Outside Looking In, Garry Wills, Viking (2010); Saul Bellow: Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor, Viking (2010); The Girl Who Played With Fire, Nordist Films (2009).
Garry Wills was sent by magazines to cover the JFK assassination, the King assassination, Nixon, Carter, the Clintons and other people and events in the headlines. He was indeed a swooping observer. Observers, I think, have disadvantages. Chiefly, they seem what they are: superficial retreatants. His piece on William F. Buckley, Jr., for whom Wills, a Catholic, wrote at National Review for a spell, is worth reading because Buckley was a man of great talents and great shortcomings: in a word, dramatic. However, Buckley’s best book, Racing Through Paradise, goes unmentioned even though Wills tells anecdotes of Buckley’s sailing exploits. (You might well think Buckley belonged with Nelson in the 1800s.)
Outside Looking In shows Wills the stylist as less than engrossing. For example:
“We were in Baltimore during the glory days of the Baltimore Colts football team–a team full of stars: John Unitas, Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Alan “the Horse” Ameche, L.G. Dupre, Gino Marchetti, John Mackey, Artie Donavan, Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, Jim Mutscheller, Alex Hawkins, Jimmy Orr, Lenny Lyles. I had not been a Colts fan before we moved to Baltimore in 1961. In fact, I was rooting for the other side….”
Too many of Saul Bellow’s letters here collected and edited by one Benjamin Taylor are perfunctory: requests, instructions, favors, wishes and so forth to people in the literary trade. Too many others are highly personal–love letters–which are neither terribly noteworthy nor original and, you have to think, no one else’s business (though they have been surrendered by Bellow’s several wives and other lovers; there’s that old warning, is there not?).
It doesn’t seem as though letter writing was one of Bellow’s passions, and I would say that only a handful seem enlightening about him and in general. There are several from the 1950s to the end in 2005 in which he grapples with the great literary problem of trying to write affirming novels in a century as dreadful as the twentieth. He feels guilty about taking years to understand the scope of the horrors of World War Two, most notably the Holocaust; and there is one fascinating letter in which he insists that Hannah Arendt and other Jewish intellectuals he knew were unable to understand the nightmare because they were part of the “diaspora” which in turn, being seductively highbrow, corrupted (stunted) their imaginings of the dreadful.
There are a few letters in which Bellow explains why he cannot suffer Modernism–Pound, Joyce, Proust, Eliot, Beckett: one of his heroes is Dickens, and Bellow’s argument against Modernism would be that any day in history is always the best of times and the worst of times; it is always unsuitable to hunger for a supposed classical world better than the present. (Yes, this view seems to conflict with Bellow’s dawning understanding of the twentieth century as the letters proceed.) Mailer, Styron, Vonnegut, Gordimer, Doctorow–he has contempt for them as publicity hungry and pretentious. (He once said of Gordimer [not in these letters] that reading her novels is “like eating a Kotex.”)
Bellow began his formal studies by majoring in Anthropology as an undergraduate. In the few letters of literary interest, you see that he saw us as fallen angels. You must add anthropology to poetry in affirming our flickering worthiness, he insists. He offers no grand answers in picturing life as, all things considered, good. He admired J. F. Powers and once wrote to Powers that Powers must surely understand the mix of gloominess and comedy in Chicagoan Bellow’s novels. And certainly Powers’s masterpiece, Morte d’Urban, is much like Bellow’s masterpiece, Herzog, in its large drama: gloomy and funny. (Father Urban suits Chicagoan Bellow, Urban being fond of telling new faces, “For years I traveled out of Chicago.”)
There are several letters which tell us much about the personal sources of Herzog, by far Bellow’s most commercial as well as greatest literary success. “Herzog” is a confused and confusing highbrow, one who is humbled by “reality instructors” such as angry wives and cunning lawyers and betraying friends but who profits therein by becoming peaceful, accepting and quiet about being a fallen angel, losing his bookishness. A few of the letters make clear that for Bellow “Herzog’s” journey is neither realistic nor sincere. Herzog will ever be a great book in its impasse. But you don’t need Bellow’s letters to understand that.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has just about everything you need in a superb detective story. The Girl Who Played With Fire makes you agree that there are no second acts. That leaves The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest nowhere. I’d leave it there, if I were you. As for Steig: Quit while you’re ahead, as the saying goes.