Don’t ask the wives. (Except the last one, Janis, who was a force behind this volume, mother of his last child, and staunch keeper of the flame.) They lived with the man who wrote these letters. They also lived with the man who wrote the novels, and the distance between these two men, you imagine, must be part of the story of the wives’ fiery sense of right and wrong. Bellow’s striving with life’s problems, when the reviewers’ backs were turned, most often involved the complications of the heart, to put it nicely. One might instead speak of matrimonial torture, faithlessness, cheating, divorce, alimony, parental access and the courts. Bellow had a big heart for struggling male souls, and the letters are at their most tender when he’s dealing with people like Berryman or John Cheever – ‘you were engaged, as a writer should be, in transforming yourself … I loved you for this’ – but the wives, sadly, emerge with snakes for hair. In fact he gives them the same sort of critical dermabrasion he gives to the critics, searing their faces: you never understood me; you’re not qualified to judge me; why don’t you just climb into the centre of your smallness and fuck off and die.
"[Y]ou were engaged, as a writer should be, in transforming yourself ..." There is a widespread notion that the creation of art is so important that it gives artists license to behave however they wish. Well, it isn't and they shouldn't.