Saul Bellow, 1915–2005  

Born Solomon Belov, near Montreal, in Canada, Bellow was the son of first generation immigrants, embarked from St Petersburg in 1913. He was the only one of the four Belov children to be born in North America. A sickly child, aged 8, he was hospitalized for six months with breathing problems. He read precociously in English during his convalescence and dated his lifelong love affair with literature from those months of enforced idleness.

Saul’s father, Abram, kept the family afloat in the New World with a variety of lowly jobs. At one particularly low point he was a bootlegger – supplying liquor to the Prohibition-parched US. After the disastrous hi-jacking of a consignment, which led to Abram being severely beaten up, the family followed the booze to Chicago – Bellow’s home town as it was to be – in the early 1920s. They had relatives there. Yiddish was spoken at home, English in the world outside. 

Bellow’s youth in Chicago – a wild city in those Prohibition and Depression years – is depicted vividly in Augie March. The early sections of that novel are dominated by Augie’s mother. Bellow’s mother (manifestly Mrs March) died when he was 17. A devout woman, she had wanted her youngest child to be a violinist or a rabbi. His later relationship with Judaism was always vexed. Music, however, was second only to literature as the love of his life. His father did not encourage his son’s musical or literary bents. 

At the city’s universities (Chicago and North Western) Bellow studied literature and anthropology. This was the period of the ‘numerus clausus’ when Jews were regarded as troublesomely clever outsiders and their entrance restricted. The head of his English department, Walter Blair, advised Bellow not to pursue graduate studies in English: ‘You’ve got a very good record, but I wouldn’t recommend that you study English. You weren’t born to it.’ 

Defiance is the driving force in all his writing, and his life. It is expressed, fists-clenched against the world, in the famous opening declaration of Augie March:

'I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.'

Bellow graduated from North Western in 1937 in the depths of the Depression. His aim, from the first, was to be a writer but he kept body and soul together with short-term teaching jobs. For a year, 1943–4, he worked in the office of the Encyclopedia Britannica (richly evoked in Augie March). An attempt to join the US Navy was turned down on the grounds that he was Canadian. An attempt to join the Canadian Army was unsuccessful, on health grounds (he had a hernia). Eventually Bellow was accepted by the US Merchant Marine. He was still training when the atom bomb dropped and it was all over.

His first published novel, Dangling Man (1944) is set in this war-time limbo. Dangling Man is a journal novel by ‘Joseph’ (evoking’ Joseph K.’ in Joseph Kafka’s The Trial). Unable to face the agonising freedom of ‘dangling’ Joseph embraces ‘flunkeydom’– employment he despises. After the war Bellow himself again took up short-contract (‘flunkey’) teaching positions at a various universities across the US. His second published novel, The Victim (1947), ponders anti-Semitism, and anomie. He was by now prominent in the New York Greenwich Village scene which was redefining American modern culture. 

Bellow’s Chicago youth was celebrated in the first of his novels to draw widespread critical attention, The Adventures of Augie March (1953). It made him the darling of the New York intellectual elite. Saul Bellow was being groomed as the great (Jewish) American novelist. 

In 1956 Bellow published Seize the Day, a work which has clear resemblances to Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman with the difference that Bellow is unafraid to make his salesman protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, clearly Jewish. 

Bellow’s fantasia, the strangely Rider Haggard-like Henderson the Rain King (1959), about an American millionaire (enriched by pig farming) who does a burlesque Hemingway in Africa, widened his international readership. 

With Herzog (1964), and its protagonist Moses Herzog, he tuned the Bellovian ‘voice’ which distinctively marks the fiction of the novelist’s prime – a kind of eloquent rant against the times, the United States, the human condition, and the universe. Humboldt’s Gift (1975) is a depiction of the literary life, with all the complexities (principally those to do with sexual relationships) that frustrate creativity. At this point in his career, Bellow’s fiction becomes even more autobiographical and the tenor of his thought more radically conservative. Mr Samler’s Planet has a hero who is a Holocaust survivor and a jaundiced eye for young radicals and the decay of American civility. 

The award of the Nobel Prize in 1976 would not, Bellow insisted, sink him under its gravestone weight. Nor did it. But it complicated his writing. The dilemmas of establishment fame are depicted, ironically as ever, in The Dean’s December (1982). Bellow recorded himself as being poor until his early forties, and not rich until his later years. Alimony and child support drained those riches. He married five times. His later work is, much of it, concerned with the pathos of aging, in such works as More Die of Heartbreak (1986), and The Actual (1997).

Bellow had dabbled with Trotskyism in the wild days of his youth. In age he veered as far to the opposite political position. The older he got the less Bellow seemed to like the world he inhabited. He was often accused of racism and prejudice and seemed at times pugnaciously to invite controversy. In a New Yorker interview in 1988 he notoriously asked, apropos of Black and Multicultural Studies, ‘Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?’ 

He remained unusually vigorous in his old age, becoming a father (with the last and youngest of the mothers of his children) in his mid-eighties. It was at this period that he produced his late, and controversial, masterpiece, Ravelstein (2000), a portrait of the artist as a very old man. The Abe Ravelstein of the title was everywhere recognised to be the author’s close friend, and colleague at Chicago University, Allan Bloom, the author of bestselling jeremiad The Closing of The American Mind (1994). 

In 1994 while on a Caribbean vacation with his wife Bellow fell sick after eating a toxic fish. He almost died---the near thing is vividly chronicled in Ravelstein. He none the less survived to die aged 89 of ‘natural causes’ in his Massachusetts home.

John Sutherland, 2012.