Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Saying what counts: Saul Bellow writes to John Cheever

All sorts of pleasant and intelligent people read the books and write thoughtful letters about them. I don’t know who they are, but they are marvelous and seem to live quite independently of the prejudices of advertising, journalism, and the cranky academic world. Think of the books that have enjoyed independent lives. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Under the Volcano. Henderson the Rain King. A splendid book like Humboldt’s Gift was received with confusion and dismay, but hundreds of thousands of people went out and bought hardcover copies. The room where I work has a window looking into a wood, and I like to think that these earnest, lovable, and mysterious readers are in there.
This is John Cheever describing to The Paris Review how he imagined his readers. Forty-one years later, his mysterious readers may be now online, posting blog reviews and discussing books disdained elsewhere. For Cheever, one such reader was Saul Bellow, as one of the most moving letters in the new collection attests.

In December 1981, Cheever spoke to Bellow over the telephone and, from the valedictory tone of Bellow's following letter, it's clear they both knew about the cancer that would kill Cheever's seven months later. "We didn't spend much time together" Bellow writes, "but there is a significant attachment between us"; an attachment because, he continues, "we put our souls to the same kind of schooling, and it's this esoteric training which we had the gall, under the hostile stare of exoteric America to persist in, that brings us together."
You were engaged, as a writer should be, in transforming yourself. When I read your collected stories I was moved to see the transformation taking place on the printed page. There's nothing that counts really except this transforming action of the soul. I loved you for this. I loved you anyway, but for this especially.
        Up and down on these rough American seas we've navigated for so many decades; we've had our bad trips, too–unavoidable absurdities, dirty weather, but that doesn't count, really. I've been trying to say what does count.


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