Fittingly, the story of how novelist Benjamin Taylor became the editor of the newly published collection of Saul Bellow’s letters begins with a letter. Not a letter between Bellow and Taylor, to be sure — they never knew each other, in fact — but a letter between Taylor and Philip Roth.
About 15 years ago, Taylor, whose first novel, “Tales Out of School,” had recently been published, sent Roth a letter. Taylor wrote partly to express his admiration, partly to talk shop, and partly to get advice; the typical stuff an aspiring writer might address with an established giant.
But a friendship grew as they continued to exchange letters. So in 2006, when Janis Bellow, Saul’s fifth wife, began asking around for who might make a good editor for the astonishing collection of letters left by her late husband, who died the year before, at 89, Roth suggested Taylor.
“Our conversations had always been about American and European literature,” Taylor, 58, said about Roth, in an interview over lunch last week. “But we always gravitated toward Bellow.”
Taylor notes that Bellow was not a formative influence on his own writing, though his latest novel, “The Book of Getting Even” (2008) — about a rabbi’s homosexual son who becomes a college professor — has plenty of Bellow in it.
He soon says that he began to read Bellow more closely when he started to teach creative writing. Soon he discovered the vast reservoir of intellectual vigor, wry humor and human empathy that landed Bellow the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
Bellow’s fiction has been a staple on Taylor’s syllabi for years now, in the courses he teaches at The New School and Columbia University. But he may have found new course material in Bellow’s letters, 708 of which make up the door-stopper of a book, “Saul Bellow: Letters.” Nearly all of them are stylistic gems.
“You would think that these letters were done over, written in drafts,” said Taylor. “Absolutely not. … [Bellow] had something like the equivalent of perfect pitch — there were no cross-outs.”
Few topics seemed to escape Bellow’s view: communal Jewish politics, Israel, and anti-Semitism in America’s literary life all get mentioned. Then there are the acid missives launched at former wives and friends and unkind critics, in addition to the ones about the tricky business of managing celebrity.
“I thought to do some good by giving an interview to People [magazine],” Bellow writes to Roth in 1984; then adds, “which was exceedingly foolish of me. … the Good Intentions Paving Company had [expletive deleted] up again.”
He then offers a short comparison between Roth’s literary intentions and his own. “The briefest description of the differences would be that you seem to have accepted the Freudian explanation: A writer is motivated by his desire for fame, money and sexual opportunities. Whereas I have never taken this trinity of motives seriously. But this is an explanatory note, and I don’t intend to make a rabbinic occasion of it.”
While you cannot go a few pages without seeing a Yiddish phrase or the gossamer of a Jewish joke, some reviewers have already noted the paucity of substantive Jewish material.
Taylor said that the other 60 percent of the letters, those he left out of the book, would not change that. And yet the few letters that do address Jewish issues seem profoundly important. Taylor mentioned a letter written to Cynthia Ozick in 1987, which gives a pained lament on his own insularity — and American Jewry’s as a whole — during the Holocaust years.
“This is the most important letter and I think it’s something that’s going to be quoted from now on,” Taylor said. “I think what [Bellow] expressed in that letter was wide-felt: the numbers were too big to grasp…Jews in 1945 were numb.”
Part of the letter reads as follows: “I can’t say how our responsibility can be assessed. We (I speak of Jews now and not merely of writers) should have reckoned more fully, more deeply with [the Holocaust]. Nobody in America seriously and only a few Jews elsewhere (like Primo Levi) were able to comprehend it all. The Jews as a people reacted justly to it. So we have Israel, but in the matter of higher comprehension—well, the mental life of the century having been disfigured by the same forces of deformity that produced the Final Solution, there were no minds fit to comprehend.”
It is a shocking confession to make, particularly for an author who wrote at least a few deeply searching books on the Holocaust. “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” his National Book Award-winning novel from 1971, centered on a Holocaust survivor who had became a professor in New York.
And later stories confronted American Jewry’s complex relationship to its East European relatives head on. “The Bellarosa Connection” (1989), perhaps the most lucid one, is a bitterly revealing novella about a wealthy Broadway producer who secretly helps Jews escape to the United States. After the war, however, this Jewish American Schindler makes sure no one finds out what he did. He won’t even meet those he saved.
“If you want my basic view, here it is,” says Sorella Fonstein, the fictional wife of a survivor saved by the producer. “The Jews could survive everything that Europe threw at them. I mean the lucky remnant. But now comes the next test — America. Can they hold their ground, or will the U.S.A. be too much for them?”
Like his postwar cohorts Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, the threat of assimilation was a consistent theme in Bellow’s novels. But the letters peel away the mask his fiction provided, revealing his more personal views. Readers find a man who identified deeply with fellow Jews, but felt entirely removed from mainstream Jewish opinion.
As he writes to childhood friend Nathan Gould in 1982, “A word on Jewish Life: I do my best, but I seldom write anything about Jewish Life that pleases Jewish Opinion. First thing I know there’s a brawl, and I come out of it with a shiner.”
Taylor attributes Bellow’s askance view of Jewish communal politics in part to his education. Though he briefly attended a yeshiva in Montreal, which his family left when he was 8, he went to public school in Chicago, and Northwestern for college. There he studied anthropology, even briefly entering Wisconsin’s Ph.D. program before abandoning it to write.
But Taylor said anthropology gave Bellow what a strictly Jewish education, or even a traditional professional degree could not: the chance to study the whole of the human experience, unfiltered by parochial Jewish interests. “The social sciences introduced Bellow to a universalism that was not hemmed in by the particularism of Jewish law,” Taylor said.
Bellow hints at this in a letter to another childhood friend, written when he was 22 and studying at Wisconsin. Bellow groans at his father’s insistence that he go to law school, or medical school, or perhaps study accounting.
“My father and probably all fathers like him have an extremely naïve idea of education,” Bellow writes. “They think it is something formal, apart from actual living, and that it should give one an air of highbrow eminence coupled with material substance (money). They do not expect it to have an effect on the moral life, or the intellectual life, and I doubt whether they have ever heard of an esthetic life.”
But Bellow checks himself, adding an emollient to this building rage: “They are good folk, when they are not neurotic, and what after all can we expect?”
The letters also show that Bellow retained a deep connection to Jews throughout his life. This is perhaps most personally expressed through his abiding love for Israel, even though he occasionally decries its policies. “He had a strong emotional attachment to Israel,” Taylor said, “and not just to the people, but to the land itself.”
Bellow covered the Six-Day War for Newsday in 1967, became close friends with the Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, and exchanged letters with Israeli writers like A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz. He even wrote a mostly forgotten nonfiction book on his impressions of Israel, “To Jerusalem and Back” (1975), first serialized in The New Yorker.
But Taylor includes a letter showing Bellow’s frustration with Menachem Begin, Israel’s first conservative prime minister. The letter was written in 1978 to Leon Wieseltier, later the literary editor of The New Republic, who had written an open letter signed by prominent writers and intellectuals that admonished Begin for being slow to accept Arab overtures for peace.
“He overstates everything,” Bellow says of Begin, “is all emphasis, is pertinacious, hollering — a real Jabotinskyite, and he’s going to bring us to a dangerous pitch of fanaticism. It’s isn’t so much that he’s wrong on all the issues,” Bellow adds, “he’s not; but he doesn’t know how to lead the discussion.”
Taylor said that what struck him most about the Jewish content in Bellow’s letters was how much more conscious Bellow became of Jewish questions as he aged. He not only thought more about God, but also about Jewish issues generally — how to comprehend the Holocaust, for instance, and how to create a meaningful Jewish identity in America, where one’s cultural identity seemed more a matter of style than substance.
“His sense of his Jewish identity did not get smaller and smaller as he got older, it got larger and larger,” Taylor said, adding, “I think Bellow had more language in him than any other writer.”
Benjamin Taylor will discuss “Saul Bellow: Letters” on Sunday, Dec. 5, 11 a.m. at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave. (212) 415-5500. $34; $10 for people age 35 and under.