Saul Bellow: Letters

Our own correspondent


Editied by Benjamin Taylor
Viking, £30

In the best essay ever written on Saul Bellow, Philip Roth wrote that his friend "managed brilliantly to close the gap between Thomas Mann and Damon Runyon". Bellow indeed brought together the teeming, busy world of post-war America, with its wise-guys, money men and "reality instructors", and the high seriousness of old Europe.

Another way of putting this is that he connected, as no one else has, two halves of 20th-century Jewishness: its spirituality and intellect with the kind of high-octane energy, "hipped on superabundance", that he knew from Chicago.

In this new, rather poorly edited book of letters, we get both sides of Bellow and it becomes clearer than ever how much Chicago meant to him. The early letters are dominated by his Jewish friends from the city, Oscar Tarcov and Isaac Rosenfeld in particular. Rosenfeld, Bellow's closest friend, died tragically young, in his 30s. To anyone who knew them, they were clearly an astonishing double act.

With Bellow's move to New York, his letters are increasingly to the leading writers and critics of the day: Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, Malamud, John Berryman and Roth. Much of this is literary business: agents, grants, publishers and contracts. The anxiety of the young Bellow of the 1940s comes across loud and clear: "Have I nothing to look forward to but two years of the same sort and a sale of barely two thousand for the next novel?" But there is, too, the writer's preoccupation with finding a voice. "I failed to write it freely," he writes of The Victim. The next year he is writing Augie March: "[I] shoot at anything that moves." From The Victim to his last novel, Ravelstein, you get a terrific sense of a writer at work, changing his characters' names, of the reappearance in the novels of life incidents.

The other great theme is women, wives and ex-wives, especially. Bellow married five times with four divorces, court cases, alimony and ferocious rows about child access. This takes a huge toll. "At Princeton last year I nearly went down… I can admit I was very desperate, that I was very nearly dead."

Anger is never far from the surface: "It is hard to stop the genius of abuse," he writes, in his 60s. Though he does relish a good fight, with the likes of Mary McCarthy, "monumentally vain", and Gore Vidal, "a specialist in safe scandal". Jack Ludwig gets the full treatment: "you are too woolly, self-absorbed, rambling, ill-organised, slovenly, heedless and insensitive to get on with."

His friendships are equally intense. John Cheever asked Bellow to read some page proofs. "Will I read your book? Would I accept a free trip to Xanadu with Helen of Troy?" To Philip Roth in 1969: "I knew when I… read your stories that you were the real thing. When I was a little kid, there were still blacksmiths around, and I've never forgotten the ring of a real hammer on a real anvil."

This is the joy of reading Bellow's letters: not the gossip but the turn of phrase. There are "the young dons who practised their snob-judo on me at High Table". Or this: "Cambridge does not fascinate me. I can take these masses of ivy or leave them… I am beginning to long for vulgar Chicago, where facts are facts."

"Vulgar Chicago" was always where his heart was. Vulgar Jewish Chicago - and Montreal, where he started out and where this treasure trove ends in the most breathtaking letter of all.

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