Saul Bellow wrote some of the best novels this blogger has never read. Bellow, like one of his best-known characters Moses Herzog was an epistolarian of the first rank. In fact, Herzog was the sole Bellow-novel that this blogger ever read (sketchily). When he wasn't writing letters, Bellow was saying "I do." (He was married five times, with all but his last marriage ending in divorce.) This blogger, after two diastrous marital adventures, has memorized "I don't." If this is (fair & balanced) irascibility, so be it.
[x National Post]
A Cranky But Brilliant Mind
By Robert Fulford
Even as a 17-year-old schoolboy, Saul Bellow flexed his narrative muscles. When writing a letter he liked to set the scene. In 1932 he wrote to a girlfriend, Yetta Barshevsky: "It is dark now and the lonely wind is making the trees softly whisper and rustle. Somewhere in the night a bird cries out to the wind. My brother in the next room snores softly, insistently. ...I am thinking, thinking, Yetta, drifting with night, with infinity, and all my thoughts are of you."
Yetta, a bright and curious member of the Young Communist League, introduced Saul to world politics ( "after a fashion," as he wrote later). His letter confirmed the break-up of their romance and his (possibly relieved) acknowledgement that he was losing her to the boy she married soon after.
The earliest Bellow letter surviving, that message to Yetta sounds the opening chord of Saul Bellow: Letters (2010), edited by Benjamin Taylor, an absorbing record of what Bellow thought and felt from the 1930s to 2004, the year before his death.
The boyish Saul obviously hoped to be considered both poetic and shrewd. What he says to Yetta stirs our interest in his romantic life, which led to five marriages and many angry letters. He described his second wife's effect on him in a particularly vehement note: "You damn near killed me." His widow, Janis Freedman Bellow, recently told an interviewer that "He was a serial marrier. It had to do with a strange desire on his part to be intimate, to have love at the centre of his life."
Saul Bellow: Letters is flecked with remarkable judgements, often harsh, on the people he knew. He considered Hannah Arendt rigid and unimaginative, as well as "monumentally vain," though "She wasn't altogether stupid." George Steiner? "Of all pains in the ass, the most unbearable because of his high polish and his snobbery." Christopher Hitchens? A representative of "the political press in its silliest disheveled left-wing form" (though they later became friendly).
Bellow knew Marilyn Monroe and her husband Arthur Miller as neighbours in Reno in 1956. Later, after dinner with her at the Pump Room in Chicago, he wrote to his publisher: "I have yet to see anything in Marilyn that isn't genuine. Surrounded by thousands, she conducts herself like a philosopher."
Bellow's letters reveal him as a restless, agitated truth-seeker, not unlike many of his characters. Herzog, published in 1964, concerns Moses E. Herzog, like Bellow a Canadian-born Chicago intellectual, whose wife's adultery (with his close friend) has thrown him into a crisis of self-doubt. He writes many brilliant and cranky letters as he struggles to organize his scattered thoughts.
He's an exaggerated version of his creator, Bellow imagining what it would be like to lose his grip. A Herzogian spirit appears in many Bellow letters.
"People don't realize how much they are in the grip of ideas," Bellow wrote. Ideas floating through the air affect us more than reality. Herzog is a victim of excessive theory.
Communism was the dark shadowy idea that clouded Bellow's own generation of intellectuals. As he wrote to Philip Roth, "There is real mystery about communists in the West. How were they able to accept Stalin one of the most monstrous tyrants ever?" In Paris in 1948, Bellow found intellectual leaders remaining loyal Stalinists. The reasons, Bellow guessed, were closer-to-home struggles that turned writers against their own countries. The French hated the bourgeoisie; American intellectuals lined up to fight McCarthyism.
Bellow's anxiety not to be ruled by received wisdom becomes a recurring theme. In 1953, his defiance of rigid and fashionable literary ideas produced an aesthetic breakthrough and his first triumph, The Adventures of Augie March (1953). Daringly, he mixed an intensified version of Chicago Jewish speech with a young man's search for a life of value and meaning. He knew this was a risk. The letters show how nervously he awaited reviews and the opinions of friends. He was mortified by Anthony West's negative critique in The New Yorker and consoled when the praise started arriving from colleagues like Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling.
With Augie, Bellow broke free of the solemnity that threatened to engulf him and became, along with much else, a comedian of ideas. He liked nothing more than taking his readers on a skeptic's journey through history and culture. Augie didn't quite set him on the path to his 1976 Nobel Prize but it gave him the momentum of a young master.
Three years later he felt confident enough to reproach an old master, William Faulkner, who was among writers petitioning the government to withdraw the Second World War charge of treason against Ezra Pound and set him free. Bellow pointed out that Pound had preached hatred against Jews: "What staggers me is that you and Mr. [John] Steinbeck who have dealt for so many years in words should fail to understand the import of Ezra Pound's plain and brutal statements about the 'kikes.' " It was a call to murder. Bellow reacted with fury against the craziness of granting amnesty in the name of poetry.
Bellow's letters have attracted the usual lamentations of critics who take pleasure in cultural obituaries. The Washington Post says this book is "close to, if not exactly, the last of its kind." The London Observer explains why: "The digital world being what it is, this could well be one of the last collections of letters by a great writer we will ever get to read."
Nonsense. In the 1950s, critics made the same predictions, though for a different reason: The telephone had made written communication unnecessary. But in that era John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, E.B. White, Ernest Hemingway and many others were writing eloquent (and sometimes appalling) letters, which eventually became distinguished books. My guess is that equally literate people of the 21st century still beaver away at their (often emailed) correspondence, which the world will read in 2040 or some such date.
The belief that technology inevitably determines our future is the kind of helpless surrender that Bellow despised. He was a humanist who never admitted defeat. He had his wretched times, like everyone else, but he rejected despair. "To fall into despair is just a high-class way of turning into a dope. I choose to laugh, and laugh at myself no less than at others." Ω
[Robert M. Fulford, OC is a Canadian journalist, magazine editor, and essayist. Fulford began his career in journalism in the summer of 1950 when he left high school and went to work for The Globe and Mail as a sports reporter. Subsequently, he rose to various editorial positions at the newspaper before moving to The Toronto Star as a columnist (1959–1962, 1964–1968 and 1971–1987). From 1968 until 1987, Fulford was the editor of Saturday Night magazine. He then worked as a columnist for the Financial Times of Canada (1988–1992), The Globe and Mail (1992–1999) and the National Post ( since 1999). Fulford delivered the 1999 Massey Lecture at the University of Toronto. In 1984, Fulford was named an Officer of the Order of Canada (OC).]
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