Thursday, April 07, 2005

Obituary: Saul Bellow, 89, master of American novel

By Mel Gussow and Charles McGrath The New York Times

Saul Bellow  Posted by Hello

Saul Bellow, 89, the Nobel laureate and self-proclaimed historian of society whose fictional heroes - and whose scathing, unrelenting and darkly comic examination of their struggle for meaning - gave new immediacy to the American novel in the second half of the 20th century, died Tuesday at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts.

"I cannot exceed what I see," he once said. "I am bound, in other words, as the historian is bound by the period he writes about, by the situation I live in."

But his was a history of a particular and idiosyncratic sort. The center of his fictional universe was Chicago, where he grew up and spent most of his life, and which he made into the first city of American letters. Many of his works are set there, and almost all of them have a Midwestern earthiness and brashness. Like their creator, Bellow's heroes were all head and all body. They tended to be dreamers, questers or bookish intellectuals, but they lived in a lovingly depicted world of cranks, con men, fast-talking salesmen and wheeler-dealers.

In novels like "The Adventures of Augie March," his breakthrough novel in 1953, "Henderson the Rain King" and "Herzog," Bellow laid a path for old-fashioned, supersized characters and equally big themes and ideas. All his work, long and short, was written in a distinctive, immediately recognizable style that blended high and low, colloquial and mandarin, wisecrack and aphorism, as in the introduction of the poet Humboldt at the beginning of "Humboldt's Gift":

"He was a wonderful talker, a hectic nonstop monologuist and improvisator, a champion detractor. To be loused up by Humboldt was really a kind of privilege. It was like being the subject of a two-nosed portrait by Picasso, or an eviscerated chicken by Soutine."

Bellow stuck to an individualistic path, steering clear of cliques, fads and schools of writing. He was frequently lumped together with Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud as a Jewish-American writer, but he rejected the label.

Bellow grew up reading the Old Testament, Shakespeare and the great 19th-century Russian novelists, and always looked with respect to the masters, even as he tried to recast himself in the American idiom. A scholar as well as teacher, he read deeply and quoted widely, often referring to Henry James, Marcel Proust and Gustave Flaubert. While others were ready to proclaim the death of the novel, he continued to think of it as a vital form. "I never tire of reading the master novelists," he said. "Can anything as vivid as the characters in their books be dead?"

In a long and unusually productive career, Bellow dodged many of the snares that typically entangle American writers. He didn't drink much, and though he was analyzed four times, his mental health was as robust as his physical health. His success came neither too early nor too late, and he took it more or less in stride. He never ran out of ideas and he never stopped writing.

The Nobel Prize, which he won in 1976, was the cornerstone of a career that also included a Pulitzer Prize, three National Book Awards, a Presidential Medal and more honors than any other American writer. In contrast with some other winners, who were wary of the albatross of the Nobel, Bellow accepted it matter-of-factly. "The child in me is delighted," he said. "The adult in me is skeptical." He took the award, he said, "on an even keel," aware of "the secret humiliation" that "some of the very great writers of the century didn't get it."

This most American of writers was born in Lachine, Quebec, a poor immigrant suburb of Montreal. He was the last of four children of Abram and Liza Bellow, but as he was always quick to point out, the first to be born in the New World. His parents had emigrated from Russia two years before.

In 1924, when their son was 9, the Bellows moved to Chicago, where the family began to prosper a little as Abram picked up work. The family continued its old ways in the United States, and during his childhood, Saul was steeped in Jewish tradition, learning Hebrew and Yiddish.

But eventually he rebelled against what he considered to be a "suffocating orthodoxy," and he found in Chicago not just a physical home but a spiritual one. Eventually the city became for him what London was for Dickens and Dublin was for Joyce - the center of both his life and his work, and not just a place or a background but almost a character in its own right.

In 1933 he enrolled at the University of Chicago, but two years later transferred to Northwestern. He had hoped to study literature but was put off by what he saw as the tweedy anti-Semitism of the English department, and graduated in 1937 with honors in anthropology and sociology, subjects that were later to infuse his novels. But he was still obsessed by fiction. While doing graduate work in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, he found that "every time I worked on my thesis, it turned out to be a story." He added, "I sometimes think the Depression was a great help. It was no use studying for any other profession."

Quitting his graduate studies at Wisconsin after several months, he participated in the WPA Writers' Project in Chicago, preparing biographies of Midwestern novelists, and later joined the editorial department of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

He came to New York "toward the end of the '30s, muddled in the head but keen to educate myself." He later joined the merchant marine and, during his service, he completed "Dangling Man," about the alienation of a young Chicagoan waiting to be drafted. It was published in 1944, before the author was 30, and was followed by "The Victim," a novel about anti-Semitism that he said, was influenced by Dostoyevsky. In 1948, financed by a Guggenheim fellowship, Bellow went to Paris.

His first major novel, "The Adventures of Augie March," was published in 1953, and it became Bellow's breakthrough, his first best seller and the book that established him as a writer of consequence. The beginning of the novel was as striking and as unforgettable as the beginning of "Huckleberry Finn," and it announced a brand-new voice in American fiction, jazzy, brash, exuberant.

With "Henderson the Rain King" in 1959, Bellow envisioned an even more ambitious canvas than that of "Augie March," with the story of an American millionaire who travels in Africa in search of regeneration. "Herzog," in 1964, featured as its title character a Jewish Everyman who is cuckolded by his wife and his best friend. The novel won a National Book Award.

With "Mr. Sammler's Planet" in 1969, a novel about a survivor of the Holocaust living and ruminating in New York, Bellow won his third National Book Award.

"Humboldt's Gift," in 1975, was one of his greatest successes. In it, Charlie Citrine, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, must come to terms with the death of his mentor, the poet Von Humboldt Fleischer. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Nobel Prize for literature soon followed, with the Royal Swedish Academy citing his "exuberant ideas, flashing irony, hilarious comedy and burning compassion," and Bellow was now placed in a class with Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

In "Humboldt's Gift," the protagonist, Charlie Citrine, says, "What a woman-filled life I always led." Those are words that could have been echoed by the author, who was married five times. His wives were Anita Goshkin, Alexandra Tsachacbasov, Susan Glassman, Alexandra Ionescu Tulcea and Janis Freedman. All of Bellow's marriages but his last ended in divorce.


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