- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

Saul Bellow was born to Ukrainian-Jewish parents in Lachine, Quebec. To paraphrase his hero’s final quip about Columbus in the coda of his masterwork, “The Adventures of Augie March”: That doesn’t prove Saul Bellow wasn’t American.

Mr. Bellow, who died Tuesday, just months before his 90th birthday, was an immigrant upstart. He never finished his postgraduate anthropology studies at Northwestern University, but he could last 15 rounds with the literary mavens of Partisan Review.

He smuggled a “low-life patois” (Martin Amis’ phrase) into some of the most admired — and sometimes recherche — prose in American letters. He was Mark Twain neologizing in Yiddish.

Much has been written of Mr. Bellow’s fusion of ideas, “big illuminations,” with the cadences of the street and of his unavoidable membership in the generation of great, midcentury Jewish-American novelists, including Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Cynthia Ozick.

But, inveterate Chicagoan though he was, he was Russian in his core. Tolstoy and Dostoevski were his lodestars.

Mr. Bellow spent his lengthy working life worrying that modernity and its many distractions had crowded out what he, unembarrassed, called the soul, the place of repose and higher contemplation.

Mr. Bellow grew up learning Hebrew in a slum neighborhood of Chicago, the locus of his fiction even after he migrated to leafy New England. He came to reject the truth claims of his inherited religion. Yet he accepted that the longings it expressed were real. They were holes that needed plugging.

Science and “rational inquiry,” he said, quoting Hegel in his 1976 Nobel lecture, “engaged the central energies of man.” Art could no longer do the heavy lifting it once did — “we no longer bent our knees.”

In their different ways — comic, cerebral and vulgar — Mr. Bellow’s novels tried to reinvigorate the muscles atrophied by enlightenment; they were, so to speak, bendings of the knee.

He was speaking of novels generally, though the principle no doubt applies to his own, when he said: “The novel can’t be compared to the epic, or to the monuments of poetic drama. But it is the best we can do just now. It is a sort of latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter.”

To close the last page of his gemlike novella “Seize the Day” was to leave a man weeping at a stranger’s funeral, sinking “deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.”

The millionaire hero of “Henderson the Rain King” — a character who, improbably, turned up in a Counting Crows pop-rock song — battled a fearsome lion in the African savannah in his inner quest to graduate from becoming to being.

Augie March dabbled in myriad odd jobs, hopped trains with hobos, stole great books and romantically observed Leon Trotsky from afar in Mexico in a floundering pursuit of “deep-water greatness.”

Mr. Bellow could skip from Goethe to gangsters in a paragraph. His half-insane desperado, Moses Herzog, communed with dead white men through letters before pondering the murder of his wife’s lover, whom he observes in the most excruciating of intimacies, bathing his daughter.

Reading Mr. Bellow was to learn incidentally that the French poet Baudelaire called sleeping a “sinister adventure” and that during the Great Depression, men would pull their cars over, bumper to bumper, to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio: “They had rolled down the windows and opened the car doors. Everywhere the same voice, its odd Eastern accent, which in anyone else would have irritated Midwesterners. You could follow without missing a single word as you strolled by.”

To read Mr. Bellow at his highest pitch was to experience the mental pleasure George Eliot described in “Middlemarch”: “that agreeable afterglow of excitement when thought lapses from examination of a specific object into a suffusive sense of its connections with all the rest of our existence…”

Mr. Bellow was no moralist, neither in his own life nor that of the characters he created. Lust, and the sufferings and humiliations that often come with it, was a preoccupation of his Augie March. He wrote unsentimentally about sex and jealously about the withholding of sex.

Mr. Bellow, rather amazingly, married five times — wife Janice and daughter Naomi, 5, were at his Brookline, Mass., bedside Tuesday — and developed a reputation, broadcast by his biographer, James Atlas, of surrounding himself with “subservient women” who boosted “his own shaky self-image.”

He flirted early on with Trotskyism and opposed the Vietnam War, but, through an evolution critics called a cranky decline, Mr. Bellow became, however hazily, a man of the right. Albert Corde, for instance, the protagonist of 1982’s “The Dean’s December,” despairs at the downward-spiraling urban chaos of inner Chicago.

Mr. Bellow himself jousted with ivory-tower literary snobs, saying, “I often think there is more hope for the young worker who picks up a paperback copy of Faulkner or Melville or Tolstoy from the rack in the drugstore than there is for the B.A. who has had the same writers ‘interpreted’ for him by his teachers and can tell you, or thinks he can, what Ahab’s harpoon symbolizes or what Christian symbols there are in ‘Light in August.’”

Indirectly, perhaps, he helped spur the secular rightist movement that has given us Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and all the rest of those “insidious” neoconservatives who have attached to the Bush administration.

Mr. Bellow wrote a foreword to his friend Allan Bloom’s landmark book, “The Closing of the American Mind.” (The late Mr. Bloom was the disguised subject of “Ravelstein,” as the poet Delmore Schwartz was in “Humboldt’s Gift” and Willmore Kendall was in “Mosby’s Memoirs.”) In it, Mr. Bellow smelled the “sewage odors” of Gore Vidal’s radical geopolitics and of the “backflow of society’s ‘problems’” into universities.

Political correctness, it seemed, was another variation on modernity’s multifarious distractions. “Perhaps humankind cannot bear too much reality,” Mr. Bellow said in his Nobel lecture, “but neither can it bear too much unreality, too much abuse of the truth.”

Mr. Bellow may not himself have been a paragon of virtue, but his novels sought truth, spiritual shelter.

He was the best we could do.

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