On First Looking into Bellow’s Letters

Saul Bellow: Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor (Viking: 2010)

No, I’m not going to essay a sonnet on the subject (sorry for any disappointment); but I must confess, upon belated receipt of this splendid tome, to feeling a kind of nervous exhilaration bordering closely upon the panegyrical. As well as providing the most intimate portrait possible of a writer who could inspire a level of passionate devotion typically reserved for saints and sports stars across the turbulent course of his long and momentous life, this lavish volume proffers an insider’s experience of the life of American letters in their most auspicious epoch – and a panoramic view of twentieth-century cultural history generally – all in the sparkling prose of, in my estimation, the foremost stylist of his age. Dip into it anywhere, and you will find marvels . . .

To David Bazelon, from Paris (n.d., 1949):

“Paris is savage. Wonderfully beautiful but savage in an unexpected quarter; in its calculating heart. The secret of the whole affair – it’s revealed in Balzac, but no one seems to read him seriously – is a certain grotesque arithmetic. The wit of the city is a branch of addition and subtraction. Every American brought up in a good bourgeois atmosphere breathes the air of home in Paris. And in addition, it is Paris. Terribly important.”

To Fanny Ellison (April 14, 1959), on Henderson the Rain King:

“You’re very kind about Henderson. Here and there it’s as close to frenzy as a man can get while continuing (somehow) to laugh, and it contains elements I hope I’ve seen the last of. One of these days I’m going to enter the little inner room where my best humanity has been locked up for a long time. Not just yet.”

To Philip Roth (December 12, 1969), on publication of Mr Sammler’s Planet:

“Of course the so-called fabricators will be grinding their knives. They have none of that ingenuous, possibly childish love of literature you and I have. They take a sort of Roman engineering view of things: grind everything in rubble and build cultural monuments on this foundation from which to fly the Bullshit flag.”

To Bobby Markels (November 4, 1986):

“If you ever visit my office you will see loads of books to be read, loads of letters to be answered, loads of angels who have no space to fly in and multitudes of inflamed nudniks whose mothers told them they were angels, and whose English profs told them that I was a do-gooder: ‘Send him manuscripts, send him 2,481,526 letters of mounting hysteria demanding replies and ending in vituperations and threats.’ Well, to hell with all that. I continue to open letters from people I know or like or love, but it does cross my mind from time to time that although they may like or love me still, they haven’t said so in ten or fifteen years and either their feelings have dried out or their manners have gone to hell.”

To Teddy Kollek (April 14, 1998):

“I often feel these days that death is a derelict or what Americans call nowadays a street person who has moved into the house with me and whom I can find no way to get rid of. The only solution is to make him a member of the family.”

For those of us acolytes apt to view him in the light of one of our nearest and dearest, this beautiful book is priceless above all for the glimpse it affords into a wise and generous soul. Here is Bellow sending his best to the great New York critic Alfred Kazin, in the midst of tempestuous quarrels:

“A happy birthday to you, and admiration and love and long life – everything. Never mind this and that, this and that don’t matter much in the summing up.”

Kol HaKavod, Uncle Solly.

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