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.

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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.

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