They don’t say that about Idi Amin

Andrew O’Hagan

  • BuySaul Bellow: Letters edited by Benjamin Taylor
    Viking, 571 pp, $35.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 670 02221 2

In every great novelist there’s a baby, a slack-mouthed tyrant, a bawling and mewling ankle-biter, a demon chomper, a rattle-chucker, a rivalrous toad, green and pink and fat with self-concern, and we will often see this distinguished person most clearly in his letters. Saul Bellow knew the type very well and we meet one of them in the shape of Moses Herzog, the eponymous hero of Bellow’s sixth novel, a helpless, epistolary nutcase who yawps as if his nappies were as heavy as his brain.

As long as I was Mady’s good husband, I was a delightful person. Suddenly, because Madeleine decided that she wanted out – suddenly, I was a mad dog. The police were warned about me and there was talk of committing me to an institution. I know that my friend and Mady’s lawyer, Sandor Himmelstein, called Dr Edvig to ask whether I was crazy enough to be put in Manteno or Elgin … It must be very deep and primitive, the feeling people – women – have against a deceived husband.

A certain kind of writer, the kind, let’s say, who is heavily influenced by Bellow, can write very good sentences but not good paragraphs: Chicago’s adoptive son could do both. His novels swell with reality and the best of them burst with invention. They move, they have ascending power, they jab, they test the spirit, they crackle. And sometimes they are so good, so full of image and wonder, that you feel Bellow is an Emersonian overman, a soul-choked individual with some direct connection to the deeper rhythms of life. The problem with the letters is that they show an altogether smaller man, an underman, who struts his way through a million miniature resentments and hassles, only to land the reader, again and again, very far short of the novelist’s great capacities. He’s not even a Herzog, stewing in his own deepness, but a whiner, itching and scratching with agitation. He blames. And like Henderson he needs, he wants, he demands. All of this is fine in a person, and almost obligatory in a novel, but in a letter-writer it can be the ultimate in boring. I was one of those who would have said Bellow couldn’t be boring, but seasoned loyalty knows not the correspondence.

All his life, Bellow’s chief correspondents – the ones who drew letters in return – were his admirers. There are few lengthy exchanges here between him and people who objected to him, though, God knows, this might be described as a happy outcome for any author of books. There are no family anatomies, no admiring notes to older writers, no long missives that map the anxieties of influence, and no Keatsian theories sneaked into the kinds of letter that can change the face of literature. There are some very touching ones, where Bellow suddenly drops out of the race, as when he sends stamps to his son. ‘Dear Adam – Here are some stamps. Countries sometimes disappear and leave nothing behind but some postage stamps. But Papas and Adams go on and on.’ He much prefers sparring with a big and capable admirer like Leon Wieseltier than passing on news to his family. And yet he was a dab hand at writing recommendations – we find a good many here, for Guggenheims and Nobels – and he wasn’t at all bad at writing notes to his friends to big them up about their latest book. Only once, in this selection, does he not like a book: I Married a Communist by Philip Roth, though nothing happened as a result, and the correspondence fizzles out. He has a feeling for the rigours of old age and writes helpfully to the ill and bereaved. He was always affectionate and rather awestruck by the philosopher Owen Barfield, and had a quite saintly manner of carefulness with John Berryman, but, these things apart, the volume is quite fogged over with Bellow’s notion that replying to letters was nothing if not a complete and utter waste of time. To Ralph Ellison: ‘I’ve never enjoyed writing letters. Vasiliki says that Isaac, whose journals she took after his death, had some uncomplimentary things to say about the way I answered letters. I deserve them. There is some wickedness hidden here and I ought to root it up, even if it should mean going to an analyst. It’s part of some disagreeable reticence in me – laziness; worse; something very nasty.’

That’s going a bit far: the letters are often kind, but it’s true they lack generosity, and lack the spice of literature. The basic truth of his statement means that this volume must remain outside the place we reserve for great literary letters, the ones that step over smaller preoccupations – with money, gossip, thank-yous and reviews – to illuminate the art. Bellow’s letters are diverting leading to depressing, not brilliant and generous with detail in the way James’s are, pregnant with mental acuity and trouble like Woolf’s, or tense with literary purpose in the manner of Stevenson’s. As Bellow said, he didn’t like writing letters – and it shows. He was always tardy in such duties, and is often repetitive and banal, as if he were just being nice. (Fair dos: he didn’t write them for publication, but we can no longer assess them now for what they were, occasional and rapid missives written and sent in private: a volume of published letters asks for permanence.) Some writers’ letters are merely leavings, part of the detritus of the working and the personal life, and they climb no mountain. Bellow’s letters are out of breath on the flat.

As I said, no great slap to Bellow. He was a great writer. His character, however, begs our attention in these letters, not so much to meet a moral reckoning as to inform our sense of what sustains a writer’s passion. If the letters are a narrative, then the narrative is one in which the correspondent tells a long story of how he failed with himself. He tells it inadvertently, while battling with wives and hating reviewers, and, if nothing else, you are left more admiring of the novels, the art his talent allowed him to pluck from such lowly chaos. Nobody imagines a genius has to be a good guy, and his letters will always show how he rolled. And Bellow rolled badly. His friends will say, ‘if only you knew the man,’ but that is bad policy: we know a writer from his writing, and we might observe that Bellow, crooked as a husband, resentful as a father, sporadic as a friend, made better and more interesting news of his life in a single short story than he could in a whole lifetime of letters. We might feel encouraged by this fact, yet the letters, bizarrely praised by many who wish a great writer always to have been at his best, are testament to Bellow’s ferociously uncool obsession with the transit of his own needs. Here we have it, the ongoing blush of self-courting, the precisely invigilated examination of the ways in which the world accepted him.

‘I suppose I shall have to take my pannings mercifully,’ he writes to Alfred Kazin in 1944, before reassuring the burgeoning critic that he belongs ‘in our camp’. Later: ‘The reviews are incredibly vulgar, so why read them?’ One can applaud a novelist for not reading his reviews, but not reading them and obsessing about them for 60 years? This is what we might call the low style. To Melvin Tumin, just after the war: ‘The old irremovable feeling lurks that I am a born slightee and that no one can really take very seriously the marks I set on paper.’ To Kazin again: ‘There’s a great deal of truth in your remark that the book is harshly conceived. If I thought this harshness were a result of character or temperament I should be extremely disquieted.’ In good time, our hero is biting back at the reviewers and their editors, ‘I wish to point out to you, an editor of the New Yorker,’ he writes to Katharine White, ‘that Mr West’s review of Augie March is disgraceful … Let us hope that it is only my mental health that is endangered and not that of your readers as well.’ Two weeks later, he is putting on his best shirt for Lionel Trilling. ‘The many criticisms of Augie I’ve seen since have made me appreciate yours all the more; I appreciate above all your sense of justice, for I know the book must have offended you in some ways.’ Then it’s off to the races again, especially after the 1960s, which seem to Bellow to have represented the obliteration of Culture. ‘Nothing remains but gossip and touchiness and anger,’ he writes in 1974. ‘I am of course delighted to have you publish my books,’ he writes to his British publisher Tony Godwin, ‘and I appreciate greatly your desire to launch them with flame and thunder. More than once, however, I’ve seen writers ride bicycles on the high-wire, eat fire, gash themselves open to call attention to their books. They end up with little more than a scorched nose, a broken bone.’ But he was unable somehow to thumb his own scorched nose, or even vaguely laugh at the culture he eviscerated in his fiction, and his letters become a catalogue of tiny hurts. To Ruth Miller, a former student, apropos a piece in the New York Times by Louis Simpson occasioned by Humboldt’s Gift:

It was cheap, mean, it did me dirt … I don’t ask myself why the Times prints such miserable stuff, why I must be called an ingrate, a mental tyrant, a thief, a philistine enemy of poetry, a narcissist incapable of feeling for others, a failed artist. Nor why this must be done in the Sunday Magazine for many million of readers. Such things are not written about industrialists, or spies, or bankers, or trade-union leaders, or Idi Amin, or Palestinian terrorists, only about the author of a novel who wanted principally to be truthful and to give delight.

Bellow cared too much about his place in the literary world – no great crime, but no honour – and in his letters this squabbling neediness is as far from ‘great-souled’ as you can get. Bellow had bigger and better struggles in mind, but his letters do what we might wish literary letters never to do: they diminish our sense of the writer who wrote them. Samuel Beckett, who loved gossip and liked a drink, left us no such sub-standard letters. Jane Austen, who used her correspondence to establish her style, would have blushed to have sent a fraction of these. In 1976, about ten minutes before receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, our man is still scanning the horizon for nay-saying natives. To the not-entirely-lovely Norman Podhoretz, then editor of Commentary, who had presumably just asked Bellow for a piece: ‘And now tell me this: If you were described in someone’s magazine as a “burnt-out case” would you be at all inclined to contribute articles to that magazine?’ All good, clean fun, but doesn’t it present a picture of Bellow as a bit of a nightmare?

Don’t ask the wives. (Except the last one, Janis, who was a force behind this volume, mother of his last child, and staunch keeper of the flame.) They lived with the man who wrote these letters. They also lived with the man who wrote the novels, and the distance between these two men, you imagine, must be part of the story of the wives’ fiery sense of right and wrong. Bellow’s striving with life’s problems, when the reviewers’ backs were turned, most often involved the complications of the heart, to put it nicely. One might instead speak of matrimonial torture, faithlessness, cheating, divorce, alimony, parental access and the courts. Bellow had a big heart for struggling male souls, and the letters are at their most tender when he’s dealing with people like Berryman or John Cheever – ‘you were engaged, as a writer should be, in transforming yourself … I loved you for this’ – but the wives, sadly, emerge with snakes for hair. In fact he gives them the same sort of critical dermabrasion he gives to the critics, searing their faces: you never understood me; you’re not qualified to judge me; why don’t you just climb into the centre of your smallness and fuck off and die.

There’s an issue of justice here. We can’t see both sides of the correspondence. So Sondra Tschacbasov, the second wife, gets to seem to readers like the Hell-Born Medusa and Most Vengeful Greedy Bitch of All Time, while Bellow tries to negotiate with her to get access to his son Adam and calm her anger with news of his own vast reasonableness. She is accused of violence and carelessness, of all sorts of vicious, undermining antics, and things may have been so, but the letters are organised – unfairly? judiciously? – to make Bellow seem the moral victor in all of this. The only reason we are reading one side of this sad exchange is that Bellow was the famous writer and these are his letters: they offer a window into literary genius not matrimonial justice, the argument goes, but I’ll leave it to you to decide what purpose is served by printing the following letter without its occasion. The relations between literature and life are complicated, but there are also the facts. Sondra and Bellow had a longstanding dispute about everything, but only the master’s voice can be heard, again, for he’s already had his say in Herzog, which is art and fair enough. Now we have this letter for all to read in its literary singularity, sent from Tivoli:

The fact that you yourself phoned me last week to make the arrangements for seeing Adam amounts to an acknowledgment of the impossibility of doing these things through the complicated system of intermediaries you wanted to force upon me. I myself want as much as possible to avoid direct contact with you, but I don’t want my rights to see Adam questioned, and I won’t tolerate any nonsense. I have asked you questions about the boy which are still unanswered. I want to know who takes care of him while you are at work. Please send me the full name and address of the woman you spoke of. I think I should have also a calendar from Adam’s school so that I can plan to have the child during holidays. In addition, I think you should send me, or have the doctor send me, an occasional medical report. Adam didn’t seem at all well last weekend. He has lost weight and he is not at all cheerful.

One short letter, containing two allegations, one insult, one threat, four curt requests, and an implication that she must have found quite disturbing. Bellow the artist? He is nowhere to be seen and invisibly to be shamed. Benjamin Taylor, who edited the letters, has done a good job in corralling them onto the page, but we don’t ever have enough context, enough flavour, enough suggestion of catalysts or responses, so we are left with the bold Bellow shaking with anger and certainty. I don’t think this is the best service to what is best in Bellow, regardless of what Taylor, Janis or Philip Roth thinks. They are blinded with love for the old man and faith in his essential goodness. And why shouldn’t they be? We might all be, were it not for the evidence here against his younger self. I would have kept these marital letters for the children, if not for the fire, all the better to meet Nabokov’s notion that the only biography of a writer that truly matters is the biography of his style. To us there is merely gossip and bellyaching in these letters, and good gossip, too, with the occasional zinger. ‘But I’ve never billed her for the pain she caused me,’ he writes to his son Gregory about the first wife Anita’s claims for alimony.

Bellow spoke his mind in his novels: the letters are merely so much tickertape in a celebration of himself. Little of the development they show is likely to credit him – the increasing hatred of reviewers and ex-wives, the move to the right – for it is not development at all, but a coarsening of the human faculties as he seeks to fight or flee. The letters of a lesser contemporary, Jack Kerouac for instance, appear almost luminary next to these gripes and gashings. Kerouac at least described a sensibility and a falling away, punctuated with adventure and open-heartedness. With Bellow’s letters, by the time we get to him crushing Christopher Hitchens and Edward Said under his metaphysical heel, we might feel – or I did – that we are now in the company of the brilliant novelist as Keeper of the National Stupidities. This happens in every generation, but I would sooner have avoided it in the case of Saul Bellow, whose opinions, we now see in context, tended always to be loosed like arrows in defence of his own self-serving prejudice. By this point, writing to Cynthia Ozick, he hated ‘Fourth-Estate’ playboys, bohemians, nihilists, ‘who consume falsehoods as they do fast food’. I think he meant by this people who wrote for the Nation and hadn’t yet enjoyed his own Damascene moment on the road to Israel. Never mind: he nailed them as despicable people who ‘drink, drug, lie, cheat, chase, seduce, gossip, libel, borrow money, never pay child support’. It is a list that might impale the best of us. Bellow, however, could feel free to exclude himself from this cavalcade of earthly delights, never having had much of a taste for drink or drugs.

Never mind. Every old man deserves his moment of naked madness on the heath. One day, Said and Hitchens as Goneril and Regan, another day, William Phillips and Isaac Bashevis Singer. (By the way: in a nod to this book’s appetite for social niceties, we learn in a footnote that ‘cordial relations would subsequently develop between Hitchens and the Bellows.’) And Bellow himself would go on to be a patron saint of modern novelists who saw themselves working hard in the uplands of style and in the lowlands of urban speech. He is loved as an innovator, a perfectionist, and so he should be, yet he is likely always to be a master who is without a single published letter to compare with the worst of Flaubert’s.