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Saul Bellow, R.I.P.

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An obituary, from Reuters:


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.)

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Henderson the Rain King was my first, but I at last reading I preferred Humboldt's Gift. I think I've read them all, right up through Ravelstein. About the misogyny, I can understand your feelings, dirac, but I'm not sure I agree. He did have a couple of troubled marriages and he did late in life marry a much younger woman (although she was a math professor, and as such not likely to devote herself completely to him, I'd think). Perhaps in Ravelstein he was just poking fun at himself.

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You're very welcome. Thanks for starting a discussion. :yahoo:

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.

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The New Republic reprints online Robert Penn Warren's review of The Adventures of Augie March, from 1953:

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.


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I found this quote quite pertinent,

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.’"

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.

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I thought that was a good point, also. Gore Vidal used to refer to them as the Jewish Giants (no harm intended, he was a friend of Bellow’s). It seems to me, though, that the new immigrants won’t necessarily have the impact they did. The place of the novelist in our culture has changed, for one thing.

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The assimilationist pressures that were exerted on the Bellow/Malamud/Roth generation were much stronger than they are now on immigrants into our post-'70s, ethnically proud multi-culture. That's bound to have a very strong impact, too.

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You need a subscription to read it online, but the Wall Street Journal has an article by Jeffrey Meyers. Excerpt:

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."
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I am very sad at Bellow's passing away. I have loved his work since my teens, when I first read Herzog, I intensily admire his fiction from Humboldt on. That was a tough time for Bellow and he came through magnificently, with the Dean and those marvellous novellas in With His Foot in His Mouth.

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.

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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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  He showed me his hat collection.

Herman, I forgot to add to my previous post that this remark made me think back a bit -- I never thought about it before, but in so many pictures of Bellow he's wearing these great hats!

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Edward Rothstein remembers studying under Saul Bellow at the University of Chicago.

Now don't get sensitive with me, Mr. Rothstein."

Saul Bellow was leaning back in his chair, his half-moon eyes sharply peering into mine. He was holding a letter opener - a knife, I thought - that impatiently sliced the air as he talked, as if the conversation were accompanying another form of dissection. "I am your teacher."

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