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Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, a master of comic melancholy who in “Herzog,” “Humboldt’s Gift” and other novels both championed and mourned the soul’s fate in the modern world, died Tuesday. He was 89.
Bellow’s close friend and attorney, Walter Pozen, said the writer had been in declining health, but was “wonderfully sharp to the end.” Pozen said that Bellow’s wife and daughter were at his side when he died at his home in Brookline, Mass.
Bellow was the most acclaimed of a generation of Jewish writers who emerged after World War II, among them Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick. To American letters, he brought the immigrant’s hustle, the bookworm’s brains and the high-minded notions of the born romantic.
‘Backbone of 20th-century American literature’
“The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists — William Faulkner and Saul Bellow,” Philip Roth said in a statement Tuesday. “Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the 20th century.”
He was the first writer to win the National Book Award three times: in 1954 for “The Adventures of Augie March,” in 1965 for “Herzog” and in 1971 for “Mr. Sammler’s Planet.” In 1976, he won the Pulitzer Prize for “Humboldt’s Gift.” That same year Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, cited for his “human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture.” In 2003, the Library of America paid the rare tribute of releasing work by a living writer, issuing a volume of Bellow’s early novels.
“If the soul is the mind at its purest, best, clearest, busiest, profoundest,” Ozick wrote in 1984, “then Bellow’s charge has been to restore the soul to American literature.”
In spite, or perhaps because, of all the praise, Bellow also had detractors. Norman Mailer called “Augie March” a “travelogue for timid intellectuals.” Critic Alfred Kazin, a longtime friend who became estranged from Bellow, thought the author had become a “university intellectual” with “contempt for the lower orders.” Biographer James Atlas accused Bellow of favoring “subservient women in order to serve his own shaky self-image.”
Old-fashioned, but not complacent, the author strove to ward off the “Nobel curse,” not to be softened by literature’s highest honor. He kept writing into his 80s and, hoping to make his work more affordable, had his novella “A Theft” published as a paperback original in 1989.
His recent works included “The Actual,” a sentimental novella published in 1997, and “Ravelstein,” a 2000 novel based on the life of his late friend, Allan Bloom, author of “The Closing of the American Mind.” Also in 2000, Bellow was the subject of Atlas’ acclaimed biography.
‘Deeply emotional ... highly intellectual’Bellow had a gift for describing faces, and the author’s own looks — snowy hair, aristocratic nose and space between his front teeth — were familiar from book jackets. His personality was equally distinctive. In “Humboldt’s Gift,” the narrator’s childhood sweetheart refers to him as a “good man who’s led a cranky life.” His longtime agent, Harriet Wasserman, once described him as being as “deeply emotional as he is highly intellectual and cerebral.”
He had five wives, three sons and, at age 84, a daughter. He met presidents (Kennedy, Johnson) and movie stars (Marilyn Monroe, Jack Nicholson). He feuded with writers (Truman Capote, Mailer), and helped out others, notably William Kennedy, on whose behalf he lobbied to get his work published.
After teaching for many years at the University of Chicago, Bellow stunned both the literary and academic world by leaving the city with which he was so deeply associated. In 1993, he accepted a position at Boston University, where he taught a freshman-level class on “young men on the make” in literature.
“Saul Bellow was not only a great writer, he was also a superb teacher and friend — a whole and marvelous man,” former Boston University president John Silber said in a statement.
Like his characters, Bellow’s life was an evolution from the unbearable, but comic passion of the Old World, to the unbearable, but comic alienation of the New World.
Ideas formed during the DepressionThe son of Russian immigrants, he was born Solomon Bellows on July 10, 1915, in Lachine, Quebec, outside Montreal. He dropped the final “s” from his last name and changed his first name to Saul when he began publishing his writing in the 1940s.
When he was 9, his family moved from Montreal to Chicago. Bellow learned Hebrew and Yiddish as a young man, and the Old Testament was a living text. His family life was one of violence (his father), of sentiment (both parents) and of humor (everyone). Nothing was left unsaid.
The classic Bellow narrator was a self-absorbed intellectual with ideals the author himself seemed to form during the Depression. While he would remember the fear most people had during those years, Bellow found them an exciting and even liberating time.
“There were people going to libraries and reading books,” he told The Associated Press in a 1997 interview. “They were going to libraries because they were trying to keep warm; they had no heat in their houses. There was a great deal of mental energy in those days, of very appealing sorts. Working stiffs were having ideas.
“Also, you didn’t want to waste your time getting a professional education because when you finished there would be no jobs for you. It seems that the time of the Depression was a suspension of all the normal activities. Everything was held up.”
Bellow did study at the University of Chicago for two years, then transferred and got an undergraduate degree from Northwestern University in nearby Evanston.
He was a contributor to the Partisan Review, along with Kazin, Mary McCarthy and the poet Delmore Schwartz, whom he would re-imagine as Von Humboldt Fleisher in “Humboldt’s Gift.” He worked on a novel he ended up destroying and eventually debuted with “Dangling Man,” in 1944.
A different kind of storytellerFrom the beginning, Bellow was determined to tell a different kind of American story, to depart from the tight-lipped machismo of Ernest Hemingway.
“Do you have emotions? Strangle them. To a degree, everyone obeys this code,” Bellow wrote in “Dangling Man.” While the Hemingway hero keeps his problems to himself, Bellow declared “I intend to talk about mine.”
While the Bellow themes were in place from the start, his prose matured later. As the author himself would acknowledge, his early books were too prim, too careful. Only in 1953, with “The Adventures of Augie March,” would readers see another Bellow: the funny Bellow, the immigrant Bellow, Bellow the son of a bootlegger.
“There was a way for children of European immigrants in America to write about this experience with a new language. I felt like a creator of a language suddenly and was intoxicated. It was truly intoxicating and I couldn’t control it. It took me several books to rein it in.”
“Augie March” and the books that followed — “Seize the Day,” “Henderson the Rain King,” “Herzog” — established him as a major writer. In each work Bellow lived up to Augie March’s idea of imaginative power, of inventing “a man who can stand before the terrible appearances.”
Bellow’s men stood before the New World, and trembled. Nonbelievers amid the worship of machines and money, they shook with existential despair. They did everything from compose letters to dead people in “Herzog” to running off to Africa in “Henderson the Rain King.”
Price of freedom: Judgment calls
“There is something terribly nervous-making about a modern existence. For one thing, it’s all the thinking we have to do and all the judgments we have to make. It’s the price of freedom: make the judgments, make the mental calls,” Bellow said.
Among his most personal novels was “Humboldt’s Gift,” which Bellow described as “a comic book about death,” culminating in a graveyard scene as emotional as anything he wrote.
The novel was also personal in other ways. The main character, Charlie Citrine, is an aging Chicago writer chasing a younger woman while trying to keep a former wife from ruining him financially.
Two years after the book was published, Bellow faced a 10-day jail term for contempt of court in an alimony dispute with his third wife, Susan Glassman Bellow. An Illinois appeals court overturned the sentence.
In December 1999, Bellow’s fifth wife, Janis Freedman, gave birth to their daughter, Naomi. Bellow, 84 at the time, also had three grown sons from prior marriages, and quipped about finally having a girl: “If I didn’t succeed at first, I’ll try again.”
Bellow’s funeral will be private, Pozen said. A public memorial is also planned.