Book review: ‘Letters,’ Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor

For the review of "Letters" by Saul Bellow.
For the review of “Letters” by Saul Bellow.
(Courtesy of Janis Bellows / Viking)
Special to the Los Angeles Times


Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor

Viking: 608 pp, $35

Saul Bellow, being Saul Bellow, coined literary profit from emotional tumult. From personal pain came self-exploration and impish bons mots, poured into the heightened confessional of his fiction and also into the letters he fired off throughout his life. These bulletins from the biographical front, as it were, are now collected in a hefty, handsome volume and show that Bellow, while grappling constantly with moods that swung between euphoria and mad suffering, was never not reaching for rapture and grace.


“It wouldn’t do much to see matters clearly. With the sharpest eyes in the world I’d see nothing but the stinking fog of falsehood,” Bellow wrote to colleague Jack Ludwig early in 1961. “And I haven’t got the sharpest eyes in the world; I’m not superman but superidiot. Only a giant among idiots would marry Sondra and offer you friendship.”

What was that all about? Bellow was teaching for a term at the University of Puerto Rico; back in Chicago he and Ludwig, along with their friend Keith Botsford, had launched a literary journal, the Noble Savage. And Bellow, the “giant among idiots,” had just discovered that Ludwig was engaged in a long-term affair with his wife, Sondra.

“God knows I am not stainless faultless Bellow,” he continued. “I leave infinities on every side to be desired. But love her as my wife? Love you as my friend? I might as well have gone to Ringling Brothers and been shot out of a cannon twice a day. At least they would have let me wear a costume.”

That’s not just hilarious (and typical of the riches in this book); it also provides a kind of Rosetta stone for Bellow’s process, the way he took the mess of his emotional life and transformed it almost immediately into art. Lots of writers try this, of course, but nobody else has ever been gifted with Bellow’s unique combination of nimble thought and supercharged prose. “I’m not even faintly myself when I’m not writing,” he says, dancing almost spookily above the imbroglios he’d helped create.

Details of Ludwig’s betrayal poured at once into Bellow’s letters and into his novel in progress, “Herzog,” in which Ludwig became the comically treacherous (and one-legged!) Valentine Gersbach. Ludwig was smart enough to give “Herzog” a glowing review but not smart enough to resist penning his own roman à clef, the now-forgotten “Above Ground,” allowing Bellow to remark: “It is monstrous to be touched by something so terribly written.”

Best not to mess with this guy. Bellow was cantankerous, even as a young man, and a determined contrarian. “I love solitude but I prize it most when company is available,” he writes. On the other hand, he was deeply romantic, not least in the passion with which he pursued his art. In 1932, at 17 and writing to his then-girlfriend Yetta Barshevsky, he comes on at first like a student straight out of Dostoevsky: “The country sleeps. The waves surge angrily at the house, they cannot reach it, they snarl and pull back. Over me the light swings up and back, up and back. It throws shadows on the paper, on my face. I am thinking, thinking, Yetta, drifting with night, with infinity, and all my thoughts are of you,” he begins. Then a different tone asserts itself. “I hate melodrama. The only thing I hate more intensely than melodrama and spinach is myself. You think perhaps I am insane? I am. But I have my pen.…"

Already the characteristic Bellow is starting to emerge, with a voice that is both raffish and lofty, serious and slapstick. Flattering letters to Edmund Wilson and to editors at the New Yorker show his awareness that literature is not just a craft but a career, a greasy pole that has to be climbed. Success comes slowly, but by the mid-1950s — with the publication of “The Adventures of Augie March” and the collecting of the first of Bellow’s three National Book Awards — the struggle turns to eminence and a sure sense of what his fiction must do: “A novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay.”

Vibrant, both chatty and polished, the letters serve as the autobiography Bellow never wrote. They show marriages coming, going. Literary friendships — with Ralph Ellison, John Berryman, Alfred Kazin, John Cheever, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and Martin Amis, among others — proceed through turbulent, sometimes rivalrous cycles. Cash is always a problem. “I’ve learned the true value of a dollar,” he writes at the time of “Seize the Day” in 1956. “It’s about two cents, on my scale.”


Even winning the Nobel Prize in 1976 fails to solve the problem, merely prompting lawsuits for non-payment of alimony and Bellovian yelps of self-ironizing despair: “I may ask the President to revive the WPA for my sake.” Misery never fails to excite him, and the aphorisms pour forth in an endless cascade: “What is life without a few grave anxieties? Incomplete.”

Bellow had a metaphysical turn of mind, but his real power was all verbal. His joyful, dizzying word-hurricanes gust us closer to the essences of people and life rather than away from them. He was intellectual yet intimate, and his correspondence fizzes with flair and humanity. He kept in touch with the friends of his youth and outlived them all so that the final pages of this teeming book echo with the sad sound of doors closing. In 1997, he mourns, tenderly, the passing of Yetta Shachtman, “Comrade Yetta,” the girl he had wooed back in 1932. “Her Pa was a carpenter and his old Nash was filled with tools, shavings and sawdust. And now she has gone — human sawdust and shavings.”

Facing death, Bellow remained a wizard. His fictional creation Moses Herzog never sends any of the letters he writes throughout “Herzog,” and we should be grateful that Bellow actually went ahead and stamped the ones he wrote himself, leaving us these multiple and wildly entertaining keys to the intense theater of his self-scrutiny.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of “A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming-of-Age.”