— Like the first line of a novel, the idea for a letter could occur to Saul Bellow at any time. The words might have come on a daily walk or during a drive to the grocery store. Perhaps he had just finished a bath, a bubble bath, or awakened in the night.
“That was thrilling for me to be around, because you witnessed something being born in the moment, the need for something to be done,” Janis Bellow, the late Nobel laureate’s fifth and final wife, said in a recent telephone interview.
Bellow, who died in 2005 at age 89, wrote thousands of letters — some in longhand, some typed and single-spaced, and some dictated to his wife and others. “Saul Bellow: Letters” has just been released, roughly 40 percent of a correspondence covering more than 70 years, with friends and opponents on the receiving end including boyhood pals, wives and ex-wives, and writers from Bernard Malamud and John Cheever to Martin Amis and Philip Roth.
In a 1981 letter to Cheever, Bellow praises his fellow artist for showing on the page how he had changed through the act of writing, adding that “nothing counts higher” than “this transforming action of the soul.” Bellow himself was a study in progress in his letters, from an impulsive teenager to struggling young writer, hurried middle-aged man and elderly sage, skeptic and literary father figure, to Roth and Amis among others.
Bellow’s letters were clearly from the creator of “Herzog,” ”The Adventures of Augie March” and other novels: critical and self-critical, cerebral and emotional, with a redeeming sense of humor (“to return to sanity in the form of laughter”), an impatience for nonsense and a resigned, poetic eye on mortality. Insisting he was no good at letters, then demonstrating the opposite, he revealed a mind in debate with itself.
The earliest entry is from 1932, when Bellow was 17 and splitting up with a girlfriend. He can hardly bring himself to get to the point. The letter is half prelude, a teenager so self-conscious he practically stammers on the page, commenting on his work as it goes along. He announces he has been “seething and boiling,” but despairs he is a “self-confessed coward” who hates melodrama.
“The only thing that I hate more intensely than melodrama and spinach is myself,” he writes. “You think perhaps I am insane? I am. But I have my pen; I am in my element and I defy you.”
Through much of the 1940s, he is like any young novelist trying to catch on, soliciting friends and acquaintances for Guggenheim grants, worrying about reviews and sales, chastising himself for not writing “freely, with all the stops out from beginning to end.” His fate, and the future of American letters, changed with his liberating third novel, “Augie March,” released in 1953 and a breakthrough apparent to Bellow while working on it.
“As for ‘Augie March,'” he wrote a friend in 1950, “I’m having such an enthusiastic labor with it that it hadn’t occurred to me — in my daily stump bombings — how a reader might feel about risking limbs in the clearing. No, I don’t believe it has dropped or changed its pace in the fifty thousand words of it I’ve done so far.”
A celebrated fusion of street-level energy and high-level intellect, “Augie March” won the National Book Award for Bellow and over the next decade he would write “Seize the Day,” ”Henderson the Rain King” and “Herzog,” the novels that confirmed his reputation and led to his winning the Nobel. But he was never too fixed on truth and beauty to ignore life’s fine print.
When Anthony West panned “Augie March” in The New Yorker, Bellow sent an enraged response to the magazine’s fiction editor, Katharine White, that cited West’s “turbulence, thoughtlessness and pedantry.” In 1969, he commiserated with Roth about “the so-called fabricators” ready to “grind everything to rubble,” unendowed with the “ingenuous, possibly childish love of literature” that Bellow and Roth shared.
As Janis Bellow observes, her husband did not live like an idle scholar. He traveled, argued, loved, learned, fooled around. At times, life catches him off guard; a wife might leave him and he seems the last to know why. Bellow also blazes his own trails of chaos, as in the mid-1960s when he has an extramarital affair.
“I didn’t believe it was possible,” he writes to his lover, Margaret Staats. “Possibly I thought I had been damaged, or self-damaged, too badly for this. Whatever the reasons, I didn’t expect that my whole soul would go out like this to anyone.”
Failed marriages lead to tension with former spouses and the children he had with them. He complains that one son, Adam, is given to “misrepresent and exaggerate.” He lectures son Daniel Bellow after being chastised about supporting his family.
“If you are, as you say, making a man of yourself you might think of the condition of another man, your father,” Bellow writes. “Why does he do these things? Is he a lunatic? What’s the sense of the books he writes? Obviously my unreliable financial condition is related to the fact that I wrote books. And you might try thinking about this in terms other than the dollar. Those are blood cells in my eccentric veins, not dimes.”
As a friend, he was direct and warm, supportive and challenging. When asked by Cheever if he would like a peek at his new novel, Bellow responds like a school boy asked out by the homecoming queen. “Will I read your book?” he writes. “Would I accept a free trip to Xanadu with Helen of Troy as my valet?” In another letter, he praises Roth by comparing his work to the blacksmiths of his childhood.
“I’ve never forgotten the ring of a real hammer on a real anvil,” Bellow writes.
He loved his friends enough to criticize them. In a long 1987 letter to Cynthia Ozick, he told her he was “puzzled” by her novel “The Messiah of Stockholm” and suggested she “depended too much” on her “executive powers,” her “virtuosity.” When Roth sent him an early copy of “I Married a Communist,” Bellow said he had a hard time following the novel’s protagonist, Ira Ringold, “probably the least attractive of all your characters.”
The world is a crowded street in his early and middle years, but by his 70s he notes more and more the passing of friends and the decline of his faculties. He confesses that he finds himself conversing with the dead. He likens himself to a shop owner shutting down his business and notes that he had forgotten the name of Katharine Hepburn’s on- and off-screen companion, “Somebody Tracy.”
Suffering does empower him to console. He empathizes with Martin Amis after the loss of his father, “Lucky Jim” author Kingsley Amis.
“(L)osing a parent is something like driving through a plate-glass window. You didn’t know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you’re picking up the pieces — down to the last glassy splinter,” Bellow tells Amis. “Of course you are your father, and he is you. I have often felt this about my own father, whom I half expect to see when I die.”
Bellow’s last novel, “Ravelstein,” came out in 2000. He had little energy left and his new book has little from his last few years, although he was keen enough to observe his decline. In one letter, as if summoning final memories, he describes a pair of sandals from his childhood and how he tended to the leather by rubbing butter on it. In a brief note from 2002, Bellow writes of how artists often feel surrounded by fakes and betrayers— “goats and monkeys” — but he vows to not give up.
“Actually, I’ve never stopped looking for the real thing, and often I find the real thing,” he wrote. “To fall into despair is just a high-class way of turning into a dope. I choose to laugh, and laugh at myself no less than at others.”