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‘Much to Think About’: Saul Bellow’s nonfiction

March 30, 2015 GMT

“There is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction” (Viking), by Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor

For the title of a new collection of nonfiction by Saul Bellow, Benjamin Taylor borrowed the name of a 1992 essay that Bellow wrote called “There is Simply Too Much to Think About.”

In this splendid volume, Bellow does indeed give us much to think about, although many of the essays Taylor has selected keep returning to two major themes.

First, Bellow’s ceaseless and moving exploration of his vocation as writer and public intellectual. Second, his uncompromising stand on his Jewish identity, of which he was fiercely proud.

Yet he continually resists efforts to classify him as a Jewish writer, preferring to think of himself, as he writes in one essay, as a Jew who has written some books.

“I have tried to fit my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel comfortably accommodated there,” he wrote in an essay from 1974-75.

Born in 1915 to Russian Jewish immigrants in Canada, Bellow, whose family moved to Chicago when he was a boy, graduated from Northwestern University but considered himself, at least in literary matters, self-taught.

He devoured the classics of Western literature and, as a struggling young writer, yearned to take his place in highbrow literary culture even as he understood that the exclusive club wasn’t always welcoming to Jews.

He writes brilliantly about Jewish writers in America — see his penetrating 1959 review of Philip Roth’s debut novel, “Goodbye, Columbus,” in which he describes the then 26-year-old Roth as a “virtuoso” — but also about literature in general, from James Joyce and the other giants of modernism to contemporaries like Ralph Ellison.

Taylor, who edited a 2010 volume of Bellow’s letters, includes an astonishing series of interviews that Roth conducted with his older literary friend — Bellow was 18 years his senior — by fax and letter a few years before Bellow’s death in 2005. In them the Nobel Prize-winning author memorably recalls how he came to write “The Adventures of Augie March” and two other novels from the 1950s.

Although Bellow can come across in later essays as ponderous or curmudgeonly, much of what’s here remains remarkably vivid — a quality he prized — and relevant.

Take, for instance, his 1957 essay, “Distractions of a Fiction Writer,” in which he deplores “death by distraction,” the curse of our modern age. He diagnosed the condition more than half a century ago — and since then, it’s only gotten worse.