Book of the week: Saul Bellow: Letters edited by Benjamin Taylor

Anyone could have predicted that Saul Bellow’s letters would be special, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.

(Viking, 571 pages, $35)

Anyone could have predicted that Saul Bellow’s letters would be special, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. Like the title character of his 1964 novel, Herzog, the late Nobel laureate reveals himself through his correspondence to have been “a man overflowing with ideas and grievances.” His letters are “just as arresting” as Herzog’s—“seizing the reader by the lapels and refusing to let go.” In one that Bellow wrote three years before his 2005 death, at 90, the literary legend admits to sometimes feeling as if “surrounded by goats and monkeys.” But he refuses in his next breath to let the fools discourage him from being the seeker and searcher he’d been throughout his life. “To fall into despair,” he wrote, “is just a high-class way of turning into a dope.”

The origins of Bellow’s signature “street-smart intellectual style” are evident decades earlier, said Geoff Wisner in The Christian Science Monitor. Bellow was in his late 30s when he published The Adventures of Augie March—the breakthrough novel that showed he’d “learned to generate energy, and often humor, from linking high and low language.” But the impulse had existed even when he was a very young man. In his letters, the Chicago-bred son of Russian-Jewish immigrants might reflect meaningfully on both death and air conditioners in the same sentence, or use an allusion to Milton to rib a pal about academic groupies. Yet it’s also striking how “less polished” Bellow’s prose is here than in his novels. He “once said it was not unusual for him to rewrite a sentence 10 times”—which may explain why he’s always apologizing for being a poor correspondent.

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A reader of this collection might complain instead that it’s too lightly edited, said Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post. “There are a great many very brief notes of little import,” and the editors skimp on providing context. Yet the revelations here outweigh the deficiencies. Asked at one point by William Faulkner for a letter advocating the release from a mental hospital of fascist sympathizer Ezra Pound, the barely established Bellow shows great courage by calling out the “plain and brutal” anti-Semitism in Pound’s poetry and chiding the venerable Faulkner for failing to recognize it. The five-times-married Bellow lived a fairly eventful life, but he was foremost an “exceptionally astute” observer of unfailing forthrightness. Those traits make for a “very good” book.

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