The piece in The New Yorker (April 25, 2005) by Philip Roth, including a long recollection by Saul Bellow about some of his early work, is definitely worth reading. Roth attempted to engage Bellow in a correspondence that would be an extensive study of his work, but Bellow was already elderly and the project didn’t get very far. Still, what we have is revealing about his life and his work.
Awarded a Guggenheim, Bellow went to Paris just after World War II, to work on a novel that depressed him, and something happened to free his imagination to write The Adventures of Augie March. He says: “I had written two very correct books and I shall try to explain what I mean by correct: I seem to have felt that I, as the child of Russian Jews, must establish my authority, my credentials, my fitness to write books in English. Somewhere in my Jewish and immigrant blood there were conspicuous traces of a doubt as to whether I had the right to practice the writer’s trade.” He then decided to abandon the depressing novel and the new work came to him in a flash. “I was suddenly enriched with words and phrases. The gloom went out of me and I found myself with magical suddenness writing a first paragraph . . . In the next two years I seldom looked into Fowler’s ‘Modern English Usage.’ . . . It was enormously exhilarating to take liberties with the language. I said what I pleased and I didn’t hesitate to generalize wildly and to invoke and dismiss epochs and worlds. For the first time I felt that the language was mine to do with as I wished.”