IT'S something of a surprise to note that Saul Bellow's latest work, ``It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future,'' is the first collection of his nonfiction writings. It is, of course, less surprising when we are reminded that Bellow has always regarded himself as a writer of fiction, or, as one of his more pedantic professors condescendingly dubbed the aspiring young novelist, a ``romancier.''
The 31 pieces assembled here include lectures, essays, articles, eulogies, and interviews published over the course of four decades, from a grimly perceptive account of a 1948 trip to Franco's Spain to an eloquent and insightful tribute to Mozart on the composer's bicentennial in 1992.
It's a varied assortment of commentary, reportage, and reminiscence. Bellow's impressions of a visiting Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 are a vivid reminder of how this frightening, yet comic figure struck many of us: ``He wears his instincts on his sleeve, or like Dostoyevsky's Father Karamazov, that corrupt and deep old man, he feigns simplicity.''
Bellow's coolly scathing assessment of New York in 1970 still rings true: ``I do not think anyone will fly in today from Boise, Idaho, eagerly seeking in New York other writers whose love of poetry is pure or who are waiting on the steps of the public library like Athenians to discuss Existance or Justice. The publicity intellectuals have little interest in such matters. They read little, and they don't gather to talk about literature.''
There are tributes to those who, he believes, really did care about literature - John Berryman, Issac Rosenfeld, John Cheever, Allan Bloom, William Arrowsmith - and some reflective, pleasantly rambling essays on writers, readers, cities, teachers, and the parlous state of modern culture.
A writer whose prose is remarkable for its lively, distinctly personal style, Bellow is generally reticent about himself. A few glimpses of the private man can be gleaned from this collection: an infant imbibing the names of Lenin and Trotsky while eating mashed potatoes in his high chair; a sickly little boy whose close brush with death left him convinced he had been spared to do something important; a near-penniless young novelist sitting on a park bench, contemplating ``the oddity of his calling.''
In later years, Bellow, like the aging, dignified, European-born hero of his novel ``Mr. Sammler's Planet,'' slips comfortably into the role of defender of high culture and Western values. As Bellow argues on behalf of Bloom, this need not mean that one is ``a rigid conservative.'' But sometimes, too often, it does.
The question is: To what extent is a ``defender of Western values'' merely reacting against - or failing to grasp the importance of - the genuinely valuable contributions of previously silenced voices and to what extent is the defender of values actually concerned about ensuring that the greatest works of literature and art are preserved for the sustenance of future generations?
Some of Bellow's pronouncements betray a sort of dismissive irritability toward the claims of feminists, homosexuals, and multiculturalists.
But the preponderance of his musings point us in a more fruitful direction: ``When I say ... that the mind that takes in the `Dallas' melodrama is capable of absorbing Homer and Shakespeare - or Mozart...,'' he remarks, ``I am saying also that we have transhistorical powers.... We have concentrated with immense determination on what forms us externally but that need not actually govern us internally. It can do that only if we grant it the right.''