Saul Bellow

Art and meaning. Big topic, and one that just keeps morphing and moving through our relationship with art making in whatever form that takes. I’ve written on that complex topic a lot here, if only peripherally given its depth, but my interest in it is tireless. Leon Wieseltier’s New York Times review of Saul Bellow’s newly published volume of letters touches on it too as well as other salient Bellow insights into life, living and consciousness.

Here are a few passages that jumped out at me:

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As with his novels, the reading of his letters leaves one amazed by how much Bellow saw. He was always glancing and glimpsing. In a letter to a former student, in 1955, he cautioned her about “American books, including my own” that “pant so after meaning. They are earnestly moral, didactic; they build them ever more stately mansions, and they exhort and plead and refine.” He instructed her, instead, that “a work of art should rest on perception.” In 1957, criticizing a story that Philip Roth had sent him, he scolded the young writer that “I have a thing about Ideas in stories.” And Bellow was just as vigilant about the arrogance of form. To Alfred Kazin, in 1950, he complained about the prevalence of the notion that “to write a story is to manipulate symbols,” and warned against “what happens when literature itself becomes the basis for literature and classics become crushers.” About “The Adventures of Augie March,” he wrote to Bernard Malamud that “a novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay…Bellow’s cause was actuality, the whole mess of it. His ideal was wakefulness.

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He declares, almost creedally, that “the man we bring forth has no richness compared with the man who really exists, thickened, fed and fattened by all the facts about him, all of his history.”

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This is the sort of drollery that gives evidence of an uncommonly large internal space. “The 19th century drove writers into attics,” he tells Alice Adams. “The 20th shuts them in nutshells. The only remedy is to declare yourself king, or queen, of infinite space.”

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He informs Barfield that “lately I have become aware, not of illumination itself, but of a kind of illuminated fringe — a peripheral glimpse of a different state of things.”

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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.

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“A language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us,” and in that palace Bellow was sovereign.

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He never loses his constancy of purpose…“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.”

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