The wire services report: “Nobel laureate Saul Bellow dies at 89.” I have vibrated to Bellow’s every move for the forty years I’ve been a serious reader and read him with a fan’s fervor — from Augie March to Henderson (even though Mr. Podhoretz counselled us otherwise), from Seize the Day (turning “Lycidas” to a modern novelist’s own purposes) to Herzog (those letters!), from Mr. Sammler’s Planet and Humboldt’s Gift to Ravelstein.
I identified with his heroes, laughed at his jokes, loved the vernacular power and rhythm of his prose. Phrases from his books have lodged themselves in my mind from the moment I first read them; I find myself thinking Bellovian thoughts in Bellovian language (“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is great”) and only slowly connect them to their source. He may on occasion have strained for an effect or written himself into a corner. But did he ever utter a cliche or strike off a clunky phrase? Not that I noticed.
Bellow found his voice in his third book through the eponymous hero of The Adventures of Augie March: “I am an American, Chicago born–Chicago, that somber city–and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” What an audacious statement of purpose announced in the book’s first sentence and maintained for the succeeding five hundred pages. Take, for example, this beautiful paragraph selected by Aleksandr Hemon in his tribute to the novel:
Why, I knew there were things that would never, because they could never, come of my reading. But this knowledge was not so different from the remote but ever present death that sits in the corner of the loving bedroom; though it doesn’t budge from the corner, you wouldn’t stop your loving. Then neither would I stop my reading. I sat and read. I had no eye, ear, or interest for anything else-that is, for usual, second order, oatmeal, mere-phenomenal, snarled-shoelace-carfare-laundry-ticket plainness, unspecified dismalness, unknown captivities; the life of despair-harness, or the life of organization-habits, which is meant to supplant accidents with calm abiding.
Dear reader, avoid the second-order, oatmeal, mere-phenomenal! In Henderson, Bellow directs us to the noumenal department.
Of the famous American Jewish novelists who came into their own in the fifties and sixties, Bellow seems to have been the only one who traveled to Israel (which he did at age 60 in 1975), or at least the only one to have reflected publicly on the experience (in 1976’s To Jerusalem and Back, the year he won the Nobel Prize for Literature). Bellow worries somewhere in that book that the Jews may have done their enemies the favor of collecting themselves in one place so that they might be more easily destroyed; it’s a worry that has remained planted in my head ever since. Bellow observes in the book that the Jews founded Israel “because they alone, amongst the peoples of the earth, had not established a natural right to exist unquestioned in the lands of their birth. This right is still clearly not granted them, not even in the liberal West.” It is an observation that has only grown truer over time.
Tonight I find myself thinking in Auden’s words on Yeats: “The day of his death was a dark cold day.” And especially of Auden’s perfectly fitting exhortation:
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
The books will live, and Bellow will stand with Whitman as the poet of the free man, making the record in his own way.