Ever Your Friend

Portfolio Saul Bellow
Letters: Saul Bellow to Bette Howland

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“It did start out as it usually started out with women,” Bette Howland said of her friendship with Saul Bellow, whom she met at a literary conference in 1961. While their relationship took a brief romantic detour, it arrived at something more scholarly and amicable, though no less intimate. The pair corresponded for nearly four decades, exchanging words of criticism, advice, and encouragement, and sharing in a kind of commiseration not unfamiliar to those who write and those who winter in Chicago.

In the summer of 1968, Bellow was on retreat in Lake Como, and Bette was living in Chicago. He wrote to her from Italy, but the Hyde Park address on each envelope is not hers, but his own. Bette was staying in his apartment that summer, as she often did.



AUGUST 25, 1961   TIVOLI, NY

Dear Bette:

This is late afternoon, not a favorite time of day—too hot, too much Hudson Valley sun. It’s taken your story to make it bearable. “Aronesti” is very good, and I’m ready to cast my vote for it. Tomorrow I’ll mail it to my partner in Puerto Rico, and I hope he’ll report favorably on it. As soon as he writes, I’ll let you know.

I’m old enough now not to stop with the story itself. It’s good, but I’m more interested in what you’ll do later. You’re better than it. And I wish we hadn’t started off last month with the wrong sort of bump because we should have talked sooner. At second glance, you had won my vote. However, I’m not sure, either, what’s to be gained by talk and intense exchange. It’s the assured feeling that counts. I don’t suppose we’ll ever be in the same “personal system” anyway, so it was a good instinct that made you jam. Why should you tell me? What would I have done? Still, I see that you are something, and my sympathy goes out to you. I want to see you do well. I believe in fact that you can go as far as you like in writing. You’ve much beyond these very good things you’ve shown me.

Simon is good. Awfully mixed book. It ran away with me and I was too immature (at 35!) to control it.

Better luck,

Saul



APRIL 15, 1967   CHICAGO

Dear Bette—

I had been thinking of you, and when your letter came it stirred me to think even more. —How to put it: I have been feeling what you are. With all my experience and training as a writer I apparently remained an amateur in sympathy because I’ve rarely had such affectionate appreciation for anyone. A surprising statement, now that I’ve written it. But then I seem to have dismissed certain forms of self-regard. Well—dismiss is a military term. Misplaced. Pleasantly lost them. Anyway, I am very much your friend and I think of your life and prospects—the way you are, the way you look, feel and think. You are a considerable someone, whatever you achieve (or do not achieve: it won’t make a great difference). Anyway, I feel thankful, and your letter moved me. Sometimes I get a little tired of understanding the human-all-too-human in people and long for human qualities I can simply be grateful for. Like yours.

Affectionately,

Saul



[1967]

Dear Bette—

I’ll write to Yaddo, but can you make it? Can you go? Not unless the boys stay in Ithaca.

This check is for the Easter trip. Asher should be back from Europe by Aug. 21st. You’ll have to move faster than you generally have and make unenviable decisions. I wish I could help more.

Ever your friend,

Saul



JUNE 7, [1967]   ATHENS

Dear Bette

Grounded here, in Athens, by the fighting. I’m going on tonight to Israel. Odd that the Jews should turn out to be such fighters. Centuries of training in family quarrels + in the synagogue, I guess. It’s all very odd. All. How peaceful Yaddo must be. Greece has a new dictatorship, a handful of goofy generals. Not even generals—mere majors and colonels. Caps. You go on writing. Don’t blame yourself so much. We aren’t the absolute creators of this humiliating record. We do our bit, of course, but that’s what it is—a bit.

Affectionately,

your friend Saul



AUGUST 1, 1967   EAST HAMPTON, NY

(The end of a story by Hans Unchristian Andersen [...] )

And so, Bellow, having survived the War, and Bette, having survived the Corporation of Yaddo, dropped through two holes in the universe never again to meet in all eternity. Eternity is not a word that impresses the Void, for it is after all The Void.

They were perfectly wretched ever after.

H.U.A



FEBRUARY 20, 1968   WASHINGTON, D.C.

Postcard: Library of Congress

Valentine’s Day greetings from a man with broken binding



MARCH 21, 1968   OAXACA

Postcard: “‘God of Death’ in solid gold."

If Mexico is so great—and it is—why do I still feel like the frontispiece? Ans: because I am insane!

Love, S.



JULY 8, 1968

Postcard: “William of Gloucester, buried beneath a fall of earth, is dug up alive.”

There are always some who have to be dug out

S.B.



JULY 24, 1968

Dear Bette—

I started to write, then decided to wait until Peltz’s visit, just concluded. The message he transmitted was authentic. We are friends, and no friend would let you lose the year—not this year. I thought it unkind—horrible—that your husband would not take the boys in August but tried to bargain with you, taking advantage of your illness.

Peltz’s report on the state of your health was less pessimistic than yours. Of course as a believer in the triumph of vitality, looking on the bright side, Peltz is not a trustworthy informant. But I hope he is right, and that you won’t be an invalid-prisoner for a whole year. Anyway, you must have your own place. That I’m sure can be worked out—in Chicago, if necessary. You don’t really mind Chicago too much, apart from weather conditions.

My plans (Oh God, my plans!) for coming to Chicago are in embryo—perhaps not even conceived—but I believe I will come on about Aug. 5th after visiting little Daniel on the Vineyard.

As for writing (your writing) I think you ought to write, in bed, and make use of your unhappiness. I do it. Many do. One should cook and eat one’s misery. Chain it like a dog. Harness it like Niagara Falls to generate light and supply voltage for electric chairs.

Love,

Saul



1968   BELLAGIO, ITALY

Postcard: Lake Como

Dear Bette—

A letter?

Note?

Word?

Syllable?

Anything!

Love Saul



SEPTEMBER 7, 1968   BELLAGIO

Dear Bette—

Are you well—comfortable, working? I think about you several times a day. My silly mind seems to be finishing out the last stages of some apprenticeship, and you are one of the topics of a maturer interest. It’s a sort of reward for emergence from a lifetime of botched projects.

It’s very beautiful here (he says, noticing for the purpose) and I’m working cheerfully, but I feel somewhat shaky—solitary. No conversation with the Oxford dons, etc. here. After 4 p.m. we play croquet, we play tennis, we dine, we play a game of backgammon, then I go up to my castle rooms, I read, confront myself, have insomnia. Glad to hear the 8 a.m. knock. Breakfast, my eyes water, I do push-ups, and then I go [to] my tower, up the mountain, and forget myself a bit. It would be kind of you to write.

Love, Saul


Oh, Mrs. Bell! She’s paid until Oct 1: I don’t know how many weeks she’s gypped me. Let’s softly subtly and tenderly get rid of her, first extracting the housekey.

Unless she’s reformed.



SEPTEMBER 23, 1968   [BELLAGIO]

Dear Bette:

I’ve just read your letter. It’s very distressing. Now please don’t leave Chicago before I return. We’ve got some things to talk about. Lunatics to the right, lunatics to the left. But stand by a bit. Good God, no one should live so badly. It’s totally unnecessary.

I was shocked by your account of Susan. I must say. Frightened, too, on Daniel’s account.

And to make my day, I had a long, strange letter from Sondra in the same mail, and a copy of Mosby’s Memoirs with a grammatical error on page five, an error I couldn’t have made. Someidiot [sic] in the office let it pass. We are dealing with illiterates even in the publishing business. But just you write your book. It will be published and I will do the copy-editing myself.

Now don’t be absurd. You are my dear friend. I love you very much. Get some sleep. I’ll be back about Oct. 5 or 6.

Please overlook my silliness, too.

Love,

Saul



SETPTEMBER 24 or 5, 1968   BELLAGIO

Dear Bette—

I’ll be back Monday evening the 30th but please don’t run off I’d like to see you.

My poor friend Sidran died. The funeral is today—now, I suppose. Wed.

Love, Saul



FEBRUARY 8, 1969   CAMBRIDGE

Postcard: King’s College Chapel, watercolor by J. M. W. Turner, 1796
Dear Bette—

I am just beyond the margin, left. Where the blue gives out. Beautiful here. Peace. In my briefcase, a telephone bill from Chicago with $59.00 in Puerto Rican calls. Hope is was worth it (I sh’d talk)

Love,

Saul

JUNE 7, 1969   BELLAGIO

Dear Bette—

Now it’s 9-something p.m. and still light. Dinner done, church bells banging, and I’m in my suite for the night, five hours of work behind me, two of tramping mountain woods, two of dining, same of reading. It sounds great but it’s somewhat purgatorial. There’s no one here in this castle—almost nobody lives, and it’s like a short sentence in a marvelous penitentiary. I do love old John Marshall who runs the place, but coming into these empty rooms at 9 is [illegible]. I think of your titties and such and feel horribly deprived. I know it’s good. And yet it’s all bad, too. Why are one’s needs so costly?

And all this crashing peace, here! You come with all the world’s rotten voices, and you can’t stop hearing them; for a time, anyway. You make phone calls to Milan to get in touch again, knowing that it’s better not to be in touch, that in fact you’re here to be boiled-out, like a drunkard or junkie, and the peace which you shudder away from is really the cure. Why, I’m being cured! Cured of business, cured of ex-wives, cured of thinking whom my lady friends are sleeping with in my absence. In bed, at night, I pray a bit for Daniel. The rest bangs along without me.

Enough of this, I’m cold. It snowed day before yesterday. Today the sun appeared like a VIP who really didn’t want to stay and sullenly got back into the clouds all afternoon. Bored with beautiful Como, I guess. Didn’t want to stick around.

Love, Saul

From June 22 I’ll be in London c/o Heath + Co. 35 Dover St. London W1 att: Miss Hester Green.



1969   PARIS

Postcard: Notre-Dame

Here I made the stretcher-bearer stop and set me down for a minute.

As I was en route to the boneyard to have my bones appraised.

Love S.



1968–1969   MADRID

Postcard: Arch of Cutlers
Dear Bette—

Am here. Next stop, London c/o Heath + Co. 35 Dover St. London W1.

I’ve had no word from Bates. Or any one else. Three weeks incommunicado.

All else is well.

Saul



1968–1969   ALMERIA

Postcard: Nautical Club

Am finishing up at last.

All you might wish me—good + bad—I have had

But it hasn’t much affected the moon.

I’ll be back Aug 1 or so.

Saul



JULY 29, 1969   MADRID

Dear Bette

I finished the book two days ago—that’s why I’ve been so very silent. Hard at work.

The Atlantic Monthly will print it (Nov. + Dec.) in two installments. My first deadline is Aug. 15 for the 1st half and the mess is in its first draft still! So I’m going to hole up in Nantucket, near Daniel. My address is c/o Lamont, 39 N. Liberty St., Nantucket, Mass 02554.

I am free from entanglements—any and all entanglements. (Am I contemplating new ones?) My finances are a disaster. The market has collapsed—Susan is suing etc. etc. But I am really in excellent condition. I must be, to have done a longish book in 5 months.

The thing you ask I can easily do in NYC tomorrow on arrival. Please keep in touch with me at Nantucket. Until the 15th of Aug. I will be preparing text for the magazine. After that I hope to take a holiday break.

All the very best to you + Love,

Saul



AUGUST 6, 1969   MARTHA'S VINEYARD

Postcard: Chief Medicine Man Napoleon Madison of the Gay Head Indians
Dear Bette—

At dusk, at dawn, you don’t answer your phone, so I assume you are busy and will not much mind if I have myself adopted by the Indians. They need 1 whitehaired redskin.

Ever yr friend, S



1970   ADDIS ABABA

Now leaving Ethiopia, which is not at all as I had imagined it to be. Knowing the world is not so pleasant. They tell me poverty in Judea (and what more is there?) is even more hellish, but that’s hard to believe. The American talk of ghettos is simply nonsense after you’ve seen these shit-gulleys with their cripples lepers and blind, their flies, rats and slime. I am terribly depressed here; the land is so beautiful the churches so charming but nothing is pleasant.

Going now—Love S



1970   YUGOSLAVIA

Postcard: Manasija Monastery

Here the nuns sang vespers for us in old Slavanic [sic]. I am not alone in my backwardness. S



JUNE 2, 1970   ROME

Postcard: the Colosseum

As an old gladiator, I naturally choose this site. No more lions, though, only pussycats + their litters—hundreds of little Roman cats.

Peltz arrived today.



JUNE 14, 1970   ZURICH

Well, I saw Keith in London and we touched antennae. Did you ever read Fabre, the entomologist? Here is my new expression for things: “it was time for Proust to end, and for Fabre to begin.”

Zurich is a lovely place. If Joyce et al thought this was exile they didn’t know Chicago. Of course all those hysterical romantics couldn’t bear the bourgeois character of the Swiss but where is Romanticism without the b.c.? Might as well be without the Oedipus Complex.

Running water, very clear and green, with swans in it, has a therapeutic effect on me. And as I walked by the river with uneven feet I missed you. I thought how grand if Bette only were here. My heart has not turned to cinders—quite. Apparently I have a valued connection still and given green pastures etc. I experience love again. In Chicago my preoccupations are aggressive.

Will write from Jerusalem. I have fantasies of bomb-throwers at my public lecture.

Much love from yr dear pal,

Saul



1970   JERUSALEM

Postcard: the Citadel
Dear Pal—

When I get back to Chicago July 22, how will I find you? A most important question. You can leave word with the Comm. on Social Thought. All these Jews remind me of you. I miss you.

Love,

Saul



1970   JERUSALEM

Postcard: Tomb of Bnei Hezir and Tomb of Zechariah, Kidron Valley
Dear B—

One could do worse. One does do worse. Only I’d feel like a traitor deserting so much trouble.

I made a grand speech last night. The people + I enjoyed it.

Love,

Saul



JULY 14, 1970   DOLOMITES, ITALY

Postcard: Mount Cristallo
Dear Bette—

Last stop. But I could stay here, climbing mountains. As a natural obstacle overcomer I could satisfy my character-needs. Anyway I have much in common with rocks.

Love Saul



SEPTEMBER 7 [1970]

Dear Bette—

Yes, the new pages are better, infinitely. You do things right, in the end, and are willing and able to pay the cost, which is not small. This disorderly, fertile spirit put in order by painful self-discipline (the cold has struck Nantucket today, my fingers freeze, and I can’t finish sentences).

Keith + I (I and Keith) have separated from Hess + Harold and will print The Ark by ourselves. The story is long and full of shabby details, but it isn’t public yet because we are still negotiating about expenses and I haven’t yet formally agreed to take them off the book. Supposedly I am “thinking it over” and will need legal advice. The thing will cost some thousands of dollars but I have some absurd, unclear, and for that reason “unacceptable” ideas of honor. These should always be clear. There is no ingenuous honor, and muddy pride is contemptible. However, at the moment, I think I am right, and as I have to decide now I must endure the shame of half-thought-out actions.

I loved of course what you wrote to me. How different life would be if it were all as clear to me as it seems to be to you. And I love you for saying it to me. I am beginning to behave as if it were true, and it doesn’t feel false at all. Perhaps I can come up to the mark.

Meantime, alone with Adam, I am fully occupied with neurotic strife and the beauties of mystery. He is handsome, clever and full of battle. His war methods are his Mama’s—female hysterics and power ploys, schmaltzy Russian theatrical superiority, ineffability (wrist to the brow: “Leave me!”) and horrible peevishness. Why do we love them? Alas, we do.

I plan to be back on Sept. 19th

Love from your friend,

Saul



1970–71   LISBON

Postcard: partial view of the city

Everybody has his own way of committing suicide. Having discovered my own way, I shall now refrain. I am ready to go straight.

Your reformed friend,

Saul



MAY 11, 1971

Postcard: Jason in the Quest of the Golden Fleece
Dear Bette—

To reach you by phone is impos.

I have to travel this week; in case you try to reach me. I wind up in Iowa on Sunday, and then I’m back to stay.

How was Frank’s visit?

Keep well,

Saul



1972   TOKYO

Postcard: Sumo wrestlers

Peltz is out-Peltzed here. Chicago is out Chicagoed by Tokyo. Three times bigger, crimeless, stinkier, jollier and kinkier. As for me, I go on scribbling and talking. My paradise will be musical + wordless.

Love S.



MAY 7, 1984   CHICAGO

Dear Bette:

Quotes from an odd book I’ve been reading: “One writes to prove to those one loves that one is worthy of their love.” And: “At the age when we discover that fairies don’t exist, we must become faries [sic] and good genies ourselves, and make the incredible happen.” And finally: “Always give people more than they expect.” These are the opinions of a most touching screwball named Maurice Sachs, a playmate of Jean Cocteau and of Anouilh. He was himself a fairy in both senses of the word, bald and fat, a truly sleazy crook and idealist, passionate, romantic, a liar and an author who traded in gold and jewelry during the German occupation of Paris until he was sent to forced labor in Germany. There he thought of nothing but love and literature until the very end. He went up in smoke still thinking how to write the super-novel of his dreams.

Our own curious form of insanity, isn’t it?

But I take you seriously when you ask for my blessing. I always meant to give it. You are my best and best loved pupil and capable, unquestionably, of making the incredible happen.

At the moment my specialty is negative-incredibility, for these are hard times for me. The funny-moving combination doesn’t work in cramped psychic quarters. Maybe life will be easier in Vermont.

You will have noted that the quotes from Sachs are my reply to your letter about my stories. How very pleased I am not to have disappointed you!

I shall look forward to seeing you in October.

Maurice Sachs—The Hunt, N.Y. 1965

Love,

Saul



JANUARY 17 [NO YEAR]   LONDON

Dear Bette—

I am sobering up, or simmering down, whichever you may prefer, and the look of me when sober is steady, elderly, pale, and aware of being in the telescopic sights of a disinterested marksman. Up there. It doesn’t distress me, but reminds me of duties unperformed. When I think of those, I can see that I have planned poorly, if at all. Merely counting on spontaneity or luck, as I have usually done, will no longer do. So before being knocked off, can I expect to do a little better.

That is the question.

Yrs ever,

Saul



[1989 OR AFTER]   BRATTLEBORO, VT

Dearest Bette—

Hello and welcome! I hope your trip was safe and uneventful. Is it true that Jews do well to travel on Xmas? In sooth, yes.

This little attic nest should be more snug than the last time you didst inhabit it. (I’ve been reading Henry IV, and methinks it’s coming off on me.) The high bed with the yellow sheets is the new one, and should prove comfortable. But take your pick—they’re both freshly changed.

You’ll find in the icebox (as Saul would have it) a twelve bean soup with spinach, dill—and begum—the last of the garden carrots. For Shabbos dinner (tonight) there’s your favorite fish chowder: heat and serve. The Yukon gold roasted potatoes & fennel also need just be warmed and et. If you feel so stirred you may want to throw the capers and large green olives together for a putanesca [sic]. And so on... Also, don’t overlook the good Italian bread in freezer.

ENJOY and love—Janis*



July 10, 1990   BRATTLEBORO, VT

Dear Bette:

The Fully Justified Mutual Admiration Society has given me a clearance for this letter. I liked your little American girl in Germany, with her rough good looks and her reasonably tough sensitivity. She’s a little overmatched by the German monster real estate agent who works out of a post-war telephone booth, yet she does hold her own. I thought the contrast between not-too-gullible, gullible America, and Europe, past all description in decay, called for more lurid colors and melodrama. More like the Mexican mother eating up the encyclopaedia contract, but that, I realize, is a hard act to follow. Do you think that Botsford might be ready for a follow-up? I shall try to get him to print one more story by John Auerbach too.

I expected to see you the day after that famous party organized by my genius wife, but I suppose you were wise to drive back the next morning. There would have been no opportunity for a peaceful conversation. We’re going to be back in Chicago in October and you might think seriously about visiting your old life-giving turf. Like Lady Antaeus.

Love,

Saul




*Bellow's wife, Janis Freedman-Bellow

“Each new issue feels like a public report from many individual private spheres.” —Antoine Wilson

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Issue 23

ISSUE

23

Fall 2015

Author

Saul Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964 (Knopf), the first in Zachary Leader’s two-volume biography, was published earlier this year.

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