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A Century After His Birth, Saul Bellow's Prose Still Sparkles

Novelist Saul Bellow, shown shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, also won the National Book Award — three times — and the Pulitzer Prize.
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Novelist Saul Bellow, shown shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, also won the National Book Award — three times — and the Pulitzer Prize.

Saul Bellow, one of the 20th century's great writers, was born 100 years ago next month. The publishing world is marking the anniversary with a flurry of books — a Library of America edition of Bellow's fiction, a hefty tome of collected nonfiction, and a big new biography.

Another way to remember the author, of course, is to go back to the original books. His best-known work is probably Humboldt's Gift, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1975 novel based on his own friendship with poet Delmore Schwartz.

In one scene, the narrator and the poet drive through the Holland Tunnel:

'Metaphors, Sparkling Metaphors'

James Wood, the editor of the Library of America's four-volume edition of Saul Bellow's fiction, says the exuberance of Bellow's language compares to that of Herman Melville and Walt Whitman.

"For my money, he is the greatest 20th-century prose writer," Wood says.

"Above all, just this joyous comedy — a delight in adjectives and adverbs for their own sake; a pleasure in metaphors, sparkling metaphors — a wonderful description of Lake Michigan, which is just a list of adjectives of the kind that Melville would have loved. I think it goes something like 'the limp silk fresh lilac drowning water.' You can't get much better than that."

Saul Bellow's imaginative descriptions came in part from a photographic memory. "I have total recall," he told me in 1989.

He went on to describe his childhood. "My parents came over to Canada in 1913. I was born in a little French village. Then we moved up to Montreal when I was three years old. I lived in a Jewish neighborhood. These were all Old Country Jews. My parents were Old Country Jews."

Bellow eventually rejected the orthodoxy of his parents' faith, but he retained the humor and wit of his Yiddish background.

In 1986, he told an audience at Howard Community College in Maryland that as a young writer, he imitated his idols.

"When I read Hemingway or Sherwood Anderson or somebody else like that, I would find myself composing in the same manner. I'd find myself making up sentences: 'It was hot. We went down to the street. I sat down in a café. The waiter came. I ordered a Pernod. It was terribly hot. I went up to my room. I couldn't breathe.' And so on," he said.

By his third novel in 1953, Bellow found his own voice. The Adventures of Augie March won the first of the author's three National Book Awards. The Pulitzer followed, and then the Nobel Prize for Literature.

He told the students he never let it go to his head.

"I think of myself as a working stiff. If I got up in the morning, and say to myself 'Well, great writer, what are you going to do today?' I'd be paralyzed," he said.

Private Cost, Public Fame

Along with Bellow's fame came the pitfalls that often accompany it — five marriages and a string of affairs.

"He hurt my mother," says Greg Bellow, Saul's oldest child from the author's first marriage. "And I didn't like that at all. I still don't like it."

Greg is 71 years old now, and a psychotherapist. Two years ago, he wrote a memoir called Saul Bellow's Heart, in which he describes his father as an "epic philanderer."

"You know, the admirers, the hero-worshippers say, 'The books are great, so shut up and don't complain about your father,' " Greg says. "But I was his son, and I feel like I have certain rights to complain."

Greg Bellow says he loved his father, and as for his father — he loved literature.

"He lived for reading and writing his entire life. It was the most important thing to him by far," he says. "Of anything, and I include people."

Greg Bellow says his father was most honest with himself when he was holed up in his study writing.

Saul Bellow, for his part, told me he unconsciously modified his memories to serve his fiction.

"I can recall pretty well, in pretty good detail. Of course the only obstacle is that your recollection tends to have an aesthetic character. So you can't be sure that you're remembering literally," the author said. "You're remembering what you experienced as a person whose habit for a lifetime has been to transform everything that he experienced, and everything that he can recall."

Saul Bellow transformed his experiences into art until the end. He published his last novel, Ravelstein, when he was 85.

He died five years later in 2005.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Vitale