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Saul Bellow

(1915 - 2005)

American author, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. Bellow is among the major representatives of Jewish-American writers. His works have widely influenced American literature after World War II. Among Bellow's most famous characters are Augie March, Moses E. Herzog, Arthur Sammler, and Charlie Citrine - a superb gallery of self-doubting, funny, charming, disillusioned, neurotic, and intelligent observers of the modern American way of life.

"There are times when I need to ride in the subway at rush hour or sit in a crowded movie house-that's what I mean by a humanity bath. As cattle must have salt to lick, I sometimes crave physical contact." (from Ravelstein, 2000)

Saul Bellow was born in Lachine, Quebec. His parents had emigrated from Russia to Canada in 1913. Bellow was raised until the age of nine in an impoverished, polyglot section of Montreal, full of Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, and Italians. After his father was beaten - he was a bootlegger - the family moved in 1924 to Chicago. Although Bellow is not considered an autobiographical writer, his Canadian birth is dealt with in his first novel, THE DANGLING MAN (1944), and his Jewish heritage and his several divorces are shared by many of his characters. The death of Bellow's mother, when he was 17, was a deep emotional shock for him. In 1933 Bellow entered the University of Chicago, but transferred to Northwestern University, where he studied anthropology and sociology and graduated in 1937. As friendly advice, the English-department chairman told Bellow to forget his plans to study the language: "No Jew could really grasp the tradition of English literature."

During the winter vacation Bellow fell in love, married, and abandoned his postgraduate studies at Wisconsin University to become a writer. However, it took years before Bellow published his first book. He taught at Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers' College, Chicago, from 1938 to 1942, and worked then for the editorial department of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1943 to 1944. In 1944-45 he served in the US Merchant Marine. After the war Bellow returned to teaching, holding various posts at the Universities of Minnesota, New York, Princeton and Puerto Rico.

While serving with the Merchant Marine, Bellow wrote The Dangling Man, which depicted the intellectual and spiritual vacillations of a young man waiting to be drafted. The novel was loosely based on Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864). It was followed by THE VICTIM (1947), a paranoid story of a doppelganger, set against the realistic background of New York City, however, Chicago became the town that is connected to Bellow's books. "The people of Chicago are very proud of their wickedness. This is good old vulgar politics, despite the pretensions." (Bellow in The New York Times, July 6, 1980) In THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH (1953) Bellow let himself loose and abandoned some of the formal restrictions he had followed in his earlier books. He started to write the book in Paris, and continued it in other places, but "not a single word of the book was composed in Chicago," he later said.

The rich picaresque novel recounts the seemingly unconnected experiences of its hero in his quest for self-understanding. Augie March, the protagonist, is born into an immigrant Jewish family in Chicago before the Depression. His mother is poor and nearly blind. George, his younger brother, is retarded, and his elder brother, Simon, wants to become rich as soon as possible. Each of them is 'drafted untimely into hardships'. Augie proceeds through a variety of dubious jobs and adventures. His employers include the real estate dealer named Einhorn and Mrs. Renling, owner of a smart men's store, and other colorful, energetic characters, obsessed with sex, making money or both. Augie loves women and observes each portion of the female anatomy closely. On his mystical quest to discover 'the lesson and theory of power,' Augie finds everywhere lies, and asks why he always have to fall among theoreticians. The novel is a hymn to city life, it avoids sentimentality, and ends in Augie's healthy laugh.

At the beginning of his career, Bellow was influenced by Trotskyism and the Partisan Review group of intellectuals. He rejected Ernest Hemingway's 'tough guy' model of American fiction, and became engaged with a wide range of cultural fields and tradition - Nietzsche, Oedipal conflicts, popular culture, Russian-Jewish heritage. From the first published stories Bellow's has examined the relation of author-character-narrator. Books narrated in the first person often have been mistaken for representing Bellow's own thoughts. "No writer can take it for granted that the views of his characters will not be attributed to him personally," he has said. "It is generally assumed, moreover, that all the events and ideas of a novel are based on the life experiences and the opinions of the novelist himself." (Bellow in The New York Times, March 10, 1994)

In the play THE LAST ANALYSIS (1965) Bellow attacked naive Freudianism, THE DEAN'S DECEMBER, MORE DIE OF HEARTBREAK, and A THEFT deepened his engagement with the writings of Jung, SEIZE THE DAY used motifs from social anthropology. With The Adventures of Augie March Bellow changed his style, and made his homage to Mark Twain. HERZOG (1964), Bellow's major novel from the 1960s, centers on a middle-aged Jewish intellectual, Moses E. Herzog, whose life had come to a standstill. He is on the brink of suicide, he writes long letters to Nietzsche, Heidegger, ex-wife Madeleine, Adlai Stevenson, and God. As Augie March, Moses Herzog is introspective and troubled, but he finally also finds that he has much reason to be content with his life. After pouring all Herzog's thoughts into letters Bellow notes in the last words of the book: "At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word."

Bellow, too, is convinced that to have a conscience is, after a certain age, to live permanently in an epistemological hell. The reason his and Dostoevsky's heroes are incapable of ever arriving at any closure is that they love their own suffering above everything else. They refuse to exchange their inner torment for the peace of mind that comes with bourgeois propriety or some kind of religious belief. In fact, they see their suffering as perhaps the last outpost of the heroic in our day and age." (Charles Simic in New York Review of Books, May 31, 2001)

From 1960 to 1962 Bellow was co-editor of the literary magazine The Noble Savage, and in 1962 he was appointed professor on the Committee of Social Thought at University of Chicago. In 1975 Bellow visited Israel and recorded his impressions in his first substantial non-fiction book, TO JERUSALEM AND BACK (1975). Bellow's disenchantment with the liberal establishment reflected in his novel MR SAMLERS PLANET (1970), where Arthur Samler, an elderly Polish Jew and survivor of the Holocaust, views with his only intact eye the world of black pickpockets, student revolutionaries and the ill-mannered younger generation. HUMBOLDT'S GIFT (1975), which won the Pulitzer Prize, was narrated in the first person. The protagonist, Charlie Citrine, is a writer, rich and successful. But in his heart he knows that he is a failure - he is under the thumb of a small-time Chicago gangster, ruined by a divorce and finally abandoned by his mistress. He admires his dead friend, Von Humboldt Fleischer, modelled on the poet Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966). Humboldt, a talent wasted, represents for him all that is important in culture. Citrine continues the series of Bellow's losers, from Herzog to Sammler, but like his other novels, it is not gloomy, and finds a comic side even in its protagonist's tragedy.

Odd that mankind's benefactors should be amusing people. In America least this is often the case. Anyone who wants to govern the country has to entertain it." (from Ravelstein)

Bellow has also published short stories and plays. His conservative tone of the 1970s and early 1980s changed with the short story collection HIM WITH HIS FOOT IN HIS MOUTH (1984) into a more relaxed mode of his earlier works. THE BELLAROSA CONNECTION (1989) was based on an anecdote Bellow overheard at a dinner party. Bellow has three sons from his first four marriages. In 1989 he married Janis Freedman. They have one daughter, born in 1999. Bellow has not lost his ability to arouse controversy, as his 13th novel RAVELSTEIN (2000) proves. It draws a portrait of Abe Ravelstein, a university professor and a closet homosexual who ultimately dies of AIDS-related illnesses. Ravelstein's character is based on Allan Bloom, Bellow's colleague at the University of Chicago and the author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), who died in 1992. The cause was officially announced as liver failure. Ravelstein's sexual inclinations were only a small detail in Bellow's book but critics found it most interesting. "This is a problem that writers of fiction always have to face in this country. People are literal minded, and they say, 'Is it true? If it is true, is it factually accurate? If it isn't factually accurate, why isn't it factually accurate?' Then you tie yourself into knots, because writing a novel in some ways resembles writing a biography, but it really isn't. It is full of invention." (Bellow in Time, May 8, 2000) Bellow's attitude to blacks has also aroused debate. In an interview (The New Yorker, March 7, 1988) he asked "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?" - this time behind the comment was not a fictional character but the writer himself, who wanted to point out that "Open discussion of many major public questions has for some time now been taboo."

Bellow died April 5, 2005, at the age of 89.

For further reading

Saul Bellow by R. Deitweiler (1967); Saul Bellow's Enigmatic Laughter by S.B. Cohen (1974); Saul Bellow, ed. by E.H. Rovit (1975); Saul Bellow by M. Harris (1980); Quest for the Human by E.L. Rodrigues (1981); Saul Bellow by M. Beadbury (1982); Saul Bellow's Moral Vision by L.H. Goldman (1983); Saul Bellow by D. Fuchs (1984); Saul Bellow, ed. by H. Bloom (1986); On Bellow's Planet by J. Wilson (1986); Sort of Columbus by J.A. Braham (1984); Saul Bellow by R.F. Kiernan (1989); Saul Bellow against the Grain by E. Pifer (1990); Saul Bellow and the Decline of Humanism by M.K. Glenday (1990); Saul Bellow by R. Miller (1991); Saul Bellow by Peter Hyland (1992); The Critical Response to Saul Bellow, ed. by Gerhard Bach (1995); Handsome Is: Adventures With Saul Bellow by Harriet Wasserman (1997); New Essays on Seize the Day, ed. by Michael P.Kramer (1998); Saul Bellow: A Biography by James Atlas (2000) - See also: Chaim Potok, rabbi and author, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote most of his works in Yiddish. - NOTE: According to some sources (The Encyclopedia Americana, 1971; Lexikon der Weltliteratur, 1988, Encyclopedia of World Literature, 1999), Saul Bellow was born on July 10, 1915, not on June 10.

Selected works:

  • DANGLING MAN, 1944
  • THE VICTIM, 1947 - Uhri
  • THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH, 1953 - Augie Marchin kiemurat - National Book Award
  • THE WRECKERS, 1954
  • SEIZE THE DAY, 1956 - Tartu tilaisuuteen - television adaptation in 1987
  • HENDERSON THE RAIN KING, 1959 - Sadekuningas
  • DESSINS, BY JESSE REICHEK, 1960 (with C. Zervos)
  • ed.: CHICAGO IN FICTION, 1963 onwards
  • THE WRECKER, 1964 (tv play)
  • HERZOG, 1964 - suom. - National Book Award
  • THE LAST ANALYSIS, 1965 (play)
  • OUT FROM UNDER, 1966
  • A WEN, 1966 (published in Traverse Plays, ed. by J. Haynes)
  • OTANGE SOUFFLÉ, 1966 (published in Traverse Plays)
  • MR. SAMLER'S PLANET, 1970 - Samlerin planeetta - National Book Award
  • HUMBOLDT'S GIFT, 1975 - Humboldtin lahja - Pulitzer Prize
  • THE ACTUAL, 1977 - Ainoa oikea
  • DEAN'S DECEMBER, 1982 - Dekaanin joulukuu
  • HIM WITH HIS FOOT IN HIS MOUTH AND OTHER STORIES, 1984 - Löyhäsuinen mies ja muita kertomuksia
  • MORE DIE OF HEARTBREAK, 1987 - Yhä useamman sydän pettää
  • A THEFT, 1989 - Varkaus
  • THE BELLAROSA CONNECTION, 1989 - suom. Bellarosa
  • ALL ADDS UP, 1994
  • THE ACTUAL, 1997
  • RAVELSTEIN, 2000

Source: Author's calendar