or the Jewish magazine Commentary: “the language of the contributors is something like the kapok that life jackets used to be stuffed with”.
Followers of Jacques Lacan and Paul de Man “can be identified by a rictus of jeering rejection” (that tell-all face again). There is not much love, either, for Gore Vidal (“a specialist in safe scandal”), George Steiner (“of all pains in the ass, the most unbearable”), or another of Steiner’s eminent dissers, Vladimir Nabokov (“At his gruesome worst he pins feminine roses to simian bosoms”). And then there is this: “[Christopher] Hitchens appeals to Amis. This is a temptation I understand. But the sort of people you like to write about aren’t always fit company, especially at the dinner table.” However much one admires the target of this bitching (and he is just about Bellow’s wisest admirer), there is still a pang of disappointment at this update: “Cordial relations would subsequently develop between Hitchens and the Bellows.”
This is just letting off steam, but Bellow was quite capable of myopia and meanness, as he recognised. “God knows,” he wrote to Jack Ludwig, who was the basis for Valentin in Herzog, “I am not stainless faultless Bellow. I leave infinities on every side to be desired.” And though he is loud and clear in his distaste for psychoanalysis, it wouldn’t take a crack shrink to sense denial in his protesting account of his son’s response to his parents’ divorce (Bellow’s first of four): “Gregory is not so disturbed as you might imagine. He knows how strong his parents’ love for him is. He does not feel abandoned by me, in fact we have never been closer. I have never loved him more.” And here is a balanced account of that break-up: “Her rigid unlovingness has driven me out – that and nothing else.” It is easy to see why Bellow took refuge in Steiner’s “soul-spirit” rather than Freud’s “unconscious”; there was too much lurking down there.
Benjamin Taylor, the editor of this book, has done Bellow’s readers an almost-great service. The existence of the collection is a cause for celebration, but there are shortcomings, especially in the provision of contextual detail. It is the nature of this kind of book that we are given only one side of the story, yet there are ways of softening the blow, giving us more than half, rather than less. To Ann Malamud, he writes: “. . . you bowled me over when you identified Dick Rovere in The Dean’s December. That was either clairvoyance or genius.” Well, whichever it was, we would like to decide for ourselves. To Roger Shattuck in 1990, shortly before Bellow’s 75th birthday, he apologises: “It was unforgivable to burst into your office with a list of references . . .” In a letter to James Salter: “I loved the Nabokov taxi-cab anecdote.” The reader becomes, at such maddening moments, hungry from deprivation, weary with conjecture.
But most of the time we are the opposite of hungry and weary. I read these 550 pages with an overpowering feeling of joy. The book is not, thankfully, what the blurb says it is – “the autobiography Bellow never wrote”; such a book would be written with the kind of long-view clarity for which Augie March produced the ideal formula: “I see this now. At that time not.” The sense strongly imparted is not of cool reflection, but of continual longing, fighting and striving, of writing being done “in a fit”; not of laurels being rested on, but of more, and better, work to be done, that early sense of destiny still to be realised. It was a life well, if stressfully and unevenly, lived. These letters, now its clearest record, are among its richest fruit.
Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer.
Saul Bellow: a life in letters
1915 Born Solomon Bellow to Russian immigrant parents in Lachine, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal
1924 Moves with family to the Humboldt Park district of Chicago
1933 Enters the University of Chicago
1935 Moves to Northwestern University. Gains BA with honours in anthropology and sociology two years later
1944 Completes his first novel, Dangling Man, while serving in the merchant navy
1953 His third novel, The Adventures of Augie March, is published
1964 Publishes Herzog
1976 Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Humboldt’s Gift, his eighth novel. Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature
1995 Nearly dies from toxin ingested in red snapper while on holiday
2000 Publishes his final novel, Ravelstein
2005 Dies in Brookline, Massachusetts