Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Saul Bellow: 1915-2005

It was a fading Nagpur evening in October, 1993 when aboard a bus to Latur my friend, Chetan Ghate, turned towards me and asked, “Have you ever read anything by Saul Bellow?”

I shrugged my shoulders, “No! Never heard of him! Who is he?”

His expression turned into disbelief, an expression that I have oft-repeated when posing the same question to others, when he heard my response.

“How could you not know Saul Bellow far worse than not reading him ever? He is the greatest American novelist post WWII. He ended the great American famine for a Nobel in Literature when he won the same in 1976 – fourteen years after any other American -John Steinbeck - had won it.”

I felt like an ignorant fool. He yanked a Bellow novel, Herzog – perhaps his finest, from his knapsack and thrusted it in my face. The cover had a sketch of a crumbling face of a white middle-aged man. When I looked at Bellow’s photograph at the back cover, the sketch in the front seemed like his only. The yellow-orange tint on the cover made the Penguin paperback look arresting. I stared at the recommendation below at the right-hand corner – ‘A Masterpiece – The New York Times Book Review’.

The musty rough-textured yellow pages were drawing me towards the world folded within them. I must admit I started reading books initially for the musty smell emanating from them. Whenever my uncle, who fortunately worked for Penguins, would get a new book for me, I’d snuggle in a corner stare at the cover and keep smelling the book. It’s only when I’d get over with the smell I’d start reading it. Even today often when I am reading a book and I need a break I pause, smell the book, stare at the images floating and then return back to the book.

So, once back in Delhi I bought the book. Herzog is a story of a middle-aged English Professor in an American university. His personal life is in doldrums and he is slipping professionally too. The very opening line is perhaps one of the most quoted lines in American literature.

“If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me.” (from Herzog, 1964)

Couple of pages later I run into a paragraph, which forever haunts me when I reflect on my life.

“Resuming his self-examination, he admitted that he had been a bad husband – twice. Daisy, his first wife, he had treated miserably. Madeline, his second, had tried to do him in. To his son and his daughter he was a loving but bad father. To his own parents he had been an ungrateful child. To his country, an indifferent citizen. To his brothers and his sister, affectionate but remote. With his friends, an egotist. With love, lazy. With brightness, dull. With power, passive. With his own soul, evasive.” (from Herzog, 1964)

The unabashed frankness of these lines shook me. And this had been a characteristic of most protagonists in Saul Bellow’s novels. His characters were in pursuit of truth and dignity, as opposed to success. In some sense they reflected his personal voice. Though Bellow’s stories were seldom autobiographical but many of his characters share his biographical details like his childhood in Canada, his Jewish heritage and his many divorces. His characters whether Augie March, Moses E. Herzog, Arthur Sammler or Charlie Citrine, in words of a critic , were ‘a superb gallery of self-doubting, funny, charming, disillusioned, neurotic, and intelligent observers of the modern American way of life.’

This is best illustrated by Augie March in The Adventures of Augie March, 1953.

"I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent." (from The Adventures of Augie March, 1953)

Saul Bellow was born as Solomon Bellows in Montreal, Canada in 1915. His parents had moved from St. Petersburg, Russia to Canada in 1913. His father was an importer of Turkish figs and Egyptian onions there – some exotica! His childhood was spent in a rough shanty neighborhood. Once his father was beaten up in a brawl for bootlegging and that led them to shift to Chicago.

Bellow joined the University of Chicago in 1933 but was soon transferred to the Northwestern University from where he graduated in anthropology and sociology in 1937. He spent most of his life in Chicago and it has been central in most of his novels. He unsuccessfully tried to join army however; he did manage a stint with the US Merchant Marine. While with the Marines he wrote his first novel The Dangling Man, 1944, which has shades of his early years in Canada. But the novel that brought him to center stage was The Adventures of Augie March, 1956. Seize The Day, 1956 and Herzog, 1964 only established his reputation as the foremost writer of his age. It seems funny in this context that his professor, Melville J. Herskovits, wanted him to give up his pursuit for language as he thought, "No Jew could really grasp the tradition of English literature." He wanted him to be a pianist instead.

His most novels began with his protagonists at crossroads. Inflicted with crises – moral, financial, emotional, spiritual, etc. – they had to chart the graph of their lives from there onwards. The characters were extremely human and often at margins of what may be hip-hop in their lives. The struggles were mainly inwards and as they would grapple with circumstances and people in their lives, Bellow would paint most gripping tales of human survival. His characters offered hope. They fought with grit and common sense. In this respect he followed a blueprint that was very different from many authors: he Americanized the idiom of the novel and made it uniquely American.

His influences ranged from Dostoevsky, Trotsky, Nietzsche, Oedipal conflicts, popular culture to Russian-Jewish heritage. His voice altered and evolved over the years and this is distinct in his writings. Charles Simic comments the following on Bellow.

"Bellow, too, is convinced that to have a conscience is, after a certain age, to live permanently in an epistemological hell. The reason his and Dostoevsky's heroes are incapable of ever arriving at any closure is that they love their own suffering above everything else. They refuse to exchange their inner torment for the peace of mind that comes with bourgeois propriety or some kind of religious belief. In fact, they see their suffering as perhaps the last outpost of the heroic in our day and age." (Charles Simic in New York Review of Books, May 31, 2001)

Twelve years later as I sit and write this obituary I am thankful to Chetan Ghate for introducing Saul Bellow to me. His is a voice that remains within to haunt and gives strength and serves as a beacon amidst the cacophony that shuts our senses.

Saul Bellow died on April 05, 2005.

© Murtaza Danish Husain
April 10, 2005
PS: This obituary was published in Tehelka, April 2005.


Accidental Fame Junkie said...


Michael said...

i really feel my hieght(or lack of it) when i read your articles.i almost feel like an illiterate..coz i haven't read any of the authors u have mentioned..but thanks all the same..for introducing so many new worlds that one can explore.

rusty said...

I hv read many books....but none by Saul Bellow.....Just as I had thought that I had almost done with my reading ...there crops in another writer so highly recommended by a fellow Delhiite !! Well I guess there is always room for just a bit more.....I sure hope he has not written many books !! Though I hv a distinct feeling that I am goin to retract my statement after I hv read him !! From the lil you hv written about him.....he seems to hv a similar tendency to rip himself apart- you happen to call it a pursuit towards truth and dignity.....well I sure hope so.....cos I do it all the time !!

rusty said...

U cd visit my more often updated blog to chk out the rip-offs!!! -

david raphael israel said...


thanks for the illuminating view of Bellow, an author whom I've largely ignored. You make a good case. And nice you included the (somewhat frightening in its way) observation from Charles Simic -- a poet whom I admire greatly.

Indeed, I'd like to point out the work of Simic to your notice, by way of thanks for your doing same w/ Bellow.