Short Takes

By Barbara Fisher
Globe Correspondent / November 7, 2010

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Edited by Benjamin Taylor
Viking, 608 pp., $35

Saul Bellow’s letters reveal him as a man whose life was enriched and eased by many affectionate, generous, and lasting friendships. In his letters, he earnestly tried to understand his friends and more earnestly tried to make himself understood by them. He was passionate about his ambition, his writing, his Jewishness, and his politics. His personal life — which included many wives, mistresses, and children — when it was running smoothly rarely entered into his correspondence. But when it broke down, becoming contentious and litigious, it demanded space.

Kind and caring to his friends, he wrote encouraging and honest assessments of their work, submitted innumerable recommendations to committees, foundations, and prize juries. But when he felt himself insulted and aggrieved, he could be hasty, bitter, and cruel. His longest correspondences with Ralph Ellison and John Berryman movingly trace the trajectory of lifelong friendships. His letters to John Cheever, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Martin Amis suggest gentle competition within solid camaraderie. He could be witty as well as wise. Of Mary McCarthy: “For a decade or more she hated me, quite frankly. I could not return her feeling with the same intensity but I did what I could.’’ Edna O’Brien was “The Joan of Arc of Irish sex, armies of horny men behind her.’’ And he could be loving. At the death of a childhood friend, he wrote to the son. “Perhaps you wondered why I was so attached to him. He never turned me away when I needed him. I hope I never failed him, either.’’ Unfailingly responsive to his friends’ needs and desires while responsible to his own beliefs, he was an ideal correspondent. Benjamin Taylor’s introduction and frequent brief identifying notes are models of elegant scholarly restraint.

By Ivana Lowell
Knopf, 304 pp., $27.95

The large cast of characters in this creepily compelling memoir are mostly monsters of entitlement, indulgence, wealth, and privilege. Ivana’s grandmother was Maureen, one of the legendary “glorious Guinness girls.’’ Her mother, Caroline, a blond and bright beauty, chose for her first husband English painter Lucian Freud. Ivana believed herself to be the child of her mother’s second husband, Jewish composer and pianist, Israel Citkowitz, but spent much of her childhood with her mother’s third husband, manic-depressive American poet Robert Lowell. Caroline had passionate affairs with English screenwriter Ivan Moffat and New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, both contenders for Ivana’s paternity.

Ivana survived her lonely and scarred childhood in England and New York, inventing her own forms of bad behavior. Drink and despair led her back to her mother and her questionable paternity. When she finally learned the truth about her origins, she recognized that her mother had used “my paternity as some sort of cruel leverage, a juicy piece of bait to keep them [ex-lovers] bobbing around her. . . . My identity had been . . . tossed around like a plastic beach ball.’’

Careless hardly covers the reckless disregard with which these people treated those they supposedly loved. Ivana hopes to do better, but her inheritance seems hard to overcome.

By Amélie Nothomb
Translated, from the French, by Alison Anderson
Europa Editions, 160 pp., $15

Lengthy dialogue between a dying novelist and an intense journalist makes up most of this very French novel. Nobel prize-winning writer Prétextat Tach, long an uncommunicative recluse, agrees, in his final days, to be interviewed by a young reporter. At first contemptuous and insulting, he is eventually seduced by her surprisingly thorough knowledge of his works and life.

Their conversation moves from his romantic and homicidal childhood (as narrated in his only unfinished novel titled “Hygiene and the Assassin’’) through his productive years of writing to his final years of gourmandizing. They talk of the relationships between writers and readers (both real and ideal), between autobiography and fiction, between memory and desire. In the end, they play out their own love and death drama, which results in a conclusion of supreme irony. “In the wake of this incident, there was a veritable stampede for the works of Prétextat Tach. Ten years later, he was a classic.’’ This novel is more literary theory than fiction, but mercifully it is short.

Barbara Fisher, a freelance writer, can be reached at