5:54pm

Tue March 15, 2011
You Must Read This

Saul Bellow's Guide To Good, Old-Fashioned 'Letters'

Really. You must read this. If you're a lover of prose, someone who knows how to savor the taste of a scrumptious sentence, then you'll find morsels aplenty to set your eyes rolling to the back of your head in indecent pleasure.

These 700 letters to friends and enemies, to multiple wives, ex-wives, and lovers, to the famous and to those made infamous by Bellow's own treatment of them in his novels, are full to the brim with the insights of a man who was always taking in the world with abundance, only to give it out again in wonderful words.

So, for example, in a letter to Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind and Bellow's colleague at the University of Chicago, (also, posthumously, the eponymous subject of Bellow's last novel, Ravelstein), Bellow describes a trip to Dominick's to buy salad oil:

Now I dragged myself over to the east side of Broadway, and a woman of ninety advanced toward me on a four-pronged cane — tiny, a construction worker's yellow hard hat pulled over her forehead ... and then some people affably talking to themselves, and then a nice police dog chained to a parking meter, wearing a cast on his broken leg and barking. He may have been asking to see the humanity in relation to which he was supposed to be a dog. We were at one in this. My tired intelligence found no trace of the hierarchy.

Here are the layered concoctions for which Bellow was famous, his flair for mixing things like salad oil and moral philosophy. He sets off for Dominick's and gains purchase on the human condition.

And also if you're a writer — or someone who aspires to be a writer — then you must read these letters, arcing from about the age of 17 to about a year shy of his death at the age of 89, so that you might see what goes into such a being's being.

Be instructed on a writer's humility: "I tend to think of a book just completed as something that has prepared me to do better next time." Be instructed on a writer's unapologetic audacity: "I know how to transform common matter," he lashes back at one of his old friends, who is in a snit because Bellow has appropriated an incident from that man's life for use in Humboldt's Gift. "What you fear as the risk of friendship, namely that I may take from the wonderful hoard, is really the risk of friendship because I have the power to lift a tuft of wool from a bush and make something of it."

And above all, if you are a student of human nature, if you are dismayed and disgusted and delighted by the infinite modifications on the human theme, then read the letters of a man who welcomed the newborn daughter of the poet John Berryman with these words: "This is to greet and bless Sarah Berryman on her arrival in this gorgeous wicked world which has puzzled and delighted my poor soul for 56 years." Such capacities for puzzlement and delight made for a wonder of a man, and they make for a wonder of a book.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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