x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Saul Bellow: New collection of letters

Sensitive to criticism, yet supremely confident in his own abilities, Saul Bellow emerges as a relentless contrarian in this new collection of his letters.

Saul Bellow – Letters
Edited by Benjamin Taylor
Penguin Classics
Dh175

When he died in 2005, Saul Bellow's status as a writer had arguably never been higher. His works had been republished in Library of America editions, and Martin Amis wrote an essay comparing him favourably with every preceding American novelist. Even so, Bellow was diminished in the eyes of some critics by what they saw as his disgust with modern life, reflected in the increasingly bleak urban settings of his later work. In his early novels Chicago (Bellow's imaginative home if anywhere was) is a place full of danger and thrilling vitality. Yet, by the time of 1982's The Dean's December, one of its typical neighbourhoods is said to lack "almost everything you needed, humanly."

In addition, a biography written in 2000 by James Atlas, a literary journalist and biographer who admired Bellow's work, presented Bellow as "distrustful, distant, self-absorbed", a "master of self-exculpation" and worse. Bellow, who cooperated with Atlas throughout his research, admitted his fears about the biography in a letter he wrote from Boston, where he lived for the last 20 years of his life: "What strikes me uncomfortably about Atlas is that he has great appeal for my detractors. He was born to please them. Another match made in heaven."

Letters, combining as they do elements of literary performance and social gesture, provide only a fallible impression of a writer's character. The Bellow who emerges from the newly collected correspondence is - as Atlas showed in his biography - quick to take offence at negative criticism of his work, but he is also open, unguarded and confident in his abilities as a novelist. And the volume does establish one thing quite firmly: the passion and complexity of the author's engagement with modernity. In a letter to the philosopher Owen Barfield in 1982, he writes "I wouldn't have the shadow of a claim on anybody's attention if I weren't [a modernist], for a novelist who is not contemporary can be nothing at all." At the same time Bellow was convinced that modern life (as he writes to Mario Vargas Llosa in 1984), with its "spectacles and conditions which appear to make art irrelevant," depressed novelists' imaginations.

This theme of opposition to Bellow's novelistic ambitions resounds throughout the volume. In the early letters it emerges from the specific condition of his being an aspiring novelist living in Chicago - a hostile environment for a writer, so Bellow judged - who was the son of Eastern European immigrants. He writes in 1942 of his literary agent's opinion that he "will be a success if only I learn to be suppler, more compromising, less adamantly set in my purposes." Looking back on these early years in a memorial address for Bernard Malamud printed in this volume, Bellow asserted that Jewish-American writers who "set out… to find a small place… as a writer" were "looking for trouble in uncharted waters."

Ranged against these oppressive forces is the dream of freedom. Whilst doing graduate work in anthropology in 1939, Bellow recommends to a friend the Autobiography of a Papago Woman: "When you read it you will see how many universes there are. That there are other lives, the color of clay, narrow as cave walls but still broad as rock and free and fierce as wolves." By implication, modern American life, with its breadth of entertainments and distractions, restricted freedom and imagination.

By his own judgement, Bellow did not find his freedom as a writer until he wrote his anarchic third novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953). In 1948 we find him admitting to a friend that in his second, The Victim, he "failed to write it freely, with all the stops out from beginning to end." He is nevertheless certain that he is "working towards something." That something was Augie March, which, as he declares in a letter of 1961, was composed in a "jail-breaking spirit." The freedom was in the language, in the demotic American voice of much of the narrative, which contrasted with the more constrained (though often beautiful) prose of his first two novels, and also in the sheer breadth and ambition of the novel. As he writes shortly after Augie March's publication: "A novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay. I backed away from Flaubert, in the direction of Walter Scott, Balzac, and Dickens." Bellow followed these precepts more closely still in his first commercially successful novel, 1964's Herzog, which is partly composed of letters - ranting, swiftly running, intellectually wide-ranging - written by the novel's desperate protagonist.

Augie's exuberant jailbreak was not without a certain ambiguity. In a letter written shortly after the publication of the novel, Bellow acknowledges that there was an element of "passivity" in its hero's character but argues that it was a symptom of his individuality: "passivity often is so deep that we do not recognize that the active spirit underneath has meanwhile organized an opposition that wears the face of passivity." Strikingly, Bellow describes himself in very similar terms over 20 years later in a letter to Owen Barfield: "I am passive… and it cuts me off from all organized views."

There is an unguarded, heightened emotionality in Augie's character which is also evident in Bellow's letters. He writes from Paris to a friend in 1949: "I'm sick and tired of…melancholy and boredom… I'm out for sursam corda. Lift up the heart." Such demonstrative responsiveness to life was central to Bellow's sense of his individuality. All the same, this individuality did not make him lose sight of his immigrant inheritance. Writing of this background in 1986, he declares that his language was nevertheless "English and a language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us." It was partly for this reason that Bellow's strongest reactions against criticism came when it was specifically his use of language that was attacked, as John Updike did in his review of Humboldt's Gift in 1974, when he judged that Bellow's style had slipped from the "angelic heights" of his earlier work.

Bellow's intense possessiveness over his work also leads him at times to take a contrarian's stance even when it is praised. He assures Martin Amis in 1995, for instance, that Augie March is less impressive than he judges it to be: "I can't read a page of the book without flinching. It seems to me now one of those stormy, formless American phenomena - like Action Painting." He goes on: "the book I now find disconcertingly amorphous, sound and fury signifying not-too-much."

That seems to be Bellow's final judgement on one of the great novels in the English language. As he grew older, Bellow acknowledged the singularity of his perspective and its consequences for his work. The Dean's December, was, he admits, "strange": "I try to understand what it signifies to have written it." The imputed strangeness of Bellow's late work reflected his sense of the mystery of life, which he saw above all in the experience of our relations with other people.

"There is," Bellow writes in a memorial address in 1996 printed in this volume, "something radically mysterious in the specificity of another human being which everybody somehow responds to. Love is not a bad word for this response." Bellow's novels, and many of his letters, are the product of his attempt to respond to this radical mystery. In a letter of 1977 he describes how he disappointed some audience members at a talk he gave in Edinburgh by speaking solely of his experiences as a writer growing up in Chicago in the 1930s. They had expected him to speak on the subject of anthroposophy; but Bellow's response to new and specific circumstances of life were of greater interest to him than philosophical abstractions.

It is appropriate, therefore, that the final letter in this volume, written when Bellow was 89 years old, reflects on the mystery of a particular experience. He writes of a memory of childhood: "My mother coveted for me a pair of patent-leather sandals with an elegantissimo strap. I finally got them - I rubbed them with butter to preserve the leather. This is when I was six or seven years old." Bellow concludes: "Amazing how it all boils down to a pair of patent-leather sandals."

In a wonderful detail in Augie March, Augie's little brother Georgie is said to blow on a piece of boiled chicken "more to cherish than to cool it." The young Bellow in the letter seems to rub the sandals as much to cherish as to preserve them, just as the elderly Bellow relates the memory as much to cherish as to preserve it. At moments such as this, Bellow's nervy ambivalence to modern life takes on a double significance of its own. The act of attending on it at all comes to seem like its own form of consecration.

Matthew Peters is a freelance critic who lives in Cambridge, England.