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Saul Bellow: Letters

Saul Bellow’s letters may not be stylistic gems – but they reveal much about the man who wrote them.

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Later examples provide some of the best laughs in the book. Bellow writes to Alfred Kazin that on hearing that Kazin would not be coming to the University of Minnesota, “the lady instructors and female assistants set up a cry like Milton’s Syrian damsels over the limbs of Osiris.” Even, or especially, in the face of illness and death, this humor of high and low is a refuge. “I have death on my mind, today,” he writes in July 1968. “S.S. Goldberg is ill, John Steinbeck is in the Southampton Hospital, Jean Stafford has just been released from same. So we, here, are feeling the wing. But in this weather it is more cooling than anything else. The Angel of Death, floating over the house, brings air-conditioning.”

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Bellow was often pegged as a “novelist of ideas” for the way his characters brood and rage over the big issues of their day. In his letters he regularly denied it. “I have ever been unideological,” he writes to Leslie Fiedler. “I have sophisticated skin and naïve bones.” He objects to the way that American books (his own included) “pant after meaning.... [T]hey exhort and plead and refine, and they are, insofar, books of error. A work of art should rest on perception.” And again, “Writers can only try to demonstrate; in close detail; without opinion.”

Bellow’s major characters – Henderson, Herzog, Mr. Sammler, Dean Corde – are certainly preoccupied with the great issues. But as Taylor points out in his introduction, thinking only gets Bellow’s heroes so far. “He shows the comic inefficacy of ideas when brought to the test of experience. Scratch these intellectuals and you find flesh-and-blood, struggling, bewildered human beings.”

These letters, too, reveal such a man. They shed some light on Bellow the writer, but much more on Bellow as a person. He saw letters as gifts, and was touchingly grateful to receive them. “I send you a mere booklet,” he wrote to an old friend in 1989, “and you answer with a personal letter, a really valuable communication in the old style. I sometimes think I write books in lieu of letters and that real letters have more kindness in them, addressed as they are to one friend.”

Geoff Wisner is the author of “A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa.”

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