31 January, 2011Issue 15.2LettersLiteratureWriters

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Between Fiction and Autobiography

Paul Sweeten

foerSaul Bellow
Edited by Benjamin Taylor
Viking, 2010
608 Pages
ISBN 978-0670022212


When approaching a novelist’s letters, one is confronted with a form which exists somewhere between fiction and autobiography, the poetic and the practical, the work and the life. Some of the bare facts will be there; some of the artifice, too. Saul Bellow once said that “Fiction is the higher autobiography”, and indeed he was able to write Dangling Man (1944) because he knew what it was to dangle, to be a disillusioned Jew waiting in Chicago for the US army to draft him. Yet Bellow’s inference is close to Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s observation that “a poet’s autobiography is his poetry. Anything else is a footnote.” While the memoir is perhaps the most direct account of a life, it is rarely the most intimate, honest, or entertaining. What we hope for in Bellow’s letters is that some of that artistic distance is applied to his correspondences; that we may see the great stylist of 20th-century literature project the details of his life with that same imagination which gave life to Moses Herzog and Augie March. It is therefore a relief to find, in the very first letter, sentences such as:

I take this opportunity…to tell you…something, Yetta, that more through uncertainty and cowardice than anything else I have not been able to broach to you. True, I am a self-confessed coward. Cowards we are all intrinsically, but the justification of cowardice lies in the confession.

Bellow, at the time he wrote this, was 17.

Bellow was born in Lachine, Canada, and raised in Montreal before moving illegally to Chicago, the city he later described in To Jerusalem and Back (1976) as “huge, Ô¨Ålthy, brilliant, and mean”. How he came by this impression, or the powers with which to express it so cogently, can only be guessed from the letters. Here a significant divergence from the novelistic and autobiographical forms should be noted. With its private jokes and its episodic and omissive tendencies, epistolary writing often gives little away except to those for whom the sentences were originally meant. It is in this genre of eavesdropping that the general reader, particularly the biographical detective, is often left feeling entirely unattended. There are clues to Bellow’s makeup, however. His school friends:

were reading buckrambound books from the public library and were in a state of enthusiasm, having found themselves on the shore of a novelistic land to which they really belonged, discovering their birthright, hearing incredible news from the great world of culture, talking to one another about the mind, society, art, religion, epistemology, and doing all this in Chicago.

It is with this spirit—inclusive, adventurous, distinctly American—that Bellow enrolled at the University of Chicago, only to move to Northwestern University when his father could no longer afford tuition fees at the former. His 20s were characteristically turbulent, uncertain, full of dead ends: a decade which saw him abandon graduate study as well as two novels. Having struggled to place a short story in a reputable magazine, he writes in 1942 that “somehow I have not clicked with editors.”

This “somehow” gives us an early hint of Bellow’s writerly gene. It wasn’t that he expected publication, but that he viewed his talent somewhat paradoxically; a rave-reviewing angel on his right shoulder and a disparaging devil on his left. Bellow judged his early story “Juif!” to be “immeasurably above” an earlier work, “The Dead James”, while he felt “miles and centuries away from The Very Dark Tress—whole developmental heights”, even while it was being considered for publication. He wonders in a letter to a friend whether he is “too demanding and exacting” to have berated himself over the state of his fledgling work, yet after consideration he decides: “I still feel that I was right.”

Feeling right about his wrongs put Bellow in esteemed company from a young age. He follows Tolstoy and Chekhov not simply because one can detect a Russian lineage in his work, but that he too possessed their impulse for self-degradation. At 27 he writes, “I have known one hundred sixty-nine brands of humiliation.” Thirty years later, having won three National Book Awards, Bellow was still counting the brands: “What does distress me is the thought that I may have made a mess where others (never myself) see praiseworthy achievements.”

His “demanding and exacting” eye, however, was not always turned inwards. Bellow was never too shy to tell a writer, publisher, or friend what he thought, even when what he thought was that his schoolmate Oscar Tarcov was “weak” and “childishly feeble”, or that one edition of Story magazine was “full of a coarse-grained piece of shit…a fictional version of the life of Robert Burns with lumps of half-digested haggis in it.” He reserved his prickliest words for reviewers—who wouldn’t?—taking aim at The New Yorker as well as its sister publication, the journal he calls “The New York Review of Each Other’s Books”. But that’s nothing compared to what he writes to his English publisher:

If you can find nothing better to say upon reading Augie March than that you all “think very highly” of me, I don’t think I want you to publish it at all. I’m not selling you a commodity. Your attitude infuriates me. Either you are entirely lacking in taste and judgement or you are being terribly prudent about the advance.

Bellow’s comic derision of anything he found lacking in vitality—not least the literature of his day, a canon he saw as “for the most part phony, or empty-hearted, banal and bungling”—can perhaps only be rivaled by the curmudgeonliness of his contemporary, Kingsley Amis, a man whose fatherly duties passed to Bellow in 1955. Following Amis’s death, his son, the novelist Martin Amis, looked to the man he once described as “the greatest American author ever” for paternal support. Bellow replied that he would “willingly take up the slack as a sort of adoptive father.” Indeed, despite claiming that he “never enjoyed writing letters”, it seems that Bellow was a guardian to many hearts throughout seven decades of correspondences.

In touching letters to Philip Roth, Allan Bloom, and Susan Glassman (his third wife), Bellow airs his affections with the same vitalising honesty with which he vents his grievances. He addresses life (seemingly all life, without ever losing sight of his own) with an acute rawness, a sincerity in which one can detect the great pulse of The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Seize the Day (1956), and Herzog (1964). To Martin Amis he writes:

I understand your saying that you are your dad. With a fair degree of accuracy I can see this in my own father. He and I never seemed to be in rapport: Our basic assumptions were very different. But now that looks superficial. I treat my sons much as he treated me: out of breath with impatience, and then a long inhalation of affection.

Bellow commits his powers of articulation to unburdening the great weight of human feeling with which he was simultaneously cursed and blessed throughout his life. One sees the truth in Amis’s facetious remark: “Bellow’s first name is a typo: that ‘a’ should be an ‘o’.” It is not right to say that under his rawness was a gentle heart, but that his heart—raw, gentle, unreserved—remained dedicated to comprehending itself in all its forms.

Presented with the one-way traffic of his outgoing mail, we keep company with the ghost of a writer whose great talent and affections are occupied in some other plain—a past of literary deals, bar mitzvahs, and funerals to which we were never invited. We intercept the frequencies of ex-wives and old friends and must translate them as best we can. Once private, now public: the letters of writers are paradoxical sources, and while Bellow’s are crafted with the same raging consciousness which drew his novels, anything approaching an autobiography remains illusive. His books continue to penetrate the human spirit more than any other of the last 50 years, yet the man appears to be, like the great American novel itself, seemingly ungraspable. In his own words: “I can never be picked up or put down.”

Paul Sweeten graduated in 2010 with an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. Paul is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.