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Saul Bellow, 1915-2005

Nobel Winner Penned Flawed Heroes

By Bart Barnes
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page A01

Saul Bellow, a master storyteller, literary artisan and Nobel Prize-winning author whose work reflected the comic, the tragic, the absurd and the mundane in the personal odysseys of the 20th-century Everyman, died yesterday at his home in Brookline, Mass. He was 89.

No cause of death was given, although his longtime friend and attorney, Walter Pozen, said he had been in declining health but was "wonderfully sharp to the end." He said Bellow had been working regularly until the last year or so.


Saul Bellow, next to fellow author Susan Cheever, listens during a writers conference in Boston. He moved to Massachusetts in 1993 and worked at Boston University, continuing his long tradition of teaching. (1999 Photo Steven Senne -- AP)


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Bellow was among the most acclaimed and celebrated writers of his generation. His honors also included three National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for his 1975 novel "Humboldt's Gift." His most ardent admirers said he was the greatest English-language novelist of his time.

He wrote stories that reflected "human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture . . . entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession . . . exuberant ideas, flashing irony, hilarious comedy and burning compassion," the Nobel committee said in awarding him its literature prize in 1976.

As the seventh American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Bellow followed John Steinbeck (1962), Ernest Hemingway (1954), William Faulkner (1949), Pearl Buck (1938), Eugene O'Neill (1936) and Sinclair Lewis (1930). Since then, I.B. Singer (1978), Joseph Brodsky (1987) and Toni Morrison (1993) have been awarded the prize.

To millions of readers, he was best known as the author of "Herzog" (1964), "Mr. Sammler's Planet" (1970) and "The Adventures of Augie March" (1953), all of which won National Book Awards; "Henderson the Rain King" (1959); "Dangling Man" (1944); and "The Victim" (1947).

In these and other Bellow stories, the primary characters were flawed and errant men and women, picaresque antiheroes who struggled imperfectly to cope in a world they could neither control nor fully understand. They were often unlucky in matters large and small, and by their own actions, they were apt to make a bad situation worse.

Many of Bellow's literary characters were Jewish, as was Bellow, who learned Yiddish, Hebrew, French and English as a child in Lachine, Quebec, the suburb of Montreal where he was born June 10, 1915. His parents were Russian immigrants from St. Petersburg, and they raised their children in the context of a Jewish religious tradition.

There would come a time when the adult Saul Bellow would insist that he could no longer thrive under what he called such a "suffocating orthodoxy." As an author, he transcended the boundaries of his upbringing and stretched his literary canvas to embrace universal human concerns.

Nevertheless, he was widely recognized as one of the primary figures in a cohort of Jewish writers -- including Bernard Malamud, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth -- whose work emerged as a leading genre of American literature in the latter years of the 20th century.

Especially in the novel "Herzog," which was said by Alfred Kazin, Harold Bloom and other critics to have been Bellow's finest work, was there a pronounced sense of Jewish wit, humor and pathos. Virtually all of the novel's primary characters were Jewish.

The protagonist, Moses Elkanah Herzog, described himself at one point as a man who "rose from humble origins to complete disaster." He was an academic who traveled about with a paperback volume of Blake's poems. His second wife had left him for one of his close friends.

Telling his story in a narrative form that alternated between the first and third person, Bellow described "a subtle, spoiled, loving man," who retreated to the solitude of the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts in his search for serenity, sanity and answers to the fundamental questions of his life. There, Herzog wrote impassioned letters to friends, relatives and public figures, including Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Illinois Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson, "to figure out what's what. . . . Where is he needed? Show him the way to make his sacrifice to truth, to order, to peace. Oh, that mysterious creature. That Herzog!"

The book became a bestseller soon after its publication, despite complaints that it was difficult to read and hard to understand. It was said to have been based, at least in part, on Bellow's own life and a love affair between his second wife and one of his best friends. But Bellow said he intended it simply as a comic novel designed to "show how little strength 'higher education' had to offer a troubled man."


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