Saul Bellow, 1915-2005

Article excerpt

Byline: David Gates

"The Adventures of Augie March" may or may not be, as both Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie have suggested, the Great American Novel, but Saul Bellow came as close as anyone in his time to being the great American novelist. If he didn't know absolutely everything (of course he didn't), his best books pack in so much information, observation and thought, and come at you with such relentless energy, that you never reflect as you read that the world outside the novel might be even more rich, dense and complicated.

Bellow flourished back when you could win a Pulitzer Prize, three National Book Awards (a record) and the Nobel--and nevertheless be a best-selling author. His novels are about both highbrows and lowlifes, equally intent on registering the life of the mind, the life of the body and the life of the city. Charlie Citrine, the narrator of "Humboldt's Gift," wants to write a tome that will "do for boredom what Malthus and Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill or Durkheim had done with population, wealth, or the division of labor"; at one point, Bellow lands him in a Playboy Club, unwillingly drinking with a gossip columnist and a gangster--whom he had earlier been forced to watch defecate in a grubby Russian bath. This is the range Philip Roth had in mind when he wrote that Bellow closes "the gap between Thomas Mann and Damon Runyon." Before Bellow, who'd have thought that gap needed filling?

He had written two quieter novels before the garrulous voice of Augie March burst out in 1953, with that defiant, call-me-Ishmaelish first sentence: "I am an American, Chicago born... and I go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way..." This personal declaration of literary independence was rightly taken by other Jewish American writers as a call to duke it out with the Faulkners and Hemingways--both were then living writers--and perhaps to take their place with the Melvilles. …