Saul Bellow: A Life Well Written; Novels That Did Culture's Heavy Lifting

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 9, 2005 | Go to article overview

Saul Bellow: A Life Well Written; Novels That Did Culture's Heavy Lifting


Byline: Scott Galupo, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Saul Bellow was born to Ukrainian-Jewish parents in Lachine, Quebec. To paraphrase his hero's final quip about Columbus in the coda of his masterwork, "The Adventures of Augie March": That doesn't prove Saul Bellow wasn't American.

Mr. Bellow, who died Tuesday, just months before his 90th birthday, was an immigrant upstart. He never finished his postgraduate anthropology studies at Northwestern University, but he could last 15 rounds with the literary mavens of Partisan Review.

He smuggled a "low-life patois" (Martin Amis' phrase) into some of the most admired - and sometimes recherche - prose in American letters. He was Mark Twain neologizing in Yiddish.

Much has been written of Mr. Bellow's fusion of ideas, "big illuminations," with the cadences of the street and of his unavoidable membership in the generation of great, midcentury Jewish-American novelists, including Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Cynthia Ozick.

But, inveterate Chicagoan though he was, he was Russian in his core. Tolstoy and Dostoevski were his lodestars.

Mr. Bellow spent his lengthy working life worrying that modernity and its many distractions had crowded out what he, unembarrassed, called the soul, the place of repose and higher contemplation.

Mr. Bellow grew up learning Hebrew in a slum neighborhood of Chicago, the locus of his fiction even after he migrated to leafy New England. He came to reject the truth claims of his inherited religion. Yet he accepted that the longings it expressed were real. They were holes that needed plugging.

Science and "rational inquiry," he said, quoting Hegel in his 1976 Nobel lecture, "engaged the central energies of man." Art could no longer do the heavy lifting it once did - "we no longer bent our knees."

In their different ways - comic, cerebral and vulgar - Mr. Bellow's novels tried to reinvigorate the muscles atrophied by enlightenment; they were, so to speak, bendings of the knee.

He was speaking of novels generally, though the principle no doubt applies to his own, when he said: "The novel can't be compared to the epic, or to the monuments of poetic drama. But it is the best we can do just now. It is a sort of latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter."

To close the last page of his gemlike novella "Seize the Day" was to leave a man weeping at a stranger's funeral, sinking "deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart's ultimate need."

The millionaire hero of "Henderson the Rain King" - a character who, improbably, turned up in a Counting Crows pop-rock song - battled a fearsome lion in the African savannah in his inner quest to graduate from becoming to being.

Augie March dabbled in myriad odd jobs, hopped trains with hobos, stole great books and romantically observed Leon Trotsky from afar in Mexico in a floundering pursuit of "deep-water greatness."

Mr. Bellow could skip from Goethe to gangsters in a paragraph. His half-insane desperado, Moses Herzog, communed with dead white men through letters before pondering the murder of his wife's lover, whom he observes in the most excruciating of intimacies, bathing his daughter.

Reading Mr. Bellow was to learn incidentally that the French poet Baudelaire called sleeping a "sinister adventure" and that during the Great Depression, men would pull their cars over, bumper to bumper, to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio: "They had rolled down the windows and opened the car doors. …

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