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Books

Bad enemy, worse lover

Five years after his death, Saul Bellow’s literary reputation has yet to suffer the usual post-mortem slump, and publication of these lively letters should help sustain his standing.

11 December 2010

12:00 AM

11 December 2010

12:00 AM

Saul Bellow: Letters Benjamin Taylor (ed)

Penguin Classics, pp.608, 30

Five years after his death, Saul Bellow’s literary reputation has yet to suffer the usual post-mortem slump, and publication of these lively letters should help sustain his standing.

Five years after his death, Saul Bellow’s literary reputation has yet to suffer the usual post-mortem slump, and publication of these lively letters should help sustain his standing. It’s less likely to boost his reputation as a man.

Bellow was never humble about his talents, and the surviving early letters show an intellectual precocity leavened by the vernacular of melting-pot Chicago. Yet initially he was reluctant to plumb home-grown strengths for his work. His first two novels were constructed on what he called a ‘Flaubertian model’ — modest, polished efforts, which were critically well received but sold poorly. It was only with The Adventures of Augie March that Bellow discovered the naturally cadent narrative voice that also runs throughout his correspondence — the book was written, he later wrote, ‘in a jail-breaking spirit’. Liberation came to him, Eureka-like, in Paris, where a fellowship took him for 18 months after the war. He did not enjoy abroad:

I badly miss American energy … Here most everybody knows the year of Molière’s birth and what François I said to Henry VIII on the Field of the Cloth of Gold, but it’s a weary satisfaction. Really weary.

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With the success of Augie March came a fame that was fortified by the success of Henderson the Rain King, an extended fantasy about an American’s foray to Africa where, remarkably, Bellow had never set foot. Despite this success, he continued to struggle financially, and his letters are full of complaints about the alimony demands that grew with each new ex-wife (he was married five times in all). There are virtually no letters to the wives themselves — and when they became ex-wives, contact was exclusively through lawyers.

Living mainly on America’s east coast, Bellow felt at odds with the literary orthodoxies of the time, and though favoured by the Partisan Review early on, he had no wish to join its circle. He reassured the critic Leslie Fiedler, teaching in deepest Montana, ‘I’m sure Missoula has it over New York.’ Bellow found a permanent home at last in 1962 back in the Midwest, at the University of Chicago’s unorthodox Committee on Social Thought, a unit created as an intellectual last resort for brilliance that didn’t run along traditional disciplinary lines. His colleagues there included the legendary sociologist Edward Shils and the political philosopher Alan Bloom, who became Bellow’s closest friend. Bellow’s office had formerly been occupied by Friedrich von Hayek:

I see his cane, like a prop from Sherlock Holmes, hanging on the wall … He has left behind a Schnitzlerian flavor which I very much enjoy.

His fame continued to grow, bringing him dinner with Marilyn Monroe, and then, post-Herzog, the cover of Time magazine and the Nobel prize. But his revulsion at student protests in the late Sixties, expressed in his novel Mr Sammler’s Planet, won him few friends among the young. He was increasingly happy to make public political pronouncements — not always to good effect, as he came to recognise:

I’m not of the stuff of which Public Figures are made. You don’t want to be ignored, but there ought to be a saner mean.

Modesty, never a Bellow forte, is in short supply in these letters, and the self-absorption is relentless. He could be a bad enemy, but he wasn’t an easy friend either; letters to his old mates are often prickly, making offended mountains out of minor molehills. He could be generous about fellow writers (John Cheever and Robert Penn Warren are praised unreservedly) and encouraging to younger writers as disparate as Martin Amis and Stanley Crouch. But his sharpest focus is always on the mirror.

With women Bellow was more abrupt — and less giving. His many romantic liaisons inevitably turned sour; as he admitted, ‘I diverted myself with a kind of executive indiscriminateness — without a proper interest in women.’ Only his fifth and last marriage, to a graduate student half his age, proved the happy exception to the pattern of infatuation, disillusion and expensive divorce, and his last 15 years were domestic and productive, though few would cite his later books as among his best.

The contrast between this volume and the letters of Philip Larkin is illuminating, since both writers viewed the world through an outcast’s lens. But the misanthropic Larkin invariably included himself in his field of fire, something the more cheerful Bellow never did — as the author of The Victim, he was determined never to be one himself. If there is a lack of empathy in his correspondence, it was a price he did not hesitate to pay, perhaps because he didn’t recognise the human cost. Similarly, when he wrote that ‘so many of the lovers of humanity in bulk have no feelings for persons,’ he didn’t understand that this might describe himself.

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