Man of letters: a novelist finds his classic voice.

Author:Berlin, Jeremy
Position:Saul Bellow: Letters - Book review


Edited by Benjamin Taylor

Viking, 571 pp., $35

Throughout his mental and physical journeying, he has been composing letters--to friends and enemies, professional rivals and colleagues.... The letters are cranky, brilliant, poignant.... Some ... are playful, some are pixilated; but all of them are, in the last analysis, responsible. Taken together they compose a credo for the times. THAT'S A FAIR PRECIS of this cracking new volume, 700-plus pieces of Bellovian correspondence penned over eight decades. Only it comes from a 1964 New York Times review of Herzog, describing a habit of the titular character--a Canadian-born Jewish intellectual raised in Chicago by Russian parents, mired in middle-aged cuckoldry and divorce, struggling to make sense of the cosmos's eternal churn. For these inveterate letter writers, however, art and life part ways at the post office: Saul Bellow's alter ego Moses Herzog never mailed his missives; Bellow did. Now, a lionized lifetime of books and awards later, we have this telling posthumous clutch.

"A novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay," Bellow once said. That he took his own advice on the first count is beyond refute: His rangy, hectic novels were singularly paradoxical--ebullient and solipsistic, personal and political, postmodern and old-fashioned. His correspondence has a slightly different cant. Reading these letters, one is struck by the number of chances taken, yes, but also by the wisdom proffered, the generosity displayed, the fellow feelings sustained. The Bellow that emerges here is less churlish and contrarian (names he was often called, and sometimes deserved) than inclusive and compassionate, especially toward other writers, whom he seemed to view as brethren in a tough guild.

In 1953, he encouraged the younger Bernard Malamud with a kindly note: "You're a writer yourself, a real one." Four years later, he urged a struggling Philip Roth to contact his own well-placed agent. In 1976, he gushed to John Cheever: "Will I read your book? Would I accept a free trip to Xanadu with Helen of Troy as my valet?" Five years after that, his ardor for that author flowered:

When I read your collected stories, I was moved to see the transformation taking place on the printed page. There's nothing that counts really except this transforming action of the soul. I loved you for this. I loved you anyway, but for this especially...

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