The Stinking Fog of Falsehood




A letter from Saul Bellow to Jack Ludwig, circa February 1961. Ludwig and Bellow had met years earlier at Bard College, where they became close friends. Later, Ludwig began an affair with Bellow’s second wife, Sondra. The romance was something of an open secret; asked at a party if he knew Bellow, Ludwig supposedly responded, “Know him? Hell, I’m fucking his wife.” When at last Bellow learned of the affair, he wrote the letter below, which his biographer James Atlas calls “a masterpiece of comic invective.” The magazine in reference is The Noble Savage, which Bellow and Ludwig had founded in 1960.

Dear Jack;

I have tried very hard to avoid writing this letter, but I suppose there’s nothing else to do now. Your phenomenal reply of February 4th forces me to tell you a few of the things I feel about your relations to the magazine and me, personally.

[…] I don’t think you are a fit editor of the magazine. You have, in some departments, good judgment. I trusted your taste and thought you might be reliable as an editor, but you are too woolly, self-absorbed, rambling, ill-organized, slovenly, heedless and insensitive to get on with. And you must be in a grotesque mess, to have lost your sense of reality to the last shred. I think you never had much to start with, and your letter reveals that that’s gone, too.

In fact it’s a fantastic document and I’m thinking of framing it for my museum. You thought I’d be at the boat to greet Keith? Which boat? I’ve heard of no boat. You took Sondra’s word for it that I was in Tivoli? Well, for several days with Adam I was there. But I was in New York a good deal of the time, and so were you, before Sondra arrived. And besides, why take Sondra’s word for it? She and I exchanged no personal information. How would she know where I was? Did I write her that I would be at Tivoli? Without consulting me, you phoned John Goetz in Mpls to find out whether I was giving you an accurate account of the legal situation last Spring, but without a second thought you simply accept what Sondra tells you of my whereabouts. There seems to me to be a small imbalance here. Especially since we’re not only colleagues buy “friends,” and haven’t seen each other in nearly a year. Pretty odd, isn’t it. And if you had phone (and I believe you’d have had the strength to resist my invitation to Tivoli) wouldn’t I have come to New York to see you? In all this there is some ugliness, something, I don’t want explained, though I’m sure that as a disciple of the Hasidim and believer in Dialogue and an enthusiast for Heschel, and a man of honor from whom I have heard and endured many lectures and reproaches and whose correction I have accepted you have a clear and truthful explanation. All the worse for you if you are not hypocritical. The amount of internal garbage you haven’t taken cognizance of must be, since you never do things on a small scale, colossal.

It wouldn’t do much good to see matters clearly. With the sharpest eye in the world I’d see nothing but the stinking fog of falsehood. And I haven’t got the sharpest eyes in the world; I’m not a superman but superidiot. Only a giant among idiots would marry Sondra and offer you friendship. God knows I am not stainless faultless Bellow. I leave infinities on every side to be desired. But love her as my wife? Love you as my friend? I might as well have gone to work for Ringling Brothers and been shot out of the cannon twice a day. At least they would have let me wear a costume.

Coventry, pal, is not the place.