I've been working on a few things lately—a couple of short-fiction pieces, some things for here, and of course the bill-paying gig. I'm also travelling again next week, this time to Ohio to visit family and store up energies before the next sortie in preparation for the fall semester. More to come soon, in other words. In the meantime, though, a little something.
I've been reading a lot of Saul Bellow this summer, with one of his novels in one hand and a copy of last year's magnificent edition of his letters in the other, dipping in and out of the latter as I plough through the former. Bellow's correspondence is charming and often itself quite literary, and as usual with this sort of thing, in addition to enchanting notes to his various ex-wives and business exchanges of literary-historical interest, there are loads of wonderful letters to other writers, and these I've found spellbinding.
I have a few old-fashioned qualities—ones that were more noteworthy when I was younger, since I think I'm growing into them as I get older. The zest for literature is one of these, probably the main one. I still read books in their original dead-tree editions, for example, and don't see that changing soon; I'd sooner read kindling than be Kindle-ing, if you like. I often think I'd do fairly well if I had to go back to pre-computerized ways of doing things. But in one way I'm very much a child of the modern world: nobody would ever hear from me if it weren't for electronic means of communication. I've tried with likeminded friends a few times over the years to keep up the habit of writing actual letters—not just writing on paper, but striving for some depth and intrinsic merit. It never takes. This is partly because the postal system isn't what it used to be (in late-19th-century England, for example, you could dispatch letters to your friends first thing in the morning to invite them to afternoon tea, and they'd all be on your doorstep at 3:00; mail someone a letter now and it might not actually arrive until years after your death, like the yellowed missive Doc sent Marty from 1885 in Back to the Future II). But I reluctantly admit that laziness and convenience are key factors too, even for those of us who are otherwise committed to spending all their time writing.
Anyway, as both a print-culture nerd and a woefully unsuccessful letter writer, I'm luxuriating in Bellow's correspondence with other American-lit titans (a couple of samples below—and, as I hope folks with good examples at hand will point out, these are not even especially remarkable examples of writers' letters, but rather just a few that have made me smile along the way), and lamenting that here as everywhere else, modernity has brought about the death of an old art. Don't hold your breath for a beautiful hardcover edition of the message history from Jonathan Lethem's Blackberry; I'm sure it isn't coming. You couldn't possibly get excited about reading someone's lols and oks and gtfos; it's a shame, too, that none of the participants in a BBM conversation can get as excited about any one of their messages as one used to feel on the way back from the mailbox carrying a long-anticipated letter from a good friend.
Anyway, I'll send you all postcards from Ohio. You should receive them sometime before your grandchildren finish college.
From Saul Bellow: Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor and published by Viking:
Will I read your book? Would I accept a free trip to Xanadu with Helen of Troy as my valet? I am longing to read the galleys. Since I have to go to New York this weekend, and also to Princeton to see my son Adam playing Antonio, the heavy in The Tempest, I shall get Harriet Wasserman at Russell and Volkening to obtain a set of galleys for me from Knopf. I would like to see you too, but I don't know when I will be free from this mixture of glory and horror [Bellow's Nobel Prize in Literature]. But I will write to you pronto about the book, which I'm sure to read with the greatest pleasure.
To Bernard Malamud, May 10, 1959.
I shy away from all writers' organizations. The PEN is about my limit, and I have doubts about that. No doubt the [Authors] League is fine, but the publisher and the agent aren't the enemy. The enemy (and I'm not horribly hostile towards them, either) is a hundred sixty million people who read nothing. What's the League going to do about them, about Orville Prescott, about TV and Hollywood? It may increase my income by six hundred per annum. I don't care about increasing my income by six hundred per annum. It isn't worth joining an organization for. [...]
To Philip Roth, July 20, 1993. Roth had recently suffered both illness and separation from wife Claire Bloom; Bellow wrote the following:
Curious how futile good intentions feel in a case like this. The whole of one's personal morality is on the line—a tug-of-war in which I am outweighed a million to one by the imponderables. If you were to ask I'd come down to see you, though I've never seen myself as a bearer of remedies. I can't think of a single cure I ever worked. My idea of a mitzvah was to tell you a joke, which was like offering to install a Ferris wheel in your basement. Certainly not a useful idea.
This may seem to be a greeting from the horizon but I'm really not all that far. I feel anything but distant.