Saul Bellow, R.I.P.
Posted 06 April 2005 - 09:25 AM
From The New York Times:
Although most of the obits I’ve seen give pride of place to Bellow’s more famous and characteristic works– The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Humboldt’s Gift – this one, instructively, quotes V.S. Pritchett on the early works The Victim and Seize the Day, wonderful books both. My own particular favorite is Henderson the Rain King, which maybe doesn’t quite come off as a whole but is a novel of great imagination and humor. Henderson is a great character, and there is also a memorable African king. Lovely book.
I didn’t care for his later work as much, although it was impressive that he continued to produce valuable work well into his eighties. In later novels the misogyny that’s always lurking comes to the the fore more baldly and does not always make for pleasant reading. (In Ravelstein, to give only one example, the wicked ex-wife is criticized for, among other things, her inability to sniff melons for freshness. Our hero trades her in for an even younger wife, who’s not as good looking, it’s noted, but is willing to devote all her time and energy to Her Man.)
Posted 06 April 2005 - 10:18 AM
Posted 06 April 2005 - 10:21 AM
I wasn't talking about Bellow's last marriage, actually,only the one in Ravelstein.
Posted 06 April 2005 - 11:05 AM
One thing I don't think the obit mentions is that Bellow's first language was not English, but Yiddish -- so this most American of writers had not only an adopted country but an adopted language.
Posted 06 April 2005 - 12:30 PM
The hero Augie March is a very special kind of adventurer, a kind of latter-day example of the Emersonian Ideal Yankee who could do a little of this and a little of that, a Chicago pragmatist happily experimenting in all departments of life, work, pleasure, thought, a hero who is the very antithesis of one of the most famous heroes of our time, the Hemingway hero, in that his only code is codelessness and his relish for experience is instinctive and not programmatic. This character is, of course, the character made for the random shocks and aimless corners of experience, but he is not merely irresponsible.
Posted 06 April 2005 - 03:44 PM
Posted 06 April 2005 - 04:12 PM
The immigrant and second-generation experience that Bellow and Roth shared was not only specific to a time span of American history (Depression to World War II to post-War prosperity), but ended quite naturally with the assimilation of the next generations.
But Mr. Atlas also noted that Bellow’s work and the distinctly Jewish-American literary tradition he represented—along with Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud—had recently been overshadowed by new American voices (Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri) bearing their own immigrant backgrounds. Bellow himself would have agreed, Mr. Atlas noted. "He said to me once, ‘I had no idea our moment would be so brief.’"
Posted 06 April 2005 - 04:23 PM
Posted 06 April 2005 - 04:38 PM
Posted 06 April 2005 - 05:20 PM
As a writer, Mr. Bellow found New York claustrophobic, a place with too many other writers who would paralyze his muse with shoptalk and gossip.
Posted 07 April 2005 - 08:59 AM
Mr. Bellow, whose first language was Yiddish, translated "Gimpel the Fool" into English in 1953 and introduced Isaac Bashevis Singer to American readers. His version of Mr. Singer's opening sentences--"I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think of myself as a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was still in school"--has the same intimate and erratic tone as the opening sentence of Mr. Bellow's "Adventures of Augie March" (1953): "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: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes not so innocent."
Posted 07 April 2005 - 01:02 PM
I had the extraordinary privilige of spending a couple of hours with Bellow in his Brookline home, meeting his wife and their cat called Moose back in Febr 1995 when the there were these tremendous blizzrds on the East Coast.
Last night when I was talking about Bellow I realized this cat must have died a couple years ago and I broke down.
The first thing that struck me was how beautiful his diction was. This was a kind of American English I had not heard often. He was tremendously courtly - in fact like only dancers are; writers are generally not that polite. He clearly loved music. There was a turntable in the living room. He used to play the violin. He showed me his hat collection.
I have always felt that Bellow was something like the Dickens of our times - this extraordinary humanity and exuberance. I think we have all been immensily privileged to read his work as it came out, new and fresh. Generations after us will have to blow at least a smidgen of dust off these wonderful books.
Posted 07 April 2005 - 02:35 PM
I have always felt that Bellow was something like the Dickens of our times - this extraordinary humanity and exuberance.
Thank you for that memory, Herman. I envy you. We are indeed lucky to have been around at the same time as he. I agree, Bellow had a Dickensian verve and flair for vivid characterization – Cantabile in Humboldt’s Gift springs to mind, but there are so many others! Dickens had a darker view of life in many ways, and although he used first person narration he didn’t use it in the contemporary sense that Bellow does – there’s a direct line from Augie to Herzog to Citrine to Chick – variations on the same theme, or the same guy. It’s interesting that you mention The Dean’s December – I thought Bellow was making a specific effort there to separate Corde from his immediate predecessors, which didn’t quite succeed.
Him With His Foot in His Mouth is a great collection. I loved “A Silver Dish” especially.
It's odd, I loved Herzog when I first read it, but it hasn't worn well for me. I'm always trying to plug The Victim -- it's a grim book, but it's so good.
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