Archive for November 27th, 2010

Saul Bellow: “The name of the game is Give All.”

Saturday, November 27th, 2010
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A few days ago, I posted an excerpt from Saul Bellow: Letters — an epistle from Saul Bellow to Leon Wieseltier, on the subject of Hannah Arendt.

I didn’t know till I was tipped off by Robert Hamerton-Kelly at lunch yesterday that Wieseltier had already reviewed the letters in the New York Times a few days earlier. The long, ebullient review of a friend by a friend praises the author’s “stunning, almost baffling plenitude”:

“Bellow’s letters are — as anybody who corresponded with him must have expected them to be, 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 — one of Bellow’s greatest books. [Editor] Benjamin Taylor records that it contains only two-fifths of what Bellow called his ‘epistling,’ but its riches are nonetheless immense. Taylor has selected and edited and annotated these letters with exquisite judgment and care. This is an elegantissimo book. Our literature’s debt to Taylor, if our culture still cares, is considerable.”

More excerpts, in case you missed it:

“In recent years, Bellow has been venerated primarily for his laughter and his language. His British admirers in particular, orphaned by the dreariness of their own postwar fiction and in abject (and rather boring) envy of American energy, have remade Bellow according to their need: a comic writer, a high mocker and essentially a stylist. There is some truth, obviously, to this worship of his ebullience, of the libertine vigor of his voice. 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.

“Yet something is missing from the chortling celebration of Bellovian jollity, and that is its foundation in gloom. ‘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.’ The letters show a man constantly wresting high spirits from low, and forbidding himself ‘the newest wrinkle in anguish.’ The charming and gregarious writer feels ‘almost astrally alone, but still “I’m out for sursum corda. Lift up the heart.’ … There is an almost erotic charge to Bellow’s endless affirmations; they are so affecting because they are so willed. Since they are deeply reflective, they do not seem merely manic. ‘Really,’ he writes to Lionel Trilling in 1952, ‘things are now what they always were, and to be disappointed in them is extremely shallow. We may not be strong enough to live in the present. But to be disappointed in it!'” …

“Bellow liked to scoff at serious people, but he never left their company. He, too, always had something urgent to say. … The view of Bellow as primarily a stylist, the pleasure-seeking reading of Bellow, the cult of his sentences, is inadequate. His manner was rougher and more controversial, stubbornly animated by ultimate questions, motivated by mind, an intervention in society as well as in literature. Even greater than how he said what he said was what he had to say. His writings, these letters included, are efforts in explanation, or in the hunger for explanation. He did not compose manifestoes or programs, and he despised ideologies — Norman Mailer is ‘such an ideologist,’ whereas ‘I do everything the hard way’; but his ridicule of intellectuals never led Bellow, as it did some of his contemporaries, to the barbarities of anti-intellectualism. …”

“One marvels for many reasons at the man who wrote these letters, but for no reason more than that he was a free man. I do not refer merely to his rebelliousness and his restlessness, to his ‘jail-breaking spirit.’ He is beset by cares and obligations; his friends die and die and die … but 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. Only time, and the accidental ingestion of a poison fish in the tropics in 1994, dims him. Otherwise, for the duration of the long and unsinkable life chronicled in these pages, 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.'”

Postscript from the “Great Minds Think Alike” Dept.:  Over at Anecdotal Evidence today, Patrick Kurp also has a post inspired by Wieseltier’s review of Bellow — it’s here.