. . . one has to have a less than admirable character to be a fiction writer.
The most penetrating literary criticism I know of the novelist Saul Bellow was made in my presence by my dear friend Edward Shils one afternoon in his apartment in Hyde Park. Edward had been reading, in manuscript, a portion of James Atlas’s biography of Bellow. He put down Atlas’s pages, and, with his fondess for extended metaphors, said to me: “You know, Joseph, Mr. Atlas will only grasp the true nature of Saul Bellow when he understands that our friend Saul, had he been allowed to sit for two hours in the lap of the Queen of England, would, when told by the Queen that she must now attend to her official duties, though she much enjoyed their visit, freshly emerge from the Queen’s lap with two observations: first, that the Queen had no understanding whatsoever of the condition of the modern artist, and, second, that she was an anti-Semite.”
Edward and Saul went back a ways. In 1962, two years before the publication of Herzog, Edward arranged for Saul to be made a member of the faculty of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. That same year Saul wrote to his friend John Berryman, “I love Edward Shils.” Edward had contributed much to the composition of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, chiefly to the cosmopolite character of Arthur Sammler, or so people who have seen the novel in manuscript have told me. When Edward told Saul that he did not require many friends, Saul wrote back, “you have a friend in me, I assure you.”
Saul, with whom I used to play racquetball, introduced me to Edward in 1972. By that time their relationship had already begun to fray. These men were two of the greatest put-down artists in the country, and, of course, they regularly practiced their art, if still behind the other’s back, upon each other. For a spell, I was an amused recipient of this slightly toxic banter. Of a Wednesday morning I might get a call from Saul, asking what I had been doing. When I mentioned having dinner the night before with Edward, who was something of a gourmand, Saul asked, “Ah, does he still have a leather palate?” Half an hour later, Edward would telephone, and, after I told him I had just spoken with Saul, remark: “Have you ever noticed that Saul is the kind of Jew [Edward was himself Jewish] who wears his hat in the house, and when he wants to talk seriously seats himself in a kitchen chair turned backwards to do so?” When Saul stayed at Monk’s House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s country retreat in East Sussex, and complained in a letter about the heating and other arrangements, Edward said: “Why did he go there in the first place? But that’s our Saul; houses, women, if it’s for nothing, he takes it.”
Saul felt Edward did not treat him as an equal, and thought he was sitting in judgment on him and finding him wanting. He was, I fear, right about the latter. Edward thought little of Saul’s choices of female company and was less than admiring of his taste for low-life. He thought him a lazy teacher, who didn’t get anywhere near the most out of his graduate students and in later years he did what he could to foil Saul’s attempts to get jobs on the Committee on Social Thought for his former lady friends. “I refuse to allow him to use the Committee,” Edward told me, “as a rest home for his old nafkes.” In the 1980s, he mocked Saul’s forays into the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner. “If there’s a bad idea out there—Trotskyism, Reichism, Steinerism—leave it to our friend Saul to swallow it.”
Things grew worse between them. I had ceased to see Saul, for reasons that shall be made plain presently. Edward, who was five years older than Saul but looked much younger, began to refer to him as “the old gentleman.” Edward once showed me a note Saul had written him describing him as “wicked,” a word choice that caused him to chuckle. Then, in his early eighties, Edward was struck by cancer. After two long bouts with chemotherapy, nothing more could be done. As Edward lay on his deathbed, Saul called to ask if he might come over, presumably to patch things up. “I have no wish to ease the conscience of that son of a bitch,” Edward said. “Tell him no.” Saul took it in the way he took most rejections throughout his life—by taking literary revenge. In his next (and last) novel, Ravelstein, he created a monstrous character named Rakhmiel Kogon, unmistakably based on Edward Shils, to whom he imputed useless learning (Edward’s learning was genuine and highly useful), a musty smell (which Edward didn’t have), and homosexuality (which was as far from Edward’s nature as possible).
None of the drama of this relationship or others appears in Saul Bellow: Letters. Perhaps this is owing to the nature of collections of printed letters, in which people appear as correspondents with some regularity, are vouchsafed confidences, and then drop away, never to be heard from again. Or, if heard from, written about in a radically different way: Edward Shils, for example, goes from being loved to being described as “an unlanced boil,” but the reader will have no notion of what took place in the intervening years to so alter feelings between the two men.
Unfortunately, this ample collection of Saul’s letters has been lazily edited by Benjamin Taylor, a member of the faculty at the New School in New York. Taylor does little more than translate phrases in foreign languages and sometimes provide a bare-bones biographical note about Bellow’s lesser-known correspondents. But he ties up no loose ends and fails time and again to establish context or make clear what is going on beneath the surface. At one point, Bellow tries to calm John Berryman over a scandal that has caused his name to be besmirched in New York (what scandal we are not told) by mentioning that he himself had three years earlier been involved in a great scandal (the particulars of which also go unmentioned) that has long since been forgotten. This happens all too often.
Professor Taylor has no doubt that Saul Bellow is a great writer. In his introduction, he mentions a meeting between Samuel Beckett and Bellow that he likens to the famous—and inconsequential—meeting between James Joyce and Marcel Proust at the Majestic Hotel in Paris in 1922, without any apparent awareness of the discount in quality on both ends: Beckett was no Joyce, nor was Bellow’s talent close to that of Proust. Taylor seems confident, too, that Bellow was a deeply sensitive man who felt that the import of life was to be found in love, possibly because Bellow was always proclaiming his sensitivity and was one of those men to whom the word “love” came very easily. (A boyhood friend, later in life, once said of Bellow that he betrayed everyone who ever loved him.) Taylor thus misses, in his introduction, and in his editing, touching upon the two main questions about Saul Bellow: How good a writer was he? And why was there so gaping a discrepancy between the large moral claims made in his fiction and his own erratic personal behavior?
I am myself mentioned thrice in Saul Bellow: Letters. In the first instance, in 1978, Bellow, complaining about the paucity of opportunities for freely open conversation in Chicago, writes: “Joe Epstein I like and respect but I don’t open my heart to him because he doesn’t have the impulse . . . to open up. Besides he’s more fair-minded than we [he is writing to The New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier] are, or more circumspect when he discusses our bogus contemporaries.” In 1984, I am one of the reasons that he asked to have his name dropped as one of the sponsors of Midge Decter’s Committee for the Free World for, among other reasons, my giving a speech in which he claimed I misrepresented his views. (I didn’t, and a more energetic editor than Professor Taylor could easily enough have discovered that.) In 1991, I have progressed to being “a second rate Jewish writer from Chicago,” who has written a short story with a protagonist resembling him, a story that is “gross, moronic, and clumsily written.”
I was never a central figure in Saul Bellow’s life, so it would be beside the point to chronicle how I went from a person liked and respected to a second-rate writer of gross and moronic stories. But for a while we were fairly close. To provide some notion of my closeness to him during the time of our friendship, between 1972 and roughly 1980, he called to inform me the morning he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He emphatically told me that, after three failures in marriage, he would never remarry, then one morning I learned that he had married Alexandra Tulcea, a mathematician at Northwestern. I was twenty-two years younger than he, and in our racquetball games—sometimes at the Evanston YMCA, sometimes at the Riviera Club in the Loop, where he was a member—I used to worry slightly about his having a stroke from over-exertion, and could too easily imagine a photograph in the Chicago press bearing the caption, “Nobel Prize-winner dies in racquetball court. Man in shorts at left unidentified.”
I was friendly with Bellow during the period in which he was writing Humboldt’s Gift, sections of which he read to me aloud in his apartment, asking for corrections, of which I hadn’t many to offer. I remember feeling greatly complimented when he told me that I had retained a fundamental love of literature that made me a much better reader than all critics and reviewers. In his letters, he attributes this same love to Philip Roth, whose own literary productions I once heard Saul and Harold Rosenberg cut up with all the delicacy of a Cook County coroner for the corpse of a homeless man found drowned in Lake Michigan.
One of the side-show amusements of Saul Bellow: Letters is to read him writing intimate things to people whom I have heard him verbally maim in conversation or later crush in his novels. In early letters to a Chicago attorney named Sam Freifeld, with whom he grew up, he describes their relationship as that of blood brothers; in Humboldt’s Gift, he describes this same Freifeld as a flasher. Bellow was a literary Bluebeard, killing off his ex-wives in devastating portraits in his novels. His fourth wife, Alexandra, whose unworldliness he limned so tenderly in The Dean’s December, he treats in Ravelstein, after their divorce, as a figure of pure evil, as if she were the twin sister of Eva Braun. Vengeance, the Italians say, is a dish best served cold; Bellow garnished the dish with viciousness and served it on the pages of his novels.
Saul had two valves on his emotional trumpet: intimacy and contempt. He could be immensely charming and funny; he once described me in the racquetball court as “quicker than a sperm.” But one of the first things one sensed upon meeting him was his extreme touchiness. A slip in conversation, or worse in print, praising the wrong writer, and you figured to be whacked, to use the Mafia phrase, told to practice anatomically impossible acts upon yourself, and mocked ever after to others. The distinction between sensitivity and touchiness is a crucial one; so many people who think themselves sensitive are merely touchy, and Saul was among them. His touchiness was increased by a streak of paranoia. Erich Heller one day told me that Saul declared him an enemy because he, Erich, had written less than enthusiastically about the future of the novel. “I never mentioned his name in my essay,” Erich said, “but he took it as a personal attack.” Saul considered the novel a family business.
A veritable Jewish porcupine of touchiness, Bellow also suffered from Irish Alzheimers: he remembered, that is, chiefly his grudges. As late as 1991, he is still claiming that Norman Podhoretz “tried to do me in” with his 1953 review of The Adventures of Augie March. (Podhoretz’s criticisms, it turns out, are not all that dissimilar from criticisms of the novel that Bellow would later himself make in letters in which the novel is mentioned.) He has a strange on-again-off-again relationship with Alfred Kazin, whose sexual braggadocio he used to mock in my presence. Yet he never entirely broke off this relationship with a man he despised. Like many people capable of great cruelty, Bellow could also be a heavyweight sentimentalist.
One of the things the Letters does reveal is Bellow’s unfailingly high quality as a correspondent. He was a deft letter-writer, with a lovely gift for comic phrasing and a talent for epistolary intimacy. Scarcely a letter in this volume is without an amusing phrase or arresting insight or interesting formulation. As he grows older, and as the demands on him as a literary celebrity increased—“I haven’t been good at managing celebrity,” he writes to an old high-school classmate—Bellow had less time for his correspondence. The letters written in the last decade or so of his life almost invariably contain an apology for being so tardy in responding.
Apart from his go-fuck-yourself letters, which are not few, Bellow’s letters are generally amiably cozening, giving each of his correspondents the notion that he is only capable of this level of candor and intimacy with him or her. This gift for intimacy was very seductive; he made you feel among the elect, one of the good and sensitive people with whom his troubled soul could find succour; you were not among the rabble, the swine, the creeps, the nudniks, the shits, until of course, eventually and almost inevitably, you irredeemably were.
The one protection from this was death. Bellow was, as the letters show, also sentimental about the dead. I recall his mockery to me of Philip Rahv: “an old bull gone weak in the knees,” he called him. In one of his early letters, he refers to him as “Commissar of Grumps.” I once told him about an exchange on the subject of revolution in the letters column of the New York Review of Books between Rahv and Irving Howe. He smiled his gap-toothed smile, and said, “Two Jews arguing violently at the back of the synagogue. And about what are they so worked up—it turns out to be about Lady Astor’s horse.” But as soon as Rahv died, he became, for Bellow, one of those giants who no longer walks the earth.
The element of con in much of Bellow’s correspondence has to do with his always managing to come across as the large-hearted, sensitive, great-souled fellow, the expansive spiritual sport, the artist in a crass culture, more than a touch naïve perhaps, but a sweetheart, really. In so many of these letters, he appears to have cornered the market on virtue. My guess is that most people reading his letters will swallow it—their editor certainly seems to have done—taking Bellow for the poor sensitive guy, much set upon by an ignorant world filled with stupid people, he persistently portrays himself as being.
The letter, in some ways, was Bellow’s true métier. Perhaps the most memorable passages in all his fiction are those letters that his character Moses Herzog writes to Adlai Stevenson, Nietzsche, God, and others. “I sometimes think I write books in lieu of letters,” Bellow wrote to Sophie Wilkins, Karl Shapiro’s wife, “and that real letters have more kindness in them, addressed as they are to one friend.” Sophie Wilkins, a writer named John Auerbach, and Martin Amis are the few among his correspondents that he did not turn on—or felt had turned on him—or at some point spoke mockingly about behind their backs, and with whom he appears genuinely to have let himself go. Richard Stern, Bernard Malamud, Leon Wieseltier, Philip Roth, and a number of other people to whom he wrote affectionate letters, he mocked, at least in my presence.
If one were his enemy, it was death in the afternoon, for he was a bull who could gore one beyond repair. When one’s sympathies are aligned with his, his attacks can be great fun to read, and many are impressively penetrating. “Hannah [Arendt] was rash,” he writes, “but she wasn’t altogether stupid (unlike her friend Mary Mc[Carthy]).” To Mary McCarthy’s future biographer, he writes: “For a decade or more she hated me, quite frankly. I could not return her feelings with the same intensity but I did what I could.” As for Hannah Arendt, “that superior Krautess,” well, “she was monumentally vain, and a rigid ashkente [Yiddish for ballbuster, Professor Taylor informs us]. Much of her strength went into obstinacy, and she was the compleat intellectual—i.e. she went always and as rapidly as possible for the great synthesis and her human understanding, painfully limited, could not support the might of historical analysis, unacknowledged prejudices, frustrations, her German and European aspirations, etc. She could often think clearly, but to think simply was altogether beyond her, and her imaginative faculty was stunted.”
He refers to Christopher Hitchens as one of those “Fourth-Estate playboys, thriving on agitation,” and one of “these Nation-
type gnomes that . . . drink, drug, lie, cheat, chase, seduce, gossip, libel, borrow money, never pay child support, etc. They’re the bohemians who made Marx foam with rage in The Eighteenth Brumaire.” Of Gore Vidal he writes: “He has a score to settle with the usa. Anywhere else, he might have been both a homosexual and a patrician. Here he had to mix with rough trade and also with Negroes and Jews; democracy made it impossible to be gentleman invert and wit. Also the very source of his grief has made him rich and famous.” He wrote a recommendation for a Guggenheim grant for James Baldwin early in his career, yet in one of his letters remarks on his laziness and sponging. Later he calls Baldwin’s novel Another Country “abominable,” and he once told me that “Jimmy’s problem is that he wants to be Martin Luther Queen.” He writes to Cynthia Ozick that, in one of her essays, she has been too kind to George Steiner, “who is, of all pains in the ass, the most unbearable because of his high polish and his snobbery.” In 1972, he blackballed William Phillips for membership in the Century Club because, as he wrote to the admissions committee, “he betrayed, and intellectually and artistically bankrupted, the magazine [Partisan Review],” turning it over to “the hysterical, shallow and ignorant academic ‘counter-culture.’”
Bellow consistently praises John Cheever, to whom he suggested their affinities but above all their common membership in the club of artists. Unlike Henry James, who could never lie about art, one gets the sense when Bellow is writing to fellow authors that, for the most part, he goes easy on them; he praises Cheever’s Falconer well beyond its actual quality. He tells Bernard Malamud that he is “the real thing,” but then to others harshly criticizes his novel A New Life and emphasizes his limitations. After Malamud’s death he writes to Philip Roth that “he did make something of the crumbs and gritty bits of impoverished Jewish lives. Then he suffered from not being able to do more.” Let pass that in The Fixer, a great Russian novel written by an American Jew, Malamud wrote a better novel than Bellow ever came close to writing.
Of the quality of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s fiction—he had helped put Singer on the literary screen by doing a splendid translation, published in Partisan Review, of Singer’s great story “Gimpel the Fool”—Bellow never speaks, but more than once notes that Singer does not think much of him, though he does not say why, nor does Professor Taylor fill in this blank for us. Part of the reason may have been that Singer was a pure storyteller, and, as such, less than likely to be enamored of Bellow’s unplotted, maundering fictions. Bellow has no use for the “representatives of the affluent revolution”: Allen Ginsberg, Nadine Gordimer, Grace Paley, E. L. Doctorow. He told me that Norman Mailer was little more than a clichémeister, and claimed that, during the Vietnam War years, he was defeating Mailer and Robert Lowell in the literary PR derby by keeping his own counsel. His views on Nabokov are mixed, and at one point, he writes that he would like to rewrite Lolita from the young girl’s point of view, which is an amusing notion.
But not nearly so amusing as would be a novel about Saul Bellow written in collaboration by his first four wives. He married five times, and had four children, one with each but his fourth wife. I have heard it said that it is a mistake to acquire a third cat, for if one has three, then why not five or six? Perhaps the same rule applies to marriage. One of the not so leitmotifs of these letters is the revolving-door wife game. Anita, Sondra, Susan, Alexandra, Janis—in and out the room the women come and go, and they ain’t talking of Michaelangelo, but of alimony, child support, betrayal, rage. The most shocking news on the domestic front comes near the end of the Letters, when, at the age of eighty-four, after complaining about the continuing pain in his legs, the effects of toxic poisoning on his nervous system, the installation of a heart defibrillator, shortness of breath, failures of memory, loss of balance, and an inability to walk more than a block, he announces that he and his forty-four-years-younger-than-he wife are to have a baby. Don’t, as the Jews say, ask.
Saul Bellow was a notorious heterosexual. By this I don’t mean that he was an extraordinary sexual athlete, for of course I can have no knowledge of that, though in James Atlas’s biography the poet Sandra Hochman, who kitchen-tested him, is quoted as saying that “he was the put-it-in-and-take-it-out type . . . [and] didn’t know a clitoris from a kneecap.” No, he was a notorious heterosexual in the sense that he was almost continuously flirtatious. I remember riding in a bus with him in Chicago, talking about something fairly serious, and, when an attractive woman boarded the bus, he was gone, conversation over. My wife, who was a photography editor at Encylopaedia Britannica, once called him for a photograph for the Britannica Yearbook, and recalls his coming on to her over the phone. He notes in a letter of 1998 that, apropos of Bill Clinton’s White House dalliance, political power can have a strong aphrodisiacal effect; to which one might add his own literary fame—with a certain kind of woman—had much the same effect.
Why did a man of such habits also acquire the far more serious, not to say expensive, habit of marriage? Time and again he placed his head, three-quarters profile, a soft Borsolino hat atop it worn at rakish angle, in the domestic lion’s mouth. One might have thought the sinews of his neck would have been cut clean through, or at least the wounds from the teeth marks would have made him more cautious. But after each divorce, with its emotional bruises and financial penalties, Bellow, like a man hit by a bus, got up, shook himself off, and got back on the curb, where he awaited the next bus, the Heartbreak Avenue Express.
Why the need for so many marriages is a secret Saul Bellow has taken with him. Perhaps he longed for domestic stability. Perhaps he thought a wife could give him the uncritical adoration and emotional support he craved. Perhaps he feared falling into the bohemian life, the life of the Village, that took its toll on so many of his contemporaries, not least on his high-school friend Isaac Rosenfeld. Perhaps, contra Picasso and Balanchine, he did not need new wives for inspiration but ex-wives to attack in new novels. At one point, at the age of sixty-five, he writes to a man named Hymen Slate in Chicago, in one of the few ill-made sentences in all his letters, that, once he had determined to devote himself entirely to his writing, his only other drive, the sexual one, dropped away, and: “My erotic life was seriously affected, too, in that I diverted myself with a kind of executive indiscriminateness—without a proper interest in women.”
“A proper interest in women”—it is far from clear that Bellow ever had that. One is unlikely to find it in his fiction. He created no memorable female characters. Neither, one needs to add here, have Philip Roth or John Updike or Norman Mailer, whose female characters exist chiefly to service their author’s sex fantasies. The great novelists—Balzac, Tolstoy, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Marguerite Yourcenar—were androgynous in their powers of creation. Recent male American novelists almost universally fail this test.
Bellow’s marriage chronicles might be mildly amusing but for the fact that children were always placed between him and his angry wives. One of the things his letters do reveal is that Bellow made serious efforts to remain a decent father, though the job couldn’t have been made easier by the rage in which he left ex-wives. Bellow’s distress at his failure at fatherhood feels real enough, and supplies some of the few genuinely poignant elements in these letters. “I am, with all my faults, a responsible papa,” he declared. When his youngest son, Daniel, is to marry at the age of thrity-two, Bellow writes to Sophie Wilkins that, despite his extreme fatigue, he attended the wedding: “I didn’t want the kid accusing me of disappearing on all important occasions.” One’s heart goes out to these children, at the same time that one realizes that one of the unacknowledged blessings in life is not to have a famous father.
His problem with his children was yet another item, a substantial one, on the long bill of complaint that sometimes seems to have comprised much of Saul Bellow’s life. He compliments Robert Penn Warren on his dealing with his troubles in a manly way, and remarks that “as the youngest child I learned to make the most of mine.” The artist as victim might serve as the rubric for many of these letters, or even as subtitle to the entire collection, for a large quantity of his letters are given over to self-absorption, self-pity, and complaint. “But the world has been too much with me,” Bellow writes at one point. True, he brings a high style and polish to his complaining—he is the George Steiner of complaint—but complaint it remains.
What makes all this complaint seems so incommensurate is that Bellow was really a very lucky man; and such misfortune as he encountered he brought on himself with what he at one point terms “my numerous and preposterous marriages.” He was fortunate in that the world lined up to offer him all its rewards and prizes—Nobels, Pulitzers, National Book Awards, medals from PEN, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, honorary degrees, and the rest of it—without his ever having written an entirely successful novel.
This last judgment is quite as much Bellow’s as mine. While always touchy about any criticism of his novels—he charged John Updike and Hugh Kenner’s criticism of his fiction up to anti-Semitism—in his letters Bellow stakes out no grand claims for his books. He is appealing, in fact, in coming across as someone still learning his craft right up to the end. As late as 1994, he writes to an old college classmate: “Life has by now prepared me to write an essay called ‘How Not to Write a Novel.’” All he lays claim to is the earnestness of his struggle and the seriousness of his intentions. His elevated intentions were never in doubt. But did he fulfill them?
Did Saul Bellow leave any masterpieces? Is there any one book on which his reputation ought to stand? Or is it the collectivity of his fiction, his oeuvre, on which he should be judged? Some people will prefer one book over another: If one loathes all that happened in the 1960s, Mr. Sammler’s Planet is probably your favorite Bellow novel. (Bellow called the book “an essay,” but it needs to be said that he took politically courageous positions in the so-called culture wars, and this novel is one of the best-aimed missiles fired during its duration.) For those whose taste run to comic irony, Herzog figures to be their book. Others might prefer one of the novellas; Seize the Day would probably be the top candidate here. (In a freshman class I taught many years ago at Northwestern, a student said that he liked Seize the Day well enough, but frankly didn’t understand why its hero, Tommy Wilhelm, just didn’t get a job, thus tendering a criticism I have never been able to answer.) But there will be nothing like a consensus, and I think I know why.
The reason is that Bellow could not construct persuasive plots. “My stories aren’t very successful,” he wrote to Pascal Covici, his editor at Viking. “I suppose I lack a sense of form.” For all his rich gifts, his powers of invention were limited. He wrote romans à clef, with the keys not all that hard to find to unlock and reveal the people on whom his characters were based. Having to draw so strictly on life often got him into difficulty, sometimes as a writer, inhibiting his imagination by locking him into fact, and sometimes with readers, some of whom he saddened by these methods.
In 1974 my friend Hilton Kramer was in Chicago to review a show at the Art Institute. I arranged a dinner for Hilton, Saul, and me at the Whitehall, a dining club of which I was then a member. The dinner, I thought, went well—excellent food, a flow of good talk, lots of laughter. Only later, when I read the published version of Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow’s novel about the poet Delmore Schwartz, did I realize that Saul got rather more out of it than Hilton or I.
In the novel, Hilton is a character named Magnasco—no first name is given—whom Von Humboldt Fleisher, the Delmore Schwartz character, in his paranoia, believes is having a love affair with his wife. (This paranoiac episode happened, if you’ll pardon the expression, in real life.) When Humboldt/Delmore turns up at Magnasco/Hilton’s hotel—called the Earle but in fact the Chelsea—certain in his paranoia that his wife is with Magnasco/Hilton, the latter calls the deskman who in turn calls the police. Later Magnasco/Hilton hires a detective, which eventually results in Humboldt/Schwartz being sent off the looney bin at Bellevue.
The sin here, in a bohemian culture, is calling the police on a poet, no matter how mad he might be. The Bellow character, Charley Citrine, had earlier advised Magnasco to “leave town for awhile.” But Magnasco/Hilton had, Citrine reports, “long prepared for his career,” and was about to get a tryout as a reviewer for the New York Herald-Tribune, so, rather than put off his plans, he calls the cops. “When I met Magnasco,” Bellow has his narrator Citrine write, “he proved to be overweight, round-faced, young in calendar years only, steady, unflappable, born to make progress in cultural New York.” In other words, Hilton is portrayed as another heartless hustler on the make, ready to do anything to stoke his career.
Hilton was, naturally enough, hurt by this portrayal, especially since it was a lie. He had called Bellow when Delmore Schwartz threatened him; in fact, at one point Schwartz told Hilton he was in the lobby of the Chelsea awaiting him and that he had a gun; and it was Bellow, thirteen years older than Hilton, who told him not to be a fool but to call the police straightaway. But there was little Hilton could do about Bellow’s false account—as bad as calling the police on a poet is suing a novelist—which made him look so bad. The only people who would know that the Magnasco character was supposed to be him were a small handful of intellectuals in and around New York. Still, it was a mean act: another instance of Bellow doing someone in, first because of the needs of his wobbly plot, and, second, because, in denying the truth of the matter, he made himself look good.
Bellow was always playing with fire in drawing withering portraits of friends, acquaintances, ex-friends, and especially ex-wives. In one of his letters, he reports a nightmare in which one of the people he contemned under thin fictional cover in Herzog is suing him. But with his final novel, Ravelstein, the acetylene torch truly seared the back of his pants. “I’ve never written anything like Ravelstein before,” Bellow wrote to Martin Amis, “and the mixture of fact and fiction has gotten out of hand.” In the less than clear sentences that follow, he writes that “Allan [Bloom, the University of Chicago teacher who is the undisguised model for the character Ravelstein] had enemies who were preparing to reveal that he had died of AIDS. At this point I lost my head . . .” Professor Taylor ought to have stepped in here with a lengthy footnote to recount, and if possible clarify, the import of what Bellow is saying, but, with his hands-off editorial policy, he doesn’t.
What was at issue is the exact cause of Allan Bloom’s death, which, so far as I know, has yet to be made finally clear. In Ravelstein, Bellow kills him off with aids. Bloom’s friends all insist that the effects of the disorder of the nerves called Guillain-Barré led to Bloom’s death by heart and liver failure. Werner Dannhauser, Allan Bloom’s closest friend, asked Bellow to lessen the emphasis on Bloom/Ravelstein’s private life, which would, one gathers, have meant playing down his homosexuality and expunging his death by AIDS. Bellow writes to Dannhauser that he tried to do so, but it didn’t work. By “it didn’t work,” one assumes Bellow meant that his plot required that Allan Bloom die of AIDS.
Bellow did, apparently, tone things down but not decisively. Then, later, after the book was out in the world, he told a reporter from The New York Times: “For a long time I thought I knew what Allan died of, and then I discovered other things that didn’t jibe with that, so I really can’t say now. I don’t know that he died of AIDS really.” So there it stands, a mess, created by a man willing to sabotage a putatively dear friend to contrive what he thought an appropriate ending for a novel.
Despite all the prizes and critical praise, one comes up against the possibility that Saul Bellow wasn’t truly a novelist. He could do extraordinary, even marvelous, things: draw a wondrous cityscape; describe a face at the MRI level of detail; capture the comedy in self-presentations; soar in great lyrical, and even more in intellectual and metaphysical, flights. The problem was that he couldn’t quite seem to land the plane. His endings never quite fit, which is to say, work. He couldn’t do the first, essential thing that novelists with vastly less talent than he know in their bones how to do, which is to construct convincing plots.
Highly intelligent people without an interest in the lives of intellectuals and artists—and intellectuals and artists were always his main subjects—can’t read Saul Bellow, even though these artists and intellectuals puff away, Nestor-like, on the meaning of the universe, the dissolution of the soul, the death of art, and other such elevated topics. (Bellow once told me that when he published a novel “50,000 people buy it in hardcover, 5,000 read it, and 500 care.”) In the end, of course, his subject was almost always himself: “By now,” he wrote to Cynthia Ozick in 1987, “I have only the cranky idiom of my books—the letters-in-general of an occult personality, a desperately odd somebody who has, as a last resort, invented a technique of self-representation.” Perhaps he wasn’t a novelist at all but a high-octane riffer, a philosophical schmoozer, an unsurpassed intellectual kibbitzer, one of the great monologists of the age. But he was no storyteller. Which explains why one doesn’t have much taste for rereading him and why, there is good reason to believe, future generations are likely to have even less taste for reading him in the first place.
Saul Bellow: Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor; Viking, 608 pages, $35.