Saul Bellow: Letters

Saul Bellow: Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor, Viking, RRP$35, 608 pages

Saul Bellow was born in 1915. These letters start in 1932. From the beginning they demonstrate his attachment to everyday life, and also to the life of the mind. He always wanted to be singular, to write like an American and a Chicagoan; the opening line of his 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, is: “I am an American – Chicago born.” His early life was peopled by strong characters, many of them immigrants with a love of culture. The introduction to the letters quotes him: “We were very Russian,” he observed, blessed with “the insatiable book-hunger”.

Humboldt Park, where his family lived, was peopled by battered emigrés who patronised the Russian baths (which feature memorably in Humboldt’s Gift), small-time gangsters, bootleggers, loan sharks, bakers, fishmongers and many more. Out there, beyond the stench of the stockyards that hung over Chicago, was the world of culture and Bellow went at it, as he said, freestyle: it was world culture, mediated by the sons and daughters of the newly American immigrants of Chicago’s Division Street. He asked why he should feel himself constrained to write like anyone else.

Bellow and his friend Isaac Rosenfeld went to New York to establish themselves in 1943. In 1965 Bellow reminisces in a letter to the critic Alfred Kazin: “For some reason neither Isaac nor I could think of ourselves as provincials in NY. Possibly pride or RM Hutchins [president of the University of Chicago] shielded us. For him the University of Chicago didn’t have to compete with the Ivy League, it was obviously superior. It never entered our minds that we had lost anything in being deprived of Eastern advantages. So we were armoured in provincial self-confidence and came to conquer. Ridiculous boys!”

For those who love the work of Bellow, certainly for me, the most interesting aspect of the letters is the way they show the close relationship between the life he lived and the novels he wrote. By this I do not mean that he just employed aspects of Chicago and of his experience; in the letters it is startlingly clear that his novels are a form of autobiography, even of revenge. For instance, of his five wives, Sondra Tschakbosov was the one who caused him most pain. Her affair with Jack Ludwig, his colleague and emulator, at Bard College on the Hudson, which went on for a year before he discovered it, is hilariously and ruthlessly deployed in Herzog. He captures – according to their son, Adam – Sondra’s look and mannerisms pitilessly well. Her lover becomes in the novel a red-haired, one-legged radio announcer, who has “a dipping gait like a gondolier”. An incident during which she attacked him, which is recorded in one of many bitter letters to her, is used directly in Herzog. Later, after the huge success of the novel, published in 1964, Bellow took great pleasure in writing to Alfred Kazin about Ludwig’s attempt to justify himself in print, saying that he had to admire Ludwig’s “cast-iron effrontery”.

Humboldt’s Gift is partly based on Bellow’s own struggles in the courts of Chicago with alimony payments to his third wife, Susan Glassman. A visit to Pyramid Lake in Nevada in 1956 becomes in the novel a visit to an old friend who was once married to a cowboy called Stigler, who nearly drowned because he had “horse-disfigured legs” and so could not swim. The title character of Augie March is based on a friend from childhood, first name Augie. His depiction of lawyers – all of whom are anxious to teach the hero of Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie Citrine, some lessons in real life – is both hilarious, and patently based on direct experience. He writes many letters about his legal problems. Typically, he loves observing the machinations of these tough Chicago lawyers. In real life his non-payment of increased alimony demands ended with Bellow being sentenced to 10 days in jail, which was commuted. In the letters, as in a number of his books, we get various, comically painful, accounts of the pretensions of lawyers and businessmen. Even references to investment in a gold mine in East Africa turn out to have had a basis in fact; he writes that he invested for fun on a trip to Africa.

Keith Botsford, his co-founder of the literary journal The Republic of Letters, becomes the charming wastrel Thaxter in Humboldt’s Gift. There is a poignant letter at the end of this collection to Botsford, requesting his name be removed from the journal and from the joint bank account.

Another striking aspect of the letters, as with the books, is Bellow’s fascination with just what it is that makes us human. He studies anthropology for a while and he has a keen interest in the notion of humanity in general, which leads him to Theosophy and Rudolph Steiner and remarks such as: “I learned what was right with the Eskimos, was wrong with the African Masai.” Henderson the Rain King draws on his studies and the central character, Henderson, is a portrait of a wealthy landlord in Chicago. But always the strangely comical and deluded human species, uniquely lovable and surprising and questing, is his real text.

The letters to other writers, including Martin Amis and Philip Roth, reveal that quirkiness, odd beliefs, rich enthusiasms, intellectual independence and eloquent friendship are what he valued most, in his friends as in his reading. Although he complains of being neglected in later life, even having some of his pieces rejected by magazines, he maintains a lively correspondence with other writers. John Cheever, completely different in background, he loved and venerated. When Cheever asks him to nominate some critics for an award, Bellow replies that there are none, and the only reward he could imagine is crucifixion. He also remarks to Cheever on the pain and the glory of the Nobel prize, which he won in 1976. Roth he recognised as a wonderfully gifted writer and some of his many letters to him disclose his true feelings about the vindictiveness that both of them had experienced. He makes one remark about Updike that sounds to me faintly dismissive; perhaps he felt Updike was snapping at his heels as greatest living American writer. But in general he goes to great lengths to help other writers, and to read their work.

Bellow’s sheer brio, his occasional feuds and deep friendships, his unquenchable enthusiasm for being human, and his incomparable prose, make this collection of letters an absolute must for anyone who is remotely interested in American literature of the 20th century. He is one of the last of the great writers with an immigrant Jewish background, which oxygenated that literature so richly.

Justin Cartwright is the author of ‘To Heaven by Water’ (Bloomsbury)

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