Writer portrayed angst of the postwar existence

Saul Bellow : 1916-2005

April 06, 2005|By Michael Ollove and Mary McCauley | Michael Ollove and Mary McCauley,SUN STAFF

Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, the towering American literary figure whose work reflected the angst, yearnings and moral ambiguity of post-World War II existence, died yesterday at 89.

Mr. Bellow's friend and attorney, Walter Pozen, said that the writer of such vibrant, darkly comic works as Herzog and Humboldt's Gift, had been in declining health but was "wonderfully sharp to the end." Mr. Bellow died in Brookline, Mass., his wife and daughter at his side.

Mr. Bellow was perhaps the most acclaimed of a remarkable collection of postwar American Jewish writers that included Bernard Malamud, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick.

Mr. Roth paid tribute to Mr. Bellow yesterday, saying: "The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists - William Faulkner and Saul Bellow. Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne and Twain of the 20th century."

But it was hardly just Jewish writers who stood in awe of Mr. Bellow or felt his influence on their work. "I think the greatest American novelist has died," Stephen Dixon, the Baltimore-based novelist, said last night. "I thought he was the greatest American novelist since I was 23 when I read [The Adventures of] Augie March. Maybe he was the only master of American fiction."

Literary honors

In 1954, that book earned him the National Book Award, which he went on to win two more times, the first writer to score that literary hat trick. He won the award again in 1965 for Herzog and in 1971 for Mr. Sammler's Planet. In 1976, Mr. Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt's Gift and later that year was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

In his best works, Mr. Bellow was both narratively engaging and intellectually challenging. "He brought a kind of intellectual toughness and a love of ideas and an ability to discuss and play with them in his fiction," said Richard Burgin, a writer and editor of the literary magazine Boulevard. "He displayed both the intellect of a man of letters and essayist with a muscular, vigorous, sensuous prose style that was unusual."

Mr. Dixon, who in 1961 attended a writing conference on Staten Island at which Mr. Bellow taught, also admired the combination of the storyteller's art and an artist's grappling with existential questions. "His dialogue was great and his characters were always believable and funny and interesting. His great gift was to create these strong characters and mix in the philosophy of life."

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice McDermott said she most admires the way that Mr. Bellow carefully structured his novels and short stories.

"He's a writer's writer," she said last night. "There's a classical shape to everything he writes, and that gives his novels and stories an air of inevitability. It's not just hanging your hat on the keen observation or a couple of details. Nothing is extraneous or self-indulgent. You feel the story couldn't have turned out any other way. That's the genius of how he put it together."

Some detractors

In spite, or perhaps because, of all the praise, Mr. Bellow also had detractors. Norman Mailer called Augie March a "travelogue for timid intellectuals." Critic Alfred Kazin thought the author had become a "university intellectual" with "contempt for the lower orders."

Even Ms. McDermott said she had to "park my feminism at the door" while reading Mr. Bellow's work.

"Despite all my resistance to his characters' worldview, through his prose he's able to let you enter fully into the life of this white, Jewish intellectual who has a skewed view of women," she said.

"There's the reading experience, and then there's the cool recollection of it. You'd come out of the novel and ask yourself: `Why do all his men think all the women in the world smell?' But you don't think that when you're in the world of his novel."

Mr. Bellow kept writing into his 80s. His recent works included The Actual, a sentimental novella published in 1997, and Ravelstein, a 2000 novel based on the life of his late friend and critic, Allan Bloom.

Mr. Bellow feuded with writers (Truman Capote, Mr. Mailer), and helped out others, notably Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose short story, "Gimpel the Fool," he translated from Yiddish to English in 1957, introducing Mr. Singer (a later Nobel Prize winner himself) to a wider audience. Mr. Bellow also championed William Kennedy, helping him have his work published.

After teaching for many years at the University of Chicago, Mr. Bellow stunned the literary and academic worlds by leaving the city with which he was so deeply associated. In 1993, he accepted a position at Boston University.

Karen Hyman was a student of Mr. Bellow's between 1982 and 1987, when she was doing graduate work on the University of Chicago's Committee of Social Thought. Most keenly, she remembers a course on nihilism that Mr. Bellow and Mr. Bloom taught.

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