Under the Sun in Spain
“My character is like a taste in my mouth,” Saul Bellow wrote in 1975 to his friend David Peltz. And: “I’ve tasted better tastes.” Bellow was describing a period of aggressive self-reflection immediately following publication of his novel Humboldt’s Gift. He was in Spain at the time, spending, by his account, serious time swimming in the bright sunshine, sleeping, eating, and reading.
Writers have been known to suffer from a kind of post-publication depression. Like Bellow, maybe, seeing our work in print puts us hard up against our own characters, and sometimes we’ve found them a little sour. But looking critically at ourselves doesn’t mean questioning the quality of what we’ve just published or whether we’re any good, whether we’ve behaved badly towards our critics and champions or whether we’ll publish again, or whether we will even write again. We must and will write again. The kind of self-examination Bellow was engaging in was not despair or a lack of self-confidence, two maladies, by the way, which he was never in danger of succumbing to. Rather, it was something more important: It was an acknowledgment that what we’ve set out to do can be unforgiving. Our work demands an often exhausting untying and tying of our own elegantly knotted selves. All that industry results in poems, short stories, novels, essays, hybrids of the same, and then publication, and then, perhaps, like Bellow, a fleeting bitterness, a fatigue at being a person who feels called upon to write in the first place, someone who can’t get away from strong feelings, all of them restless and relentless. Bellow’s fatigue is a tonic, though; it’s a method of balancing his weaknesses, of realizing that he might lack in himself precisely the qualities he pursues in his work. That bad taste is good medicine.
Bellow was not being unkind to himself. Nor was he suffering. Bellow’s post-publication days in Spain were definitely not hardship. The beach was not a site for him to excoriate himself; there was no looking up from a book with the sudden realization that he was exquisitely and artfully flawed. Splashing in the sunshine and tasting one’s character did not and do not constitute a reluctant admission that one is not so special after all. Humboldt’s Gift was finished, but more stories and novels—not to mention the Nobel Prize!—were to come. Regardless of his talent or success, though, Bellow’s sampling of his impulses and idiosyncrasies after publication was as necessary to his writing as it is to ours. If Bellow’s comments to his friend were an admission of anything, it was that he was on the right path, indulging in the certainty that he was and should be a writer. If Bellow’s reflections teach us anything it’s that a writer has to look at her self critically and sympathetically before she can pick up and carry on.
“But it’ll pass,” Bellow wrote of his dis-taste, “and one of these days I’ll be able to see that the ocean is beautiful. And the mountains, and the plants, and the birds.” Soon enough, Bellow was saying, the waves will sparkle again, and I’ll be back to filling in the outline of those mountains, pollinating the flowers, scoring the birdsong. Right now, though, I’ve got to be my own unpleasant company, set off an itch that can be scratched only by writing, by doing, finally, what I must do to see myself and world clearly—and then set off once more. Because after all, Bellow wrote at the end of his letter, “Life isn’t kind to people who took it on themselves to do something about life. Uh-unh!”