There’s a common joke or cliché about writers’ biographies that goes like this: a good writer necessarily spends most of her life sitting in a room on her own, and who would want to read hundreds of pages about that? There’s something to this idea, but it doesn’t actually stand up to much scrutiny; after all, many great novels are about mundane lives in which nothing really happens, and I’d go so far as to say that the novelist’s task is to investigate the very nothing that fills so much of our lives.
While it isn’t a biography, one of the great successes of Saul Bellow’s There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction is that it reads like a memoir of a writer’s thought, an autobiography constantly playing out in the present and recording a great mind’s responses to the heady phenomena of the 20th century. This book doesn’t provide a story of Bellow’s life, but just as in Bellow’s novels, we get recollection and weighty thinking where we normally expect plot, and find that we don’t miss the plot at all. This all feels fitting though, for Bellow is remembered not for what he did with his life, but how he saw it, how he thought about it, and how he described it.
The way that the essays accumulate and become something more than a collection is largely a product of the editing, for which we have Benjamin Taylor to thank. Taylor organises the essays into five sections, each named after a decade. While the sections are ordered chronologically, the essays within the sections are not. Sorting the pieces chronologically initially seems like an unimaginative and slavish gesture by the editor, but it quickly becomes clear that this is far more shrewd than it at first seems. The hundred or so pages that make up “The Sixties” give a clear impression of the subjects that interested Bellow during that decade, and Taylor orders the essays in a way that allows the reader to trace the development of Bellow’s ideas and preoccupations.
This is not to say that There Is Simply Too Much to Think About will only appeal to the reader who is interested in the life and work of Saul Bellow, as most of these essays stand up as wonderful pieces of writing that are not diminished by time. Bellow had a great and abiding interest in hucksters and frauds, but one does not last long in such company without developing some skepticism, and it is this skepticism that lends a timelessness to his work.
In “The Writer as Moralist”, the bohemian, beatnik writer and his dimestore revolution receive particularly short shrift, with Bellow noting that their rebellion ‘against the servitude of banal marriage and unpleasurable sex’ is not dissimilar from the suggestions ‘in the advice columns of ladies’ magazines. Bellow is of course taking issue here with a ’60s phenomenon, but recent films such as Kill Your Darlings and On the Road suggest that such Romantic posturing still requires the kind of healthful, clear-eyed broadside that much of Bellow’s work provides.
Some of the pieces included here are journalistic in nature, such as his early works, “Spanish Letter” and “Illinois Journey”. As anyone with a passing familiarity with Bellow’s fiction will know, his ability to truly see things is unmatched, and it’s in these lengthy descriptions of places — not just the geography but the people, the food, the politics, the very air — that Bellow is revealed as 20th century America’s superlative prose stylist.
In his ’50s work, Bellow is frequently drawn back to thinking about Hemingway. Hemingway is responsible for American literature’s most famous depiction of Spain, and the differences between the Spain of “Spanish Letter” and The Sun Also Rises are particularly enlightening. Hemingway’s Spain is a place for Americans to say things like, ‘I felt like hell so I had a beer’, while Bellow seems more interested in ‘the blank, sun-hardened flats of the outlying districts’ and the detained 18-year-old ‘with the precarious nonchalance of deep misery and deep hatred’. The comparison is perhaps somewhat unfair — Hemingway’s economy is a stylistic choice — but, reading these essays, it’s hard not feel as though Bellow is able to do something that his fellow Nobel laureate, and many other American writers, simply couldn’t.
When there are no clear links between the articles, Taylor orders them so such that consecutive essays are always addressing different subjects, and so that Bellow’s hard, glittering prose is given the space to stretch itself out in front of the reader. Bellow also has great intellectual appetite, and Taylor keeps the pace book moving by ensuring that consecutive essays always address something new, so that a review of Goodbye, Columbus — ‘Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair and teeth, speaking coherently’ — is followed by a profile of a Chicago hustler — ‘Spruce and firm-footed, with his beard and wind-curled hat, he looked, beside the car, like the living figure of tradition in the city’.
Books of collected essays are normally the kind of thing one dips in and out of, but the essays in There Is Simply Too Much to Think About demand to be read one after the other, just as they are printed. Taylor is a sage editor; sometimes the essays focus on one theme and show Bellow’s development, other times they display Bellow’s prodigious talent, his ability to take almost any subject — a person, a place, a book — and make it somehow more than itself.
Bellow’s stature and legacy are such that heaping praise on his work feels somewhat redundant. It bears mentioning however, because his writing survives the transition to nonfiction in a way that is both impressive and, upon consideration, wholly unsurprising. Some of Bellow’s protagonists — Moses E. Herzog, Wilhelm Adler — are memorable for the way that Bellow simultaneously scorns and admires them for their Romanticism, and it’s this two-mindedness that makes him the consummate essayist. Rather than wading into the hurly-burly of cheap polemic, one imagines Bellow watching with a wry eye as both sides spout bloody dogma.
In a 1965 essay titled “The Thinking Man’s Waste Land”, Bellow begins by concluding that, in the ’60s, with the very notion of taboo fast fading, and the writer therefore stripped of her ability to shock, ‘There is nothing left for us novelists to do but think.’ If this seems like something of a limp suggestion or an admission of defeat in the face of new some new paradigm, then read on, for the following 35 years worth of nonfiction in this book make it clear that Saul Bellow was fine intellectual.