At first the letters are ordinary, even dull. Some sound merely dutiful, instead of passionately wrought and inspired. Others are a bit pretentious. They could've been written, you think, by anybody.
Gradually, though, it becomes gloriously clear that they were written by Somebody: In fact, by the grandest name in Chicago literature and points beyond. And in much the same way that a setting sun takes its good sweet time to go about its business — spreading a purple-red radiance just before it disappears — the letters of Saul Bellow acquire a breathtaking beauty and shattering gravity. Arranged chronologically, the 708 missives in "Saul Bellow: Letters" (Viking), which will be published early next month, build steadily to a pitch of wisdom and generosity that adds a new dimension to the achievements of one of Chicago's most celebrated writers.
University of Chicago.
But that was the public man. What about the private one? For that, we turn to the letters, which Benjamin Taylor has chosen and placed in a volume that reads like a first-rate novel. The plot is Bellow's emotionally complicated and event-strewn life, and the style, of course, is Bellow's own prose, musical and muscular, heavy on the vernacular, light on the formalities, both instructive and fun.
The early letters, the ones from the 1930s and '40s, tend to be self-conscious ("It is dark now and the lonely wind is making the trees softly whisper and rustle") and then awkwardly careerist. Bellow is trying to find his feet as a writer, and he's chasing jobs and fellowships and book contracts and mentors.
Yet as the decades melt and as Bellow's fame and influence grow, the letters shift and change. They shine with a kind of tender, rueful, hard-won grace, an earnest purity. And his affection for Chicago — the city he left late in his life — looms large. We understand why he pulled up stakes for Boston: "One of the things that bugged me, grieved me, about living in Hyde Park was to pass the houses where my late friends once lived. The daily melancholy of passing these places was among the things that drove me East."
In one of his last letters, Bellow wrote, "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 to laugh at myself no less than at others."
Feisty, smart, but most of all thrillingly intimate, these letters ripen and mature as they go along, just as some people do. Sunrises are pretty, but sunsets — with their muted colors, with their brave acknowledgment of the coming dark — define the day.