Bellow on Auden, Austrians, Bernhard, Cons, and Cold-Owl Trips
Saul Bellow was an old-fashioned man of letters. Part of what that means is that he traded a lot of letters with other people and seemed to have literary aspirations for his letters. I read a review of his newly collected letters which said that since people don’t write letters anymore, this was probably the last rich collection of letters we’d be seeing from a literary man. I doubt this is true, considering the generation after him figures prominently in his letters. I doubt Philip Roth will allow the posthumous publication of his letters, but I bet his letters will rival Bellow’s letters, some of which are to Roth. I also know that writers even from my own generation are still trading letters with the likes of, say, Don DeLillo. And I’ve seen the treasure trove of Raymond Carver’s correspondence in the Charvat collection at the Ohio State University, where I had to sign a form saying I wouldn’t tell you what was in them, but, listen hot-shit literary biographers interested in Carver’s era: There is stuff in there that will make your hair stand on end. There was a fair bit of nastiness flying about our nation’s postal thoroughfares in Carver days.
But I digress. Bellow’s letters are worth your time. They’re occasionally cranky. He was a political bird, to be sure, and it served his writing career and the writing career of others he helped. This isn’t the best stuff. The best stuff comes in late-life letters to true pals about matters that aren’t literary. Even in his eighties, the guy had a tremendous psychological acuity, and he always had the knack for special language (he tells a correspondent that he is awaiting a letter “in which you would be a little more recognizable than the Oscar of ‘cons’ and cold-owl trips to see a girl who fucks.”)
We recently Bernhard-obsessed types (surely I’m not the only one) will be interested in this:
As for Thomas Bernhard, he is a very strange bird indeed. I read him with respect and even admiration but he doesn’t reach my warmer feelings. What he does reach is my own bottomless hatred of the Nazis, especially the Austrian ones. He would have you think that virtually all Austrians were and remain Nazis. I see no reason to disagree. When I read Karl’s lovely poem about Auden’s grave I wondered why Auden should have wished to pass his last years [at Kirchstetten] in the society of such creeps. I seem to recall that he even addressed affectionate lines to some of them.