January 19th, 2011 / 1:08 am

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.


  1. Kyle Minor

      Maybe this will trip some people up, but I think that one possible contemporary component of being a man or woman of letters might be posting or commenting intelligently on literary websites such as HTMLGiant, Big Other, Montevidayo, or The Millions. We write our letters publicly, some of them, and others privately, via email. These sites also provide opportunities to do other man/woman of letterish things, such as criticism pieces, miscellanies, brief notes on reading, etc. The outcry about the end of this and that might not take into account the way there are new and exciting versions of this and that all over the place. This would probably piss off Saul Bellow, but I’m enjoying his letters on an e-reader.

  2. Todd Grimson

      Saul Bellow wrote me an interesting letter once. This came about because I was then friends with George Sarant, only son of Isaac Rosenfeld. George and I both worked nights in the Emergency Room at Emanuel Hospital. He kept pushing me to write Bellow, but I was too proud. Finally I gave in.

  3. Jonathan

      I have a hard time with Bellow. Not sure I have the energy to expand on this hard time here, other than to say that I don’t think I would have expected him to appreciate Bernhard’s work. Seems like he was in favor of being alive.

  4. Kyle Minor


      I’m interested in this. Would you email me? kyle (at) kyleminor.com

  5. TFDorholt

      Hey Kyle, thanks for this post. I recently finished these letters as well and, being a relatively devoted Bellow fan–devoted to Augie, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift, and Dean’s December the most–I truly enjoyed the intense direction and unedited gusto of his epistolary sentiments. With the prose he always held back a little, at least held back enough so that the author’s viewpoint would not interrupt the stable character viewpoints; of course, there is a concentration on humanity, on “warm feelings” in many of the character’s that emulates his own stance on things such as morality and even art and, within the letters too, there is a strive for guts, for answers and argument.

      I’m really curious about one current idea in accordance with letter writing. You touch on how commenting on sites is letterish and even e-mails are letterish, if one can separate their expedience from their capability to grow within an endless space. I wonder, though, if the lack of epistolary relationships is less about access to more expedient forms of contact than it is an act of “not wanting to give one’s self and/or writing so freely away.” I only mention this because I’ve kept up epistolary relationships with a few people and we’ve discussed this, that the actions within letter writing provides an intimate venture and if you pen the thing by hand and send it away you never know what remains, or have no copy of what remains. I’m sure that a vast amount of people can admit to the feeling of writing something relatively intimate, even if just to a friend and not a “lover, per se, and knowing that no other copy remains. Just a thought, though I think that this is also the most thrilling aspect of a handwritten letter, that you have to give it away, it shaves off the typical selfishness involved in writing by writing not only to but also for another person. For Bellow these letters were often very direct and their intentions wore the weight of the words without the chapped handle of editing, they moved well because there was an absence of an author trying to keep their particularities within a character. Sometimes nasty, they’re quite real.

  6. herocious

      Bernhard didn’t reach his warmer feelings.

  7. deadgod

      My small acquaintance with Austrians suggests that many Austrians share Bernhard’s grievous/enraged hate-hate relationship with “Austria”. Of course, most internationalists want to be, or to be able to be, the first rationally to criticize their own country, but most want also to rush in with rational, non-knee-jerk, defense of their country. I’ve noticed, in error?, that the latter is a lot less true of Austrians than it is of other nationalities. ??

  8. Sean

      Just read my first Bernhard because of this stupid fucking site. He scares me. I thank you all.

  9. Kyle Minor

      Which one did you read?