Saul Bellow, Nobelist 1976
Bellow, of Russian Jewish background, displays characteristics of that heritage in his writing. There is an outward appearance of cynical humor, self-deprecation while inwardly the soul is tragic and in pain. Although Bellow was born in Lachine, a suburb of Montreal, Canada, the most important city in his life and writing was always Chicago to which the family moved when he was nine years old. His education at the University of Chicago was of major impact on his life since he remained connected with it as a professor and a long -time member of The Committee on Social Thought. In an early novel Seize the Day, published in 1956, his “hero” whose life and its insuperable failures describe Wilhelm, a man who is desperate for some help in a life that has defeated him in every way. His father. Dr. Adler, is a cold, very brutally critical parent. His wife seeking a divorce, turns a deaf ear to his pleas for understanding and assistance in the severe economic disaster facing him. In a final blow he is persuaded to invest in a stock by a “friend”, which, naturally, proves to be worthless. Henderson the Rain King, published in 1959, has as its hero an American millionaire who travels to Africa to learn a spiritual example from their ways and he experiences some life- enriching help and also a life-threatening event. Another title, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, published in 1970, to mixed reviews, was nevertheless awarded his third National Book Award. (The first two were The Adventures of Augie March (1953) and Herzog. (1964). Its story line describing the negative reaction of literate Upper West Side Jews to what they considered the deterioration of Western culture resonated with me and reminded me that it was time to reread it. One of the more comic of Bellow’s books is Humboldt ‘s Gift which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. This is arguably the funniest of his novels.
The gift is a scenario for a play that might need Nathan Lane in the cast. The Nobel Prize in 1976 made Bellow the seventh American to receive this outstanding literary recognition. The lecture given by Bellow at that ceremony is a statement of his thoughts about our knowledge of philosophy and important cultural pursuits. That year also included the publication of a non-fiction title. In To Jerusalem and Back, Bellows describes some time spent there and writes of his deep admiration for the people and their achievements. With the headlines in today’s newspapers before us it is a sad commentary on how world events have changed the scene.
He has always continued to write -not only fiction but also articles/many periodicals – a necessity for him as basic as life’s breath. He is a formidable intellectual as well as a powerful writer. He writes this sentence in Herzog, “We’ll never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood.” These are said by Herzog but considering Bellow’s characterization of women’s psyches in his writing as compared to his more perceptive description (those of his male heroes one begins to wonder how well he understands women and wonder about his four divorces before this last marriage which is a happy one. His wife has edited the recent edition of stories published in 2002. As a testament to the salty and funny writing that is also characteristic of Bellow, in describing a restaurant, Italian Village, where he is to meet an unsavory character, he writes – “its Al Capone atmosphere – sauce as red as blood, the foot smell of cheese, the dishes of invertebrates raked up from the sea mud.” (Cousins in Collected Stories. Now there’s an appetite teaser!. The last Bellow novel that I read is a most interesting description of a friendship between a university professor, no doubt of Chicago University, and his attention to, and relationship with,his outstanding students. A very special personal friend, older than he but caring about his health, tells about the richness of their companionship. The pleasure with which we read about their meetings is diminished by the realization that the man of their regard is dying. While his friend cares for him in those last days he himself is soon faced with the possibility of his own death but that has a better outcome. I cannot make some brilliant concluding statement about Saul Bellow. He is a writer, a person who must be described as sui generis. He must be met by you on his own terms and yours, perhaps.#
Lillian L. Shapiro, former supervisor of high school libraries in NYC Schools, is the author of Fiction For Youth.