This week in The NY Times Book Review, Saul Bellow’s friend Leon Wieseltier (literary editor of The New Republic) reviews the recent publication of a selection of Saul’s letters. Here’s my selection of things from the review:
…and here I must disclose, or confess, or boast, that the volume includes also some gorgeous letters to me, written in the fullness of our friendship decades ago, when we used to worry over metaphysics and the novel as we chopped wood….the poetry of his prose, its force of consciousness, lay always in its fidelity to….the revelatory details.Yes, the entire review offers much more.
Bellow was a giant of description, and he knew it. About the editors of a certain magazine he wickedly remarked, in 1991, that “I could make those people very unhappy by describing them.”….“a work of art should rest on perception.” ….“a novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay…." Bellow’s cause was actuality, the whole mess of it. His ideal was wakefulness. …The justly celebrated vastness of Bellow’s metaphorical field was owed to this fight for veridical observation, this longing for true knowledge. … and so the range of a writer’s metaphor is a measure of the range of his cognition….“The 19th century drove writers into attics,” he tells Alice Adams. “The 20th shuts them in nutshells. The only remedy is to declare yourself king, or queen, of infinite space.”….he has found spirituality in the enterprise of fiction. …Of all modern writers, Bellow somehow managed to combine intellectuality and vitality without compromising either of the indispensable terms. The life-force never deserted him, even as it was always attended by interpretation. The unruliness of existence was Bellow’s lasting theme; but while he studied it, he never quite ordered it. In his fiction and in his life, he seemed to believe in the fecundity of disorder…..“Bitter melancholy” is “one of my specialties,” he tells Edward Shils in 1962. About “the power to despair,” he writes to a friend in 1961 that “having myself felt it, known it, bathed in it, my native and temperamental impulse is to return to sanity in the form of laughter.” …There is an almost erotic charge to Bellow’s endless affirmations….“The real thing is unfathomable,” he declares in 1974. “You can’t get it down to distinct or clear opinion. Sensing this, I have always had intelligence enough (or the intuition) to put humor between myself and final claims.” ….But the laughter in Bellow is mainly philosophical laughter. He had Camus’s lucidity, but not his solemnity. …There was nothing hip or cynical or self-satisfied about Bellow’s hilarity. It was a boisterous stoicism, a technique of perseverance….. stubbornly animated by ultimate questions, motivated by mind, an intervention in society as well as in literature. …“Ideology is of no use to us in refurnishing the empty house,” he observes to Leslie Fiedler. What is of use, by contrast, is humanism. Humanism is “the most subversive of all — and I am a humanist.” The absence of irony from that avowal is like a cool breeze. ….Bellow was forever chasing the answer, but his disappointments in belief never dissuaded him from the chase. “The best of me has formed in the jumps.” Finally he was — may this, too, be said without irony? — a seeker after truth….nothing ever robs him of the free and unfettered use of his powers. “A language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us,” and in that palace Bellow was sovereign. “The only sure cure is to write a book,” he advises Alice Adams. …he is a large man growing larger, a spirit expanding, an unabating lightstorm, and “the name of the game is Give All.” He never loses his constancy of purpose. In the penultimate letter in this volume, in the winter of 2002, he sums himself up for a distant relative in a casual Abschied: “Actually, I’ve never stopped looking for the real thing; and often I find the real thing. To fall into despair is just a high-class way of turning into a dope. I choose to laugh, and laugh at myself no less than at others.”