In Which We Do Not Really Know Your Life

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.


After nine months with my girlfriend Vanessa, she recently told me she is planning to transfer to her firm’s London office. She doesn’t know exactly how long she will be there, but it will be no longer than a year. She wants to stay together and Skype; also we could probably afford to visit each other twice during this period.

My worry is that I feel I will be very lonely without Vanessa in-country, and I will probably be inclined to see other women and not tell her about it. I really would like to stay with Vanessa — do you think she would be amenable to taking a break while she is in London and getting back together when she returns or is that dumb?

Bob N.


If you want to stay with your girlfriend, you should never announce a break for any reason. When women hear the word “break,” something breaks deep inside of them. Even a small rejection is still a rejection on some level.

A year can be difficult, but at least there is a firm date when she will return. What will probably happen if you break up is that you will regret it and she will meet some British guy whose command of the language not only rivals your own, but exceeds it. He will be tangentially related to Winston Churchull and the two of them will snuggle together over long marathons of Poldark. If this is really what you want, break up with her now.

It sounds instead like you are pouting because life isn’t going your way. Either you’re an active part of this relationship or you’re not. Decide meow.


My boyfriend Sam has taken his exercising to the extreme. When he wakes up in the morning he immediately works out for three hours, including a long run and a swim afterwards. After getting home from work, he immediately begins lifting before dinner. The amount of time he spends on this is excessive, and I am worried he will injure himself. Recently, it has become clear that exercise is his number one priority in life above and beyond me.

Should I just throw down an ultimatum or what?

Ariana R.

Dear Ariana,

Addiction to exercise and the corresponding adrenaline rush is no different from any other drug addiction, albeit with somewhat less deletrious effects.

Have you ever seen Legends of the Fall? Those guys ran through fields a lot, and it was enough for them. Maybe show Sam that movie, and then afterwards break things down with a hard talk. Be aware that an addict will do anything to explain away his addiction, and say goodbye to those tight abs in any case.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.

In Which We Open The Manila Folder

Screen Shot 2016-11-29 at 8.23.22 AM.jpg

Dear Derek


I got the letters back today, in a manila folder. It looked like he had been collecting them; at least, like they were given care.

The first one was about how I could not shake the feeling I was better off without him, but by the end of the letter, thematically, I wasn’t so sure if that was the case. There was the note of apologia – an apology always smells to me like sulphur and the inside of a camping tent. With that said, there was no actual sorry, just the idea that something negative had taken place between us, that had not been accounted for completely and would not for some time. He left my apartment before I woke completely. I begged him to stay and forced him to go. A girl on the street played hopscotch with her sister. I bought a pregnancy test, but I didn’t mention that until the third letter.


installation by katja novitskova

The second one was all about regret. I wrote it in a Starbucks, the one near his place where I always hated to go. It is not stalking to revisit these old places, right? I had already met someone else by the time of this letter, but I was not one hundred percent sure about him. It felt weird to write to him and pursue this other romance, but it is best to be practical about such things. He was, I wrote, never the type of human being I could count on completely. But I still missed him and wanted him back, so I listed all the things I missed about him: that cinnamon smell to his clothes, the way he pressed his cock against me while I slept, how he never once overstayed his welcome.

The third one was in pieces. After I write a letter, all the feeling I put into it is drained from me. I walk around like a skeleton, which is all we are anyway. Ask any x-ray technician. In this epitaph I listed all the problems I thought he and I had. They included a struggle to communicate, a reluctance to bring our true emotions out for fear of hurting the ones closest to us, various issues with trust brought on by the existence of his ex-girlfriend. I wonder – did she write him letters? He deleted all his e-mails, so she must have, in order to leave something permanent in the place we both know.


The fourth one is hardest for me to read. I am a mess by then, barely able to wake or sleep. Stuck between those two poles, I ache for his physical presence. In life it is not enough to be betrayed; we must know the meaning of the betrayal. I ask him all about his new girlfriend, who he posts about incessantly. She is substantially younger than I am, with a different hair color. Worst of all she has a positive mental outlook.

By the time of the fifth letter they have broken up, and I am reassured by this, potentially gratified by this. It has opened up a world of new possibilities for me. Then again, when you want something as much as I do, actually getting it would come as such a complete shock to the system that it might destroy me all over again. Reading back these particular words fills me with delight: I am legitimately impressed at how delusional I become given the right circumstances. “I know you don’t love me,” I almost write, but hold back. Could saying something make it true?

Linda Eddings is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

Fridericianum Speculations On Anonymous Materials

In Which Rory Gilmore Contemplates A Voyage Into The Known

Yale Was Not A Good Choice


Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
creators Daniel Palladino and Amy Sherman-Palladino

That last season of Gilmore Girls, when Amy Sherman-Palladino was no longer working on the show, was quite depressing. Nothing, however, could be as sad as the condition these women find themselves in when Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life begins. Lorelai was the brightest light in a cute but sometimes grim New England town. Now she looks completely bored by the place she selected to raise her daughter so long ago. Even the most mediocre people seek appropriately-sized challenges for themselves, but Lorelai doesn’t want kids, or a new job, or anything more from her boyfriend than to lie next to her as she watches the Hallmark Channel. An inspirational mother and hotelier has given up.

Things are even worse for Rory Gilmore. She has not found one man of any persistent intelligence. It is far more believable that Rory would be stuck in an endless loop, given that the only male figure she had to look up to during her childhood was barely ever there at all. Her relationships with men conform to the only way of interacting she knows: babbling endlessly to her mother. Some men like a woman who talks a lot, but most do not like to be talked to like the girl’s mother.

Rory’s Yale boyfriend Logan was always a problematic and underwritten character. His wealthy father made a point of putting Rory down, and she weirdly accepted this determination. Somehow, it seemed to enhance her view of the man’s son. Logan lives in London, and when Rory is there she stays in his apartment. He promises not to discuss the other women he is schtupping, and she is cautious about prying too much in his drawers and closets. When we learn he is not really serious about Rory, it is expected and reflects even more poorly on her judgment.

Emily, the girls’ mother and grandmother, is the only one who time has altered at all. The role played by Edward Herrmann of Lorelai’s awful, distant father was one of the best characters on the show. It seems strange to eulogize his passing given that he was pretty much a monster to Lorelai and nothing like the loving father he should have been. We witness a long funeral scene with sweeping music, and various other lawyers talking about what an irreverent piece of shit Richard was. In the wake of the death, Emily lives in a massive house with an entire Portuguese family who has presumed on her grief.

Minority characters are always completely subservient to the white ones in Palladino-Sherman’s writing, and Rory’s friend Lane never got half the scenes she deserved during the run of the original show. She has had two children with her husband, but we never even get to learn the names of the boys or speculate on the kind of relationship Rory might have with them. Kids have changed everyone I know, but they don’t seem to alter Lane or Rory’s other friend Paris, who ironically runs a fertility clinic.

Everyone on Gilmore Girls look none the worse for wear, until you probe deeper. Lauren Graham in particular is still a vibrant and beautiful woman; even though Luke still has a certain mercurial charm, it feels like she has not completely found the right man. Alexis Bledel enters middle age even more self-possessed; it seems a mystery that she cannot find a man who complements her. They really should have cast her real-life husband on this joint, and maybe they still will.

One running joke has Rory ignoring a boy with no self-respect, who believes he is dating her and getting to know her family, named Paul. It is cruel in the way that jokes on Gilmore Girls always were. One character would make fun of another, and this seemingly offhand jibe would represent some deeper unhappiness, and the immensity of the problem would balloon when you least expected it. Sherman-Palladino excelled at writing scenes like this, which ostensibly started as one thing but because something completely different through the flow of his signature patter.

We are supposed to believe that Rory has seen some of the world: the parts that her mother was never able to. At one point, Rory romanticizes a vagabond life, and we realize how much she needs this valuable perspective, a journey that would allow her to see what kind of man she could love who would love her back. Instead by the end of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, she is tied down exactly like her mother. God this show made me want to cry.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.

In Which Andrei Tarkovsky Writes These Things Down


Destroy Everything

The diaries of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky are the notations of a man whose real enterprise was elsewhere. In the 1970s Tarkovsky’s frustrations boiled over as he reached the peak of his cinematic powers. Tarkovsky’s writing was purely a means to end — a way of framing his real language of filmmaking. As translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair, these notes on films like Solaris, Andrei Rublev and unfinished and unrealized projects reveal Tarkovsky’s struggle with the state, his family and himself.

May 10

On 24 April 1970 we bought a house in Myasnoye. The one we wanted. Now I don’t care what happens. If they don’t give me any work I’ll sit in the country and breed piglets and geese, and tend my vegetable patch, and to hell with the lot of them!

We shall gradually put the house and garden in order, and it will be a wonderful country house; stone.

The people here seem nice. I’ve installed a beehive. We’ll have honey. If only we could get hold of a pick-up we’d be all set. Now I must earn as much as possible so that we can finish the house by the autumn. It has to be habitable in winter as well. Three hundred kilometers from Moscow — people won’t come dragging out here for nothing.

The two important things now are:

1. Solaris has to be in two parts.

2. Maximum distribution for Rublev. Then I’d be free of debt. And—the agreement in Dushanbe.

To be done in the house:

1. Reroofing.

2. Re-lay all floors.

3. Make second frame for one window.

4. Use tiles from house to roof shed.

5. Make stove for steam heating.

6. Repair cracks in gallery.

7. Put up fence all round house.

8. Cellar.

9. Remove plywood from ceilings.

10. Open up door between rooms.

1 1. Put stove in gallery.

12. Build bath-house in kitchen garden.

13. Make lavatory.

14. Install pump (electric) from the river to the house (if it’s not going to freeze up in winter).

15. Shower (by bath-house).

16. Plant garden.

17. Paint floors and walls of gallery, and beams.


June 3

Yesterday Bibi Anderson was introduced to me. I spent the entire evening wondering if she would make a Khari. Of course she’s a marvellous actress. But she’s not that young, although she looks very well. I don’t know, I haven’t yet decided what to do about her. She’s willing to work for our currency. She’s going to be filming for Bergman through the summer and she’ll be free in the autumn. We’ll see. For the moment I haven’t made any decision. I must talk to Ira.

On the 12th I took Senka to school. My impression was that he had failed, but the headmaster is liberal-minded and didn’t say anything, so for the moment everything is all right as far as school is concerned.

June 12

Last night I had a terribly sad dream. I dreamed again of a northern (I think) lake somewhere in Russia; it was dawn, and on the far share were two Orthodox monasteries, with amazingly beautiful cathedrals and walls.

And I felt such sadness! Such pain!


September 18

I saw a very bad film by Bunuel—I forget the name—oh, yes, Tristana, about a woman who has her leg amputated and who some- times dreams of a bell with her husband/stepfather’s head in it instead of a clapper. It’s unbelievably vulgar. Just occasionally Bunuel allows himself lapses like that.

Read Akutagawa’s story about water-sprites — ‘kappas’. Rather mediocre and limp.

Chukhrai asked me to bring them the screenplay of The Bright Day. He wants me to make it with their team. They’re allegedly thinking of buying Ariel as well. We’ll see. I don’t trust Chukhrai. He’s often let people down. Betrayed them.

November 15

I really have to make a note of the fact that on 12 November 1970 I gave up smoking. Frankly, it was high time. The last few weeks I’ve been feeling somehow empty and dull-witted. Either because I’ve been ill, or because I feel frustrated. You could very easily expire without ever having done anything. And there’s so much I want to do . . .

Reading Thomas Mann’s stupendous Joseph and His Brothers. The whole approach is as it were from the far side. Kitchen gossip from the far side. I can see why the typist, as she finished typing out Joseph, said, “Now at least I know how it really happened.” Yes, but as for screening it, I really don’t know what to say. For the moment, I don’t see how it would come across.

I want to restore the house in the country — then there’d be some point. Build a bath-house, cultivate the garden. The children could graze. My father came to see us yesterday. He was introduced to his grandson who wore his smart blue suit for the occasion. Please God.


February 18

“Fear of the aesthetic is a first symptom of weakness.” — Dostoievsky’s notebooks, about Crime and Punishment, p. 560.

“The supreme idea of socialism is machinery. It turns a person into a mechanical person. There are rules for everything. And so man is taken from himself. His living soul is removed. It is understandable that one may be calm in such Eastern quietism, and these gentlemen say they are progressives! My God! If that is progress, then what is Eastern quietism!’

“Socialism is despair at the impossibility of ever being able to organize man. It organizes tyranny for him and says that is freedom itself!” — ibid., about Svidrigailov, p. 556.

I’m very strongly affected by diaries and archives and “laboratories” of every kind. They’re a wonderful catalyst.

So — Ariel has turned out really well. Only no one must be told what the script is about.

It’s about —

I. The creative pretensions of the mediocre.

2. The greatness of simple things (in a moral sense).

3. The conflict within religion. (The ideal has collapsed. It’s not possible to live without an ideal, no one is able to invent a new one, and the old one has collapsed: the church.)

4. The emergence of pragmatism. Pragmatism cannot be condemned because it is a stage and a condition of society: indeed an inevitable stage. It started at the turn of the century. Life can’t be condemned. It has to be accepted. It is not a question of cynicism. The war of 1914 was the last war to have a romantic aura.

5. Man is a plaything of history. The ‘madness of the individual’ and the calm of the socialist order.

Parallel between Ariel and the turn of the next century. Super-pragmatism on a state scale, as viewed by the man in the street. Consumerism.

I showed Ariel to Klimov, he said he liked it. Whatever happens I must let Yussov have it, so that he can be ready.


August 14

Culture is man’s greatest achievement. But is it more important, say, than personal worth? (If one doesn’t take culture and personal worth as being one and the same thing.) The person who takes part in the building of culture, if he is an artist, has no reason to be proud. His talent has been given him by God, whom he obviously has to thank.

There can be no merit in talent, since it is only yours fortuitously. The mere fact of being born into a wealthy family does not give a person a sense of his own worth and thus the respect of others. Spiritual, moral culture is created not by the individual—whose talent is accidental—but by the nation, as it spontaneously throws out that individual endowed with the potential for artistic creation and the life of the spirit. Talent is common property. The bearer of it is as insignificant as a slave on a plantation, or a drug addict, or a member of the lumpen proletariat.

Talent is a misfortune, for on the one hand it entitles a person to neither merit nor respect, and on the other it lays on him tremendous responsibilities; he is like the honest steward who has to protect the treasure entrusted to his keeping without ever making use of it.

A sense of self-respect is available to anyone who feels the need for it. I don’t understand why fame is the highest aspiration of the artistic confraternity. Vainglory is above all a sign of mediocrity.

Reading extracts in Novy Mir of S. Birman’s memoirs, with the pretentious, tasteless title, ‘Meetings Granted Me by Fate’. God help us! It’s about Gordon Craig and Stanislavsky. She quotes from a conversation between them about Hamlet, in particular where they are talking about Ophelia.

What rubbish it all is!

Craig’s interpretation of Hamlet is metaphysical and pretentious and stupid. Hamlet as construed by the idiot, megalomaniac Stanislavsky is equally absurd.

At the same time Craig is right when he says that Ophelia falls out of the tragedy, that she is insignificant, whereas Stanislavsky, with one eye forever on the audience because he was scared to death of their verdict, maintains she was a pure, beautiful girl. I’m irritated by this silly claptrap from a silly old woman who wants to attract attention.

August 15

Stanislavsky did great harm to future generations of the theatre; roughly the same as Stassov did for painting. All those lofty ideals — that so-called ‘sense of direction’ as Dostoievsky put it — falsified the functions and the meaning of art.


September 14

Dostoievsky read by the light of two candles. He didn’t like lamps. He smoked a lot while he worked and occasionally drank strong tea. He led a monotonous life, starting off in Staraya Russya (the prototype of the town where Karamazov lived). His favourite colour — the waves of the sea. He often dresses his heroines in that colour.

January 2

If only we could start filming.

February 15

The film was sent to the Committee without any discussion. Sizov telephoned today and said that the film is now much better and more harmonious. But he hinted that there would have to be more cuts. I shall resist them. The length is actually an aesthetic consideration.

I’m going to see Sizov on the 17th; he asked me to; he has to talk to me about something. I can’t bear surprises, they’re always unpleasant.

I am tired. In April I shall be forty. But I’m never left in peace, and there is never any silence. Instead of freedom Pushkin had ‘peace’ and ‘will’, but I don’t even have those.

People are sending me letters after seeing Rublev. Some are very interesting. Of course audiences understand the film perfectly well, as I knew they would.

February 23

Am I really going to be sitting around again for years, on end, waiting for somebody graciously to let my film through.

What an extraordinary country this is — don’t they want an international artistic triumph, don’t they want us to have good new films and books? They are frightened by real art. Quite understandably. Art can only be bad for them because it is humane, whereas their purpose is to crush everything that is alive, every shoot of humanity, any aspiration to freedom, any manifestation of art on our dreary horizon.

They won’t be content until they have eliminated every symptom of independence and reduced people to the level of cattle.

In the process they’ll destroy everything: themselves and Russia.

Tomorrow I’m going to Sizov and he’ll explain what is happening about Solaris. No doubt he’ll try to persuade me and win me over and convince me. The usual story.

I must read the Korolenko story Friedrich was talking about; it’s all about peasant life miles from anywhere in Siberia, and their prejudices and so on . . . It may be a bit like Echo Calls? Screening an existing book is an easier way of doing things.

I somehow think that it’s better to screen inferior literature, which nonetheless contains the seed of something real — which can be developed in the film and grow into something wonderful as a result of going through your hands.


February 26

Late this evening I looked at the sky and saw the stars. I felt as if it was the first time I had ever looked at them.

I was stunned.

The stars made an extraordinary impression on me.

April 2


I’m very excited by Zen. At present I’m reading somebody’s dissertation (or simply research notes) about Koan. Very interesting.

“In order to write well you have to forget the rules of grammar.” (Goethe)

“Dostoievsky gives me more than any thinker, more than Gauss.” (Einstein)

“We are being sentimental when we attribute more tenderness to a person than the Lord God has endowed him with.” (R. T. Blice)

April 6

Here I am forty. And what have I done in all this time? Three pathetic pictures. So little! So ridiculously little and insignificant.

I had a strange dream last night: I was looking up at the sky, and it was very, very light, and soft; and high, high above me it seemed to be slowly boiling, like light that had materialized, like the fibres of a sunlit fabric, like silken, living stitches in a piece of Japanese embroidery. And those tiny fibres, light-bearing, living threads, seemed to be moving and floating and becoming like birds, hovering, so high up that they could never be reached. So high that if the birds were to lose feathers the feathers wouldn’t fall, they wouldn’t come down to the earth, they would fly upwards, be carried off and vanish from our world forever. And soft, enchanted music was flow- ing down from that great height. The music seemed to sound like the chiming of little bells; or else the birds’ chirping was like music.

‘They’re storks’, I suddenly heard someone say, and I woke up.

A strange and beautiful dream. I do sometimes have wonderful dreams.


In Which He Believes They Are Very Delicate

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.


Last year I worked a seasonal job at a horse track in upstate New York. While I was there, I met Thalia. We really had a great summer, but we knew at the end of it I would be heading back to school in the fall. We have stayed in touch despite the distance, although things cooled off considerably and we both saw other people. Lately we have been talking more, and she suggested we get a place together for the summer since I was offered the same job.

Working with horses is fun and I’m good at it, but it is not really what I want to do with my life. I do miss Thalia, but I don’t know if living together, even for a summer, is the right step considering we haven’t seen each other in a year. I know I would enjoy some aspects of it, but I feel like I don’t really know her life and there might be surprises since she is from the area. What should I do?

Aaron M.


Forget Thalia for a moment. Is this town where you would spend your summer if the woman was not involved? If yes, then go there and get your own place. If no, then don’t go there at all. There is probably a reason Thalia wants to get a place with you, and the options are not the best:

her current living situation is bad

she needs your buffer against some jerk

she can’t afford to live on her own

she wants to get more serious than you do

she’s worried about what you do when you aren’t with her

she wants you to cook and clean for her

she wants you to strap her while she shoots up

she’s running a ponzi scheme she wants to involve you in

he’s hiding from creditors

she’s kidnapped a child

she is a kidnapped child

you’re going to prison for the rest of your life

she will send you pictures of yourself

years later you will realize they were cut out of a magazine

she will win the national book award

you tunnel out of prison with a pen knife your mother baked into some eclairs

I could go on. This is not the right move for you. You had a good summer. You can visit and see where things stand.


How much time is normal to spend on the phone with your significant other? I ask because I have been dating a girl I will call Angela for about eight months. Things are going well. In the early days of the relationship, I would call her a lot and we would sometimes have “erotic discussions” over the phone. (She was away for the semester in Brazil.)

Now we see each other a lot and there doesn’t seem to be as much of a need for long conversations on the phone since the “getting to know you, getting to know all about you” period is over. Despite this, Angela expects a phone conversation of over an hour most days. I’d rather use this time on other things so that I don’t have to be doing other things when I’m spending actual, in person time with her. Am I wrong to feel this way?

Allen C.

Dear Allen,

Most people have their phones all the time now. The answering machine was a magnificent invention rendered obsolete by the shortsightedness of the human race. What you need is an ironclad reason why you would not be using your phone at a given time that enables you to ignore a certain percentage of Angela’s calls. Physical pain from holding the phone should waylay Angela for a bit while we find what she really needs: another phone partner.

In fact, maybe you should find her a new boyfriend, since you seem unwilling to do what’s required of you.

But seriously, if you just pretend that you have tinnitus, lie about a trip to the doctor you took, explain that he recommended short phone calls for the safety of your ears and long hand jobs for the safety of your penis region, this problem should fall by the side rather quickly.


My boyfriend Aaron and I have been seeing each other for six months after meeting on Tinder. He is something of a nervous guy at times, never more so than when we are being intimate. He is extremely well-endowed so has nothing to worry about on that front. Still, he gets a little anxious and as we start, begins narrating every aspect of what is happening. The amount of apologies on offer is amazing, but quickly gets old. If my head is accidentally bumped he will stop completely and ask me if I am OK. Once, completely unprompted, he left to get me ice.

I have tried to talk to Aaron about this, but even after I explained, he looks verbally constipated during sex and I can tell he’s not himself. Is it possible to get him over this hump?

Lucianne R.

Dear Lucianne,

I despise puns.

Some men are brought up to think women are very delicate. At the same time, they ignore pretty clear evidence that Angelina Jolie keeps the souls of the men she couples with. Do you think she was like, “Hey Brad, I’m heading for your anus” on that fateful first date? Some things are better when you don’t know about them beforehand, like Ellie Goulding and the Batmobile.

I suggest physical intervention in this case. Aaron won’t shut up, but he probably wants to, so put your finger on his lips and shush him as you take over. Failing that, cover his mouth and nostrils tightly. When he begs for his life, remind him, “I thought I told you to close your trap.”

If you are keen on a more psychological approach, tell him a story about a friend named Marcia Hamsbottom who had an ex-husband who would not stop quoting The Big Lebowski, no matter how many times she told him she hated it. If he says that the name Hamsbottom sounds made-up, wonder aloud how he has not heard of RCA recording artist Duracell Hamsbottom. I think he was in Outkast?

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.


In Which We Land Safely In The Ocean

Saul Bellow’s Letters to Women

Saul Bellow treated women no different in writing, it was somewhat divergent IRL. Easily irritated, Bellow stood on his principles at every possible moment, and usually gave his reasoning or admitted a lack of reasoning when appropriate. His guilt, you will notice, is always mitigated and never complete in itself. His personal writing matches his novel writing in almost every exactitude, except where it exercises a feigned or appropriate caution. There is insight there, but there is also a troubling, circling lack of definition. If he cannot find it in himself to address an emotion – anger, love, shame – he wields the silent treatment as a weapon of first and last resort. His first letter, perhaps suitably, concerns a woman he does not know.


December 14, 1973

Dear Evelyn

I was visiting with cousin Louie Dworkin the other night, and when he spoke of you I found that I could recall you vividly. You had one blue eye and one brown eye, and you were a charming gentle girl in a fur (raccoon?) coat. I thought you might like to know how memorable you were, so I asked cousin Louie (who loves you dearly) for your address, and I take this occasion to send you every good wish.

Saul Bellow


Ann Birstein, Alfred Kazin’s ex-wife and author of ‘What I Saw At The Fair’

May  22, 1974

To Ann Birstein

My correspondence with Alfred was disagreeable, so I didn’t associate you with it at all. You and I have never had disagreeable relations. I hope we never shall.

There used to be something like a literary life in this country, but the mad, ferocious Sixties tore it all to bits. Nothing remains but gossip and touchiness and anger. I’m past being distressed by it, I mean merely distressed.

So there it is! Nobody will speak for you to me. One of these days I hope we will have our own private conversation. It’s been a long time.

As ever,

Saul Bellow


from ‘Henderson the Rain King’

Bellow promised an interview to the young Oates, and followed up with this letter.

To Joyce Carol Oates

When I answered your letter of December 20th I said that I would be glad to do the interview-by-mail as soon as I sent off Humboldt’s Gift, an amusing and probably unsatisfactory novel. Well, it went to the printer a few weeks ago and while I was waiting for the galleys I began to deal with your stimulating questions. Before I could make much progress the galleys began to arrive in batches so I have to put off the project again. When I was younger I used to think that my good intentions were somehow communicated to people by a secret telepathic wig-wag system. It was therefore disappointing to see at last that unless I spelt things out I couldn’t hope to get credit for goodwill. I expect to be through with proofs in about two weeks and you should be receiving pages from me in about a month’s time.

I’m not sure that you will want a photograph of me in your new journal. It seems that after I have finished a novel, I always want to write an essay to go with it, hitting everyone on the head. I did that when Henderson the Rain King appeared, and a very bad idea it was too, guaranteed misinterpretation of my novel. You shouldn’t give readers two misinterpretable texts at the same time. And if you do publish my picture I will join the ten most wanted.

Yours most earnestly and sincerely,

Saul Bellow


Bellow was angry at his former student for her comment in the above article by Louis Simpson, and responded to her letter to him in the following fashion.

To Ruth Miller

That was a welcome letter. I haven’t forgotten you, either. If I was your first teacher, you were my first pupil, and my heart hasn’t altogether turned to stone. I’ve often reproached myself for my impatience towards you. I mitigate nothing by telling you that I’m like my poor father, first testy then penitent. One must free one’s soul from these parental influences. Poor Papa’s soul was his, after all, and mine is mine, and it’s sheer laziness to borrow his behavior. We all do that, of course. He did it, too. Only he was too busy with life’s battles to remove his father’s thumbprints and cleanse the precious surfaces. We’ve been luckier. We have the leisure for it.

I read Simpson’s piece in the Times before your letter came, and I didn’t quite know how to deal with it. It was cheap, mean, it did me dirt. I had thought Simpson was paying no more attention to me than I’ve paid to him over the years. One can’t look into everything, after all. I was indifferent to his poetry and it was only fair that he should pay no attention to what I wrote. I had no idea that he was in such a rage. But age does do some things for us (nothing comparable to what it takes away) and I have learned to endure such fits.

I don’t ask myself why the Times prints such miserable stuff, why I must be called an ingrate, a mental tyrant, a thief, a philistine enemy of poetry, a narcissist incapable of feeling for others, a failed artist. Nor why this must be done in the Sunday Magazine for many millions of readers. Such things are not written about industrialists, or spies, or bankers, or trade-union leaders, or Idi Amin, or Palestinian terrorists, only about the author of a novel who wanted principally to be truthful and to give delight. It doesn’t stab me to the heart, however. I know what newspapers are – and what writers are, and know that they can occasionally try to destroy one another. I’ve never done it myself, but I’ve seen it done, often enough.

Louie’s hatred and my discomfort are minor matters, comparatively. He can’t kill me. He’s only doing dirt on my heart (by intention – he didn’t actually succeed).

But I was upset to find you mentioned in his piece, and this is why I say that I didn’t quite know how to deal with it. I wondered why you should find it necessary to testify against me and say that I was an artist manque. After many years in the trade, I’m well aware that the papers twist people’s words and that at times their views are reversed for them by reporters and editors. But you were angry with me, and Stony Brook isn’t exactly filled with my friends and admirers. Nor do I, from my side, think of Stony Brook as a great center of literary power in which a renaissance is about to begin, led by Kazin and Jack Ludwig and Louie. (Not that I’ve written reviews and articles about them.) So I didn’t expect you to say kind things about me. But I didn’t expect unkind things in print, and I was shocked by the opinion attributed to you that Humboldt was my confession of utter failure.

Louie I could dismiss. A writer who doesn’t know quality when he sees it doesn’t have to be taken seriously. A reader who doesn’t see that the book is a very funny one can also be disregarded; one can only wonder why the deaf should attend concerts. But you I don’t dismiss. And I thought, “I’ve steered Ruth wrong. What has this girl from Albany Park gained by ending up in Stony Brook? It is possible that she should have become one of these killers?”

I began to compose a few Herzog notes in my mind. But I wouldn’t have sent any of them. You might not have been guilty of any offense. I do not defend myself anymore (in the old way). I have other concerns, now. But then your letter arrived. And you are what I always thought you were, and I am still your old loving friend,

Saul Bellow


April 12, 1979

To Ann Birstein

So Alfred thought that living with you was like living with me! I can’t quite define my reaction, I never took the slightest sexual interest in him. The best I could do was to appreciate his merits. But esteem, you know, is far from attraction.

Hearing that he was at South Bend, I wrote to him in a Christian spirit (what a pity the Christians have a corner on the Christian spirit; isn’t there some way to break the monopoly?) and gave him my telephone number and he called me, but we were both too much in demand to make a date, and then we were snowed in for some months, so we haven’t seen each other yet. I’m going to try again now that strolling weather is nearly here.

No, I didn’t know that you and he had finally separated. Inevitably, I had heard rumors, but gossip can never damage you, I don’t mean anybody, I mean you specifically. After three divorces I can’t say that I am ever pleased to hear of a divorce. In your case, however (you will forgive me if I tell you this), the delay must have been very damaging. But one can never really regret the course one’s life has taken. There are always perfectly sound reasons why it couldn’t have gone any other way. It’s only my fondness for you (I remember still how Isaac and I were taken with you when you became Alfred’s fiancee; I’ve never changed my mind) that makes me speculate sentimentally.

I take it as a sign of health that you have written a novel. I want to read it when Doubleday begins to send out copies.


Saul Bellow


Bellow wrote to Eleanor Clark after reading her novel Gloria Mundi.

October 10, 1979

To Eleanor Clark

Reading Gloria Mundi made my return to Chicago considerably easier, lessened the culture shock. In the summer I am in Vermont, not of it (trees, skies, books, wife – an aesthetic sanctuary). Yours, the real Vermont, put things in perspective. There are connections between Wilmington and Chicago.

I admired your book. I took particular pleasure in the speed with which you got over the foothills to reach the necessary altitude, the place where things happen, the stripped-for-action, unencumbered plainness of the narrative. A complex subject presented without awkwardness, complication or rhetorical backing and filling. “Short views, for God’s sake!” That’s what Sydney Smith said. That’s what the art of describing our breakdown demands. I took great satisfaction in your Vermonters, satisfaction of a different sort in the parachuting clergyman and the brat-maniacs. I was happy with your sketch of the Old Man, too. He took such pride in his culture. You remember his Céline essay, I’m sure, and the statements about the future of culture under socialism. Then the common man will be a Goethe, a Beethoven. He had me fooled. Alas for poor him, and poor us.

Alexandra still talks about the evening we spent together. It made [Saul] Steinberg’s visit too. Next summer you come and dine with us.

Thanks for the book.

Yours ever,

Saul Bellow

greg bellow saul heart

July 16, 1983

To Anne Doubillon Walter

You are probably used to my long silences. They aren’t a sign of absent-mindedness really or of old-fashioned procrastination (“the thief of time”). I am simply incapable of “keeping up.” I have never understood how to manage my time and now I have less strength to invest in attempted management. The days flutter past and this would be entertaining if I could compare them to butterflies, but there’s nothing at all picturesque or cheerful about this condition. Rather it makes me heavy-hearted. Not a leaden state, just something permanently regrettable. Thus I hold your letter of March 3rd, which I intended to answer immediately because it contained a request. I wanted to tell you that a book about me vu par yourself would please me greatly, and of course you have my permission without restriction.

I thought of looking for you in Paris last September, but Flammarion and Co. left me no time for myself. I had nothing but the use of my eyes for looking past my interlocutors at the Seine. In my “spare” time I was presented to Monsieur Mitterand. He is a pleasant man, but I had some rather sharp exchanges with Mssrs. Debray and Lang [minister of culture under Mitterand]. I have a friend in Chicago who says that a minister of culture is a fatal clinical symptom. It tells you “culture is more abundant here.” And if the French insist on using such American techniques for getting into the papers and onto the television screen, I don’t see how they can then have the toupet to criticize the Americans. All they can say against the Americans is that they have made more progress in corruption. With a little help M. Lang will outstrip us.

For heaven’s sake, Anny, don’t worry about returning the loan. You will give me a good dinner one of these days, or send me some French books.

Dear old friend,

Saul Bellow


July 19, 1987

To Cynthia Ozick

At the Academy I was happy to see you, but then a wave of embarrassment struck me when I was reminded of my neglect and bad manners. You didn’t mean to embarrass me when you reminded me that I owed you a letter (there had been a gap of two years). The embarrassment came from within, a check to my giddiness. It excited me to have so many wonderful contacts under the Academy’s big top. Too many fast currents, too much turbulence, together with a terrible scratching at the heart; a sense that the pleasures of the day were hopeless, too boundless and wild to be enjoyed. There was such a crowd of dear people to see but I had unsettled accounts with all of them.

I should have written you a letter, it was too late to make the deaths of my brothers an excuse. Since they died, I wrote a book; why not a letter? A mysterious but truthful answer is that while I can gear myself up to do a novel, letters, real-life communications, are too much for me. I used to rattle them off easily enough; why is the challenge of writing to friends and acquaintances too much for me now? Because I have become such a solitary, and not in the Aristotelian sense: not a beast, not a god. Rather, a loner troubled by longings, incapable of finding a suitable language and despairing at the impossibility of composing messages in a playable key, as if I no longer understood the codes used by the estimable people who wanted to hear from me and would have so much to reply if only the impediments were taken away. By now I have only the cranky idiom of my books, the letters-in-general of an occult personality, a desperately odd somebody who has, as a last resort, invented a technique of self-representation.

You are the sort of person – and writer – to whom I can say such things, my kind of writer (without sclerosis in the matter of letters). I stop short of saying that you are humanly my sort. I have no grounds for that, I know you through your books, which I always read because they are written by the real thing. There aren’t too many real things around. (A fact so well known that I would be tedious to elaborate on it.) You might have been one of the dazzling virtuosi, like [William] Gaddis. I might have done well in that line myself if I hadn’t for one reason or another set my heart on being one of the real things. Life might have been easier in the literary concert-hall circuit. But Paganini wasn’t Jewish.

You probably see what I am clumsily getting at. I’ve been wending my way toward your Messiah and I speak as an admirer, not a critic. About Bruno Schulz I feel very much as you do, and although we have never discussed the Jewish question (or any other), and we would be bound to disagree (as Jewish discussants invariably do), it is certain that we would, at any rate, find each other Jewish enough. But I was puzzled by your Messiah. I puzzled myself over it. I liked the Hans Christian Andersen charm of your poor earnest young man in a Scandinavian capital, who is quixotic, deluded, fanatical, who lives on a borrowed Jewishness, leads a hydroponic existence and tries so touchingly to design his own selfhood. But when he is challenged by reality, we see the worst of him; nine times nine devils (to go to the other Testament for a moment) rush into him, and in his last state, because he is not the one and only authentic Schulz-interpreter, he becomes a mere literary pro, that is, a non-entity. I read your book on the plane to Israel, and in Haifa gave my copy to A. B. Yehoshua. He wanted it, and I urged him to read it. So in writing you, I haven’t got a text to refer to, and must trust my memory or the memory of my impressions. When I read it I was highly pleased. When I thought back on it I felt you might have depended too much on your executive powers, your virtuosity (I’ve often passed the same judgment on myself) and that you wanted more from your subject than it actually yielded.

It’s perfectly true that “Jewish Writers in America” (a repulsive category!) missed what should have been for them the central event of their time, the destruction of European Jewry. I can’t say how our responsibility can be assessed. We (I speak of Jews now and not merely of writers) should have reckoned more fully, more deeply with it. Nobody in America seriously took this on and only a few Jews elsewhere (like Primo Levi) were able to comprehend it all. The Jews as a people reacted justly to it. So we have Israel, but in the matter of higher comprehension – well, the mental life of the century having been disfigured by the same forces of deformity that produced the Final Solution, there were no minds fit to comprehend. And intellectuals are trained to expect and demand from art what intellect is unable to do. (Following the foolish conventions of high-mindedness.) All parties then are passing the buck and every honest conscience feels the disgrace of it.

I was too busy becoming a novelist to take note of what was happening in the Forties. I was involved with “literature” and given over to preoccupations with art, with language, with my struggle on the American scene, with claims for recognition of my talent or, like my pals of the Partisan Review, with modernism, Marxism, New Criticism, with Eliot, Yeats, Proust, etc. – with anything except the terrible events in Poland. Growing slowly aware of this unspeakable evasion I didn’t even know how to begin to admit it into my inner life. Not a particle of this can be denied. And can I really say – ”can anyone say” – what was to be done, how this “thing” ought to have been met? Since the late Forties I have been brooding about it and sometimes I imagine I can see something. But what such brooding may amount to is probably insignificant. I can’t even begin to say what responsibility any of us may bear in such a matter, in a crime so vast that it brings all Being into Judgment.

Metaphysical aid, as somebody says in Macbeth (God forgive the mind for borrowing from such a source in this connection), would be more like it than “responsibility”; intercession from the spiritual world, assuming that there is anybody here capable of being moved by powers nobody nowadays takes seriously. Everybody is so “enlightened.” By ridding myself of a certain amount of enlightenment I can at least have thoughts of this nature. I entertain them at night while rational censorship is sleeping. Revelation is, after all, at the heart of Jewish understanding, and revelation is something you can’t send away for. You can’t be ordered to procure it.

Some paragraphs back I said that you didn’t seem to be getting what you really wanted from your Messiah novel. I can’t think that I would offend you by speaking as I speak to myself. I have often rushed into the writing of a book and after thirty or forty pages, just after taking off, I felt that I had made a crazy jump, that I had yielded to a mad convulsion, and that from this convulsion of madness, absolutely uncalled-for and self-generated, I might never recover. At the start the fast take-off seemed such a wonderful and thrilling exploit. I believed in it still. But could I bring it off, would I land safely or fall into the ocean? I experienced the same anxiety in the middle of your novel (the Mediterranean below). You would be fully justified in calling this a projection and turning it against me. Anyway, I did have the sensation of turbulence, a dangerous air-storm. I felt you were brilliant and brave at the controls.

With best wishes,

Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow: Letters was edited by Benjamin Taylor and you can purchase it here.


In Which Things Are A Lot Worse In The Morning


Theater of the Absurd


This rough-looking, pinned back challenge. You only laughed among your friends, those you knew for longer than you knew me. That is how I knew there was something dark inside you, and the laugh was a kind of easing.

There is a castle in a place we both know. Inside the tower, spaces oscillate between cramped and open. Part of me wanders from room to room there. I just wanted you to pose for one photograph. That was all. Candids aren’t my style.

Rub a particular spot in concentric circles. Tell lies the whole time you are doing it. Tell truths afterwards.

Once I complained that you never asked me for anything. Then you demanded much that I never intended to give. You used my phone for a calculator, metaphorically. It was only good for that, I was only worthwhile to fill in some aspect of a desire. Sections of you, pieces of yourself never resemble the larger whole. I am so much more complete than you.

80, 50, 42, 10. Fold the rope so it burns at both ends. Near the castle, but not inside it, a little girl screams, “Take me with you.”

There were much worse heartbreaks than this, much more awful people. Over time you start to admire the honest ones. Now I tell what exactly it was that made me feel nothing, so that the abscess never has to wonder about its removal. This is only kind: a ghost is a vicious kind of creature, the sort that never leaves well enough alone.


Meeting someone new feels impossible. So much of me is stuck behind somewhere. The only thing that takes my mind off the pain is reading. In one novel, a man visits the realm of Faerie. When he goes to leave, he sees the spectre of himself still resting on the beach. He says that he wishes he could spend the rest of his life there, in the dangerous and wild part of the universe. “Doesn’t part of you remain there?” his friend asks.

One thing that bothers me in all the love stories I read is that they have such definite boundaries and strictures. Moving up and down on a wet point. Bending back the focus, rough at the base. Delight.

Fading out, the softness of your hands and shoulders. Light from the kitchen, the vastness of the pillows. The city stretched out behind us, everyone else planning for a future that was bound to come. I shook nervously, too far from home, and the refractions preyed upon me. We all become too much like one another, merely through proximity.

Let’s be fully open. Even when you screamed at me in Bloomingdale’s, I blamed myself. I always loved you, but I didn’t bother saying it. You said that you loved espresso and popcorn, bedsheets and black boots. Those were all the things that can’t really love you back.

In the mornings it is so much worse.


In my sorrow I go back to these old places. It is better than being taken by surprise, casually walking onto the grounds. I need to prepare myself for the fact that you will always inhabit this New York for me. I know you will never think about me within the walls at all. You have to be warm inside to notice the cold.

Putting my fingers in someone’s mouth is never as intimate as I expect. Placing them elsewhere with the lightest touch. I try to be kind until I have a reason otherwise, but that reason usually arrives, coming up through the bedsprings.

Winter is the worst time to be alone. I received a letter from a woman I loved. Of course I never told her. It was an apology, an unneeded one really, since she at least had the courtesy to never promise me what she could not give. At the time I called her cruel, but now I think she was just being merciful to never give me a chance. She knew her heart better than I did: how small it was.

Dan Carville is the senior contributor to This Recording.