Byline: DAVID SEXTON
FRIDAY PROFILE - SAUL BELLOW
A FEW YEARS ago, some English writers and critics were asked who they thought was the greatest living novelist in our language. The clear winner was an American.
Saul Bellow was nominated by Martin Amis, John Banville, William Boyd, Malcolm Bradbury, AS Byatt and Salman Rushdie, among others (Jeanette Winterson famously selected herself).
Bellow's death this week at the age of 89 has produced an outpouring of British tributes. The novelist Linda Grant testified that, despite Bellow's advanced age, she screamed in shock when she heard the news. Ian McEwan - who, in the poll, chose Updike over Bellow - wrote a gracious tribute, saying that English writers found in Bellow a "generous inclusiveness - He opened our universe a little more. We owe him everything."
By far the most dedicated British Bellovian is Martin Amis, who became a close friend after he interviewed Bellow in 1983. In that piece, Amis said that he thought Bellow was not just a great American writer but "in a sense he is the writer the twentieth century has been waiting for". Amis acquired much of the punchiness of his own style from Bellow, electing him an alternative literary father.
But, however much British fans would like to emulate the Nobel Laureate, they can not effectively do it. For one thing, Bellow was a writer from a past age, almost a survival of the 19th century, firmly committed to realism and an oldfashioned belief in character.
For another, Bellow's writing was always based on his own life. All of his best work portrays his own experience, from Dangling Man (1944), when the young writer was awaiting military call-up, through the marital anguish of Herzog (1964) to the late story Ravelstein (2000) about his friendship with the gay conservative thinker Allan Bloom.
Bellow's heroes all have his voice, his distinctive way of looking at the world, going for the big ideas at the same time as for street life, directly addressing the most serious questions of life and death, so that you know at once you are in the midst of the full human struggle. No mere literary manner, it was the product of a remarkable history.
He was born in 1915 in Lachine, a small town near Montreal in Canada, the son of recent Jewish immigrants from St Petersburg. In 1924, the family were smuggled over the border to Chicago, where his father took all kinds of jobs to make a living, even becoming a small-scale bootlegger. Although as a boy Bellow studied Hebrew, he says he became completely Americanised by tough, industrial Chicago. It was this mixture of being always an outsider yet deeply imbued in the life of one of America's great cities, that gave Bellow his unique stance, as the intellectual who also knew all about life in the raw. Despite periods in New York and Paris, he never abandoned Chicago or lost touch with his boyhood friends.
To admirers such as Amis this combination of knowing about gangsters with extreme highmindedness was intoxicating. For Bellow had the allure of the sage, of those who assume the mantle of prophecy. Amis reverently said that Bellow's ability to "read" a human face was nothing less than "visionary and biblical" - and he even ended a review by gushing that Bellow's first name should be spelled with an O, not an A. …