Bellow's prize possession Writer: Unbeknown to him, winner of Nobel, Pulitzer and National Book Award has been working his whole career toward Enoch Pratt's lifetime achievement award.

November 13, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Nobel Prize -- he's got that. Pulitzer, right, done that. National Book Award? Get serious -- he's got three of those. The list goes on. So what do you do when you're Saul Bellow and you're 82 years old and you've got shelves and drawers stuffed with literary awards?

You come to Baltimore to pick up the Enoch Pratt Award for lifetime literary achievement.

The what?

All right, this is the first year for the award, launched as part of a library fund-raising effort. If the whole thing seems a bit out of left field, Bellow is not concerned.

"Writers are used to miracles," Bellow said in a telephone interview. "I thought it was a natural event."

A few months ago, he was told he'd been chosen for the award and happily accepted. The prize: $10,000 plus a silver replica of Enoch Pratt's cane handle displayed in a case that looks like a hard-cover book. Plus, dinner with Baltimore literati and members of the Enoch Pratt Society, a group of 75 people, each of whom donated at least $1,000 to the library. Among the benefits of Society membership is the chance to meet a distinguished writer. Other nominees for the first award were William Styron, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut and Pat Conroy.

About 120 people are expected to attend the invitation-only cocktail hour, dinner and speech at the Central Library on Cathedral Street this evening.

Bellow, who published his 14th novel, "The Actual," earlier this year, said he's not troubled by the fact that the award is part of a fund-raising strategy. It's for the library and that's fine by him. Bellow said he has fond memories of the Newberry Library in Chicago, a "hangout for homemade intellectuals and hobos."

Intellectuals and writers were more likely to be homemade in those days, Bellow said. He said his after-dinner remarks tonight will probably focus on the contrast between the writing life today and when he was young, when becoming a writer was usually a less formal pursuit.

"Almost every university has a writing department" today, said Bellow, who teaches literature at Boston University. "Now you can be a writer and find protection in an institution."

Writing may have become ensconced in universities, but Pratt Library director Carla Hayden says literature's place in the library sometimes gets lost amid the push to provide computerized information sources. The Pratt Society award is intended to raise money, she said, but is also seen as "a way of reinforcing the fact that libraries are still concerned about literature and reading."

Bellow's presence, she said, should help make the point.

"We're honored that he is recognizing the importance of libraries," says Hayden. "That's really how we're interpreting it."

Bellow is the latest author to step out to support public libraries. Writers have also lately lent their names to events on behalf of public libraries in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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