Book Review: Saul Bellow's 'Letters'

Saul Bellow: Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor, is a definitive collection of the correspondence of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Authors' letters to their colleagues, friends and family can become collectors' items. Email may give those collections a whole new tone, but for now, the great collections of the literary past are still made up of paper correspondence.

Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, has been reading a 600-page collection of the letters of novelist Saul Bellow.

ALAN CHEUSE: In the best of his fiction, Saul Bellow made drama out of what he called, in the opening of his great story "Something to Remember Me By," the hidden work of uneventful days.

His letters, only two-fifths of the writer's known epistolary output, as editor Taylor informs us, make clear the drama of the young writer's seemingly uneventful life - the young, daring, handsome, articulate, Jewish-Montreal-Chicago-American fiction-maker determined to become a good artist.

He's also needy for compliments and angry at his publishers and devoted to his vocation. Troubles come along, sometimes self-created, with wives, money, teaching posts, friends, enemies. His own books and the work of others all come up for scrutiny, complaint, lament and, now and then, celebration.

The only sure cure, he writes in 1960 from his house in Tivoli, New York, to young San Francisco writer Alice Adams, the only sure cure for everything that ails you is to write a book. I have a new one on the table, Bellow says, and all the other misery is gone.

His devotion to his work is instructive for all writers, especially the young. The years go by, letters flow. Admiration and awards and sales replace adversity, and one marriage yields to another, but the wit sparks up all the same, even as Bellow shifts from aesthetic critiques of books by friends into writing their eulogies - eulogies for Bernard Malamud, Robert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison among them.

In some pages about Malamud at his death in 1986, Bellow wrote: He is a rich original of the first rank.

He might have been writing about himself, himself over whose shoulder you can read as he writes the letters in this important collection.

SIEGEL: "The Letters of Saul Bellow" is edited by Benjamin Taylor. Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.