The Whole Human Mess: On Saul Bellow
The temptation here is simply to quote. "I am a poor lost woof from the kennel of Fate looking for a dog to belong to." "As my sixty-seventh birthday approaches (or I approach it in the sense that a fellow jumping from the top of the Empire State approaches the sixty-seventh floor)." "Losing 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." "I told an old friend in Rome that I'd never return. One can't even see the city for the cars, the Colosseum is fenced up because the tourists have been taking pieces of it as souvenirs, the Romans all look as though they had just gotten up after an adulterous siesta, first-class hotels stink of bad plumbing, everyone is on the make, the exhibitionists don't even zip up between exposures, they walk around on fashionable streets with their genitals in their hands."
Drollery, mordancy, tenderness, quick-draw portraiture, metaphysical vaudeville, soul talk, heart pains, the whole human mess—Saul Bellow's letters are a Saul Bellow novel, the author himself the protagonist. A Saul Bellow novel! A gift from the grave, like Humboldt's. The great voice again, the peerless voice: speaking of craft, the culture, intellectuals ("those dying beasts"), beach holidays, custody settlements, old times, summer mornings, Chicago, snubs, Jews, Tolstoy. Speaking to lovers, ex-wives, editors, fellow writers (John Berryman, Ralph Ellison, Robert Penn Warren, John Cheever, Karl Shapiro, Philip Roth, Martin Amis), sons, strangers, mentors, countless friends. Cooing, whispering, chuckling, chortling, lecturing, hectoring, denouncing, arguing, reminiscing. The whole life, as intimately as we're going to get it, from 17 to 88.
And thus a riposte to the previous life, James Atlas's openly hostile biography of ten years ago. "The towel with which the bartender cleans the bar," its subject called it. Atlas may have gotten the facts, but he spun them like a spitball pitcher. His Bellow is driven by his insecurities, compulsive in his need to make enemies, utterly selfish in his sexual and marital relationships and incapable of empathy or affection. Now we have raw data and can make some judgments for ourselves. On the letters in particular Atlas gets it precisely and characteristically wrong: "There was a certain impersonality in his boisterous epistolary style; no matter whom Bellow was writing to, his letters have a single tone. It was as if he was writing to just one person: himself."
Nothing could be further from the truth. Not a single tone but a whole church organ of them, for Bellow was always intimately responsive to his correspondents. The early letters to Warren, ten years older and still something of a patron, strain a little for sophistication. To the critic Alfred Kazin, a lifelong rival earlier arrived to acclaim, Bellow sounds at first insecure, then later, as if by way of compensation, ostentatiously clever, as in this, from Paris:
If Stendhal were alive today...he would do as I do with his copy of Les Temps Modernes, that is scan the latest sottises, observe with brutal contempt the newest wrinkle in anguish and then feed Simone's articles on sex to the cat to cure her of her heat and give the remainder to little G[regory] to cut dollies from; he can't read yet and lives happily in nature.
Berryman, a brother-in-arms, gets some of Bellow's profoundest feelings ("Just now in Poetry I read four Dream Songs, and wish to say, this being the hour when strength is low, thank you. We keep each other from the poorhouse"), as well, in retrospect, as some of the saddest lines in the book: "We must have a conversation about health and disease. Meantime, old man, for the love of Mike stop knocking yourself out." (After the poet's â¨suicide, the finish to his alcoholic self-destruction, there was simply this: "I often wondered whether he would. I guessed that he wouldn't. I seldom guess right.") His last to Cheever is even more affecting: "Since we spoke on the phone I've been thinking incessantly about you." So much for Bellow the narcissist. "You were engaged, as a writer should be, in transforming yourself.... 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."
To Marcello Mastroianni, who had inquired about the film rights to Humboldt's Gift (1975), Bellow is exquisitely courteous. To Owen Barfield, who was schooling him in Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy, he is deferential. To Sondra, his second wife, in the wake of their nasty divorce, he is imperious. To Susan, about to be this third, he is gleeful. "Dolly," he writes, just arrived in Puerto Rico, "I am away, spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch." To Maggie Staats, perhaps his greatest love (they never married and were lifelong friends), he taps his childhood memories, the deepest sources of his feeling: "I hear Chicago carrying on its business, like a bad brass band playing all the old tunes. I've been hearing that noise since I was nine years old."
John Auerbach, the Polish-born Israeli novelist, a kindred spirit during Bellow's declining years, elicits details of his daily life in Chicago, Vermont (where he had a vacation house) and Brookline (where he moved to teach a dozen years before his death). "I...go out of doors and rinse my brains in God's icy air without knowing whether the tears in my eyes come from the cold wind or gratitude to my Creator." "Well into my late sixties I could work all day long. Now I fold at one o'clock." "Meantime the trees grow, the birds sing, the flowers do their stuff, the green is greener than ever. And there's Janis," Bellow's fifth and final wife, "without whom my blood wouldn't circulate." And Allan Bloom, another late-life intimate—colleague, crony, sounding board, mentor, protégé and finally, in Ravelstein (2000), fictional subject—arouses him to novelistic pitch:
I dragged myself over to the east side of Broadway, and a woman of ninety advanced toward me on a four-pronged cane—tiny, a construction worker's yellow hard hat pulled over her forehead. This apparition passing, there came more: middle-class people, I suppose, but reduced to the status of derelicts, one holding a little boy by the hand while yelling at an acquaintance to get his goddam ass out of her face because she wouldn't submit to suffocation, and then some people affably talking to themselves; and then a nice police dog chained to a parking meter, wearing a cast on his broken leg and barking. He may have been asking to see the humanity in relation to which he was supposed to be a dog.
Atlas got another thing wrong about the letters. He calls Bellow "an assiduous correspondent"; in fact, he was a dilatory one, as he often complained. The present volume—handsomely packaged and intelligently assembled—consists of fully two-fifths of the author's known output. That works out to only a little more than about twenty pages per annum, even excluding his years of youth and senescence. As a measure of Bellow's character this is neither here nor there, but the reasons bring us to the center of his art—of his voice, form, method, matter, of his whole approach.