New book collects the best of a prolific man of ‘Letters’

By Hillel Italie
Associated Press / November 26, 2010

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NEW YORK — Like the first line of a novel, the idea for a letter could occur to Saul Bellow at any time. The words might have come on a daily walk or during a drive to the grocery store. Perhaps he had just finished a bath, a bubble bath, or awakened in the night.

“That was thrilling for me to be around, because you witnessed something being born in the moment, the need for something to be done,’’ Janis Bellow, the late Nobel laureate’s fifth and final wife, said in a recent telephone interview.

Bellow, who died in 2005 at age 89, wrote thousands of letters — some in longhand, some typed and single-spaced, and some dictated to his wife and others. “Saul Bellow: Letters’’ has just been released, roughly 40 percent of a correspondence covering more than 70 years, with friends and opponents on the receiving end including boyhood pals, wives, and ex-wives, and writers from Bernard Malamud and John Cheever to Martin Amis and Philip Roth.

In a 1981 letter to Cheever, Bellow praises his fellow artist for showing on the page how he had changed through the act of writing, adding that “nothing counts higher’’ than “this transforming action of the soul.’’ Bellow himself was a study in progress in his letters, from an impulsive teenager to struggling young writer, hurried middle-age man and elderly sage, skeptic, and literary father figure, to Roth and Amis among others.

Bellow’s letters were clearly from the creator of “Herzog,’’ “The Adventures of Augie March’’ and other novels: critical and self-critical, cerebral and emotional, with a redeeming sense of humor (“to return to sanity in the form of laughter’’), an impatience for nonsense, and a resigned, poetic eye on mortality. Insisting he was no good at letters, then demonstrating the opposite, he revealed a mind in debate with itself.

The earliest entry is from 1932, when Bellow was 17 and splitting up with a girlfriend. He can hardly bring himself to get to the point. The letter is half prelude, a teenager so self-conscious he practically stammers on the page, commenting on his work as it goes along. He announces he has been “seething and boiling,’’ but despairs he is a “self-confessed coward’’ who hates melodrama.

“The only thing that I hate more intensely than melodrama and spinach is myself,’’ he writes. “You think perhaps I am insane? I am. But I have my pen; I am in my element and I defy you.’’