REMEMBRANCE: Selected Correspondence of Ray Bradbury, edited by Jonathan R. Eller
Ray Bradbury’s fiction is not for everyone. It was not for me, at any rate, when I was young. The hothouse worlds he created, in novels like “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles,” “Dandelion Wine” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” were like being stuck on carousels when, mentally, I longed to be out riding horses.
I haven’t read Bradbury (1920-2012) in decades or thought much about him. But here is a new book of his letters, “Remembrance: Selected Correspondence of Ray Bradbury.” I love books of letters. Here, perhaps, is a chance to dip a toe back in. Here is a chance to come at him not only fresh but against the grain.
Or not. There is no sugarcoating it: Bradbury’s letters are amazing in their dullness and sterility. If I had to sum up their tone and content in a sentence, it would be: “Thank you for your eight tons of sycophantic bloviating, here are 16 tons in return.” While reading “Remembrance” I began to dream about cutting off my fingers, like Brendan Gleeson in “The Banshees of Inisherin,” one by one, so I wouldn’t have to turn another page.
You can’t blame writers for the quality of their letters — unless they sought to have them published. Apparently, late in life, Bradbury did so. This collection was edited by Bradbury’s biographer, Jonathan R. Eller, who is also a co-founder of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University.
His trilogy of Bradbury biographies is comprehensive and sympathetic, but here he’s done his subject no favors. I am going to resort to making a short list of this book’s drawbacks, to provide scaffolding for my inchoate feelings of distress.
A) The introduction doesn’t introduce Bradbury. The reader requires a certain amount of core information — a gloss of Bradbury’s childhood, education, career, prizes, family, homes, travel, the themes of his work — so as not to enter blind. The introduction is instead a summary of what is to come in the book. This is the least felicitous type of introduction, for the same reason that “as I will demonstrate later” are the worst five words in the English language, after “brace for a water landing.”
B) This book is oddly sorted. Bradbury’s letters are presented not in chronological order but grouped by theme and then, in sub-groupings, by correspondent, so that we are always pinging around in time, like Bill and Ted on their excellent adventure. A letter from 1965 will be followed by one from 2004, and then we are suddenly back in the 1950s. This prevents us from charting the development of Bradbury’s voice and of his inner resources. The hero of our narrative is lost in a maze.
C) Many letters not from Bradbury but to him are included. These are filler and might have been summarized. More to the point, they’re confusing. It’s easy to forget, in a book of Bradbury’s letters, that you are not currently reading Bradbury.
Bradbury appears to have had no friends. There is no sustained correspondence with any one person, and thus no intimacy. Big names are here, for sure (Graham Greene, François Truffaut, Anaïs Nin, Leon Uris), but the letters are transactional. They skim the surface like water bugs. Bradbury rarely mentions his family or incidents from his life.
He was not, in his letters, a close observer. There is no grit, no grease. Rome is “a beautiful, beautiful city”; Venice is “so beautiful, so very beautiful.” Paris? “A fascinating city.” The director John Huston, one of the most ornery and complicated men who ever lived, is “a really nice guy.” Gregory Peck? “You can’t imagine a nicer man.” The director William Wyler? “He is a very nice man indeed.”
So treacly are these letters that they stick to your fingers. Or to your bloody stumps. To Truffaut, who was preparing to make a film version of “Fahrenheit 451”: “You were born to make motion pictures. Your body, your eye, is a camera.” To Federico Fellini: “Thank you for your letter. I shall treasure it always.” To Eddie Albert: “Your performance in ‘A Touch of Petulance’ is a beaut.” To his editor at Knopf: “Thanks, much thanks for the Bogdanovich book of director interviews. It is truly a special gift for me … I will really curl up with this collection!” And so on.
He had an unusual habit, one I’ve never encountered to this extent, of mailing innocent civilians copies of his stories, plays and books. Rule No. 1 of literary life is to not give people copies of your stuff, unless specifically requested. Because a book is not just a book but an obligation. Bradbury sent his novels and stories to, among many other people, President John F. Kennedy (via Arthur Schlesinger Jr.), to both Presidents Bush and to Laura Bush. In the annals of literary and presidential correspondence, I’m not sure there is a sadder snippet than this one, from George W. Bush, the leader of the free world, in 2004: “Thank you for the inscribed copy of your book, ‘The Cat’s Pajamas.’ I appreciate your thoughtfulness.”
This is the point in a review where, so as not to appear to be a complete ogre, a critic will summon a few nice things about a book. Bradbury’s stories about working his way up the ladder of pulp magazines, writing for Thrilling Wonder, Weird Tales and Astounding, are interesting. He provides lessons for young writers, notably about the importance of trusting your subconscious.
His politics turned right as he aged, but I liked his observation, in 1951, that science fiction is “the only remaining form where one can say what one really thinks of the world without being called a Communist.” He foresaw an excellent use for artificial intelligence: “Why not have Plato sitting in your Greek class answering jolly questions about his Republic?” He seemed to have no libido and no sense of humor. But he did note that having several blue-breasted Martian women on a cover would probably goose sales.
Bradbury railed against “snob” big city critics who didn’t take him seriously. I suppose I have joined their number. I’m sorry, Ray. I have no idea whether you were a big phony, a rattling empty can, but this book makes you seem like one. And you don’t have to live in the big city to be turned off by that.
REMEMBRANCE: Selected Correspondence of Ray Bradbury | Edited by Jonathan R. Eller | Simon & Schuster | 509 pp. | $35