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Saul Bellow (1915-2005)

 

American author, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, one of the major representatives of Jewish-American writers. Bellow's works influenced widely American literature after World War II. Among his most famous characters are Augie March, Moses E. Herzog, Arthur Sammler, and Charlie Citrine – a superb gallery of self-doubting, funny, charming, disillusioned, neurotic, and intelligent observers of the modern American way of life.

"I am an American, Chicago bornChicago, that somber cityand 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 Solomon Bellows in Lachine, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal. His original birth certificate was lost when Lachine's city hall burned down in the 1920s, but Bellow customarily celebrated his birthdate on June 10. Bellow's parents had emigrated in 1913 from Russia to Canada. In St. Petersburg Bellow's father, Abraham (Abram), had imported Turkish figs and Egyptian onions.

Bellow was raised in an impoverished, polyglot section of Montreal, full of Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, and Italians. A precocious child, he was fluent at an early age in English, French, Hebrew, and Yiddish. After his father was beaten – he was also a bootlegger – the family moved to Chicago in 1924. Although Bellow is not considered an autobiographical writer, his Canadian birth is dealt with in his first novel, Dangling Man (1944), and his Jewish heritage and his several divorces are shared by many of his characters. This novel, which drew from his experience as a Merchant Marine during WW II, was a philosophical journal of a young man waiting to be drafted.

Bellow's mother, Lescha (Liza), was very religious. Her death when he was 17, was a deep emotional shock for him. "My life was never the same after my mother died," Bellow said. In 1933 Bellow entered the University of Chicago, but transferred to Northwestern University, where he studied anthropology and sociology and graduated in 1937. As friendly advice, the English-department chairman told Bellow to forget his plans to study the language: "No Jew could really grasp the tradition of English literature." The famed Professor Melville J. Herskovits wanted to make a pianist out of him. In later interviews Bellow said that his Jewish heritage is "a gift, a piece of good fortune with which one does not quarrel," but he also insisted that is not a "Jewish" writer writer but an American writer who happens to be a Jew.

During the Christmas vacation Bellow fell in love, married, and abandoned his postgraduate studies at Wisconsin University to become a writer. At Wisconsin Dr. Goldenweiser assured Bellow that he his writing had too much style for standard scientific papers. It took years before Bellow published his first book. He taught at Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers' College, Chicago, from 1938 to 1942, and worked then for the editorial department of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1943 to 1944. After the outbreak of WWII, he was first rejected by the Army because of a hernia, but in 1944-45 Bellow served in the US Merchant Marine. He then returned to teaching, holding various posts at the Universities of Minnesota, New York, Princeton and Puerto Rico.

While serving with the Merchant Marine, Bellow wrote Dangling Man, loosely based on Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864). It was followed by The Victim (1947), a paranoid story of a doppelganger, set against the realistic background of New York City. However, Chicago became the town that is usually connected to Bellow's books. "The people of Chicago are very proud of their wickedness. This is good old vulgar politics, despite the pretensions." (Bellow in The New York Times, July 6, 1980) In The Adventures of Augie March (1953) Bellow let himself loose and abandoned some of the formal restrictions he had followed in his earlier books. He started to work on the novel in Paris, and continued it in other places, but "not a single word of the book was composed in Chicago," he later said.

The rich picaresque novel recounts the seemingly unconnected experiences of its hero in his quest for self-understanding. Augie March, the protagonist, is born into an immigrant Jewish family in Chicago before the Depression. His mother is poor and nearly blind. George, his younger brother, is retarded, and his elder brother, Simon, wants to become rich as soon as possible. Each of them is 'drafted untimely into hardships.' Augie proceeds through a variety of dubious jobs and adventures, losing his girlfriend along the way. His employers include the real estate dealer named Einhorn and Mrs. Renling, owner of a smart men's store, and other colorful, energetic characters, obsessed with sex, making money or both. Augie loves women and observes each portion of the female anatomy closely. On his mystical quest to discover 'the lesson and theory of power,' Augie finds everywhere lies, and asks why he always have to fall among theoreticians. The novel is a hymn to city life, it avoids sentimentality, and ends in Augie's healthy laugh.

At the beginning of his career, Bellow was influenced by Trotskyism and the Partisan Review group of intellectuals. Bellow never met Trotsky. On the morning they were meant to meet, the Russian revolutonary leader was murdered at his home in Mexico City. 'The Hell It Can't,'Bellow's first published short story, which had been written under the influence of the Trotskyist youth movement, was a reply to Sinclair Lewis's novel  It Can't Happen Here (1935).

Bellow rejected Ernest Hemingway's 'tough guy' model of American fiction, and became engaged with a wide range of cultural fields and tradition – Nietzsche, Oedipal conflicts, popular culture, Russian-Jewish heritage. Already from the first published stories Bellow examined the relation of author-character-narrator. Books narrated in the first person often have been mistaken for representing Bellow's own thoughts. "No writer can take it for granted that the views of his characters will not be attributed to him personally," he once said. "It is generally assumed, moreover, that all the events and ideas of a novel are based on the life experiences and the opinions of the novelist himself." (Bellow in The New York Times, March 10, 1994)

In the play The Last Analysis (1965) Bellow attacked naive Freudianism, The Dean's December, More Die of Heartbreak, and A Theft deepened his engagement with the writings of Jung, Seize the Day used motifs from social anthropology. With The Adventures of Augie March Bellow changed his style, and made his homage to Mark Twain. It was the first novel, Bellow later said, that he had written witn an "authentic voice" rather than the voice of "an Englishman or contributor to The New Yorker."

Herzog (1964), Bellow's major novel from the 1960s, centers on a middle-aged Jewish intellectual, Moses E. Herzog, whose life had come to a standstill. He is on the brink of suicide, he writes long letters to Nietzsche, Heidegger, ex-wife Madeleine, Adlai Stevenson, and God. As Augie March, Moses Herzog is introspective and troubled, but he finally also finds that he has much reason to be content with his life. After pouring all Herzog's thoughts into letters Bellow notes in the last words of the book: "At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word." The British writer Ian McEwan considers Herzog the most important post-war American novel. He once argued that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. " (Arguably by Christopher Hitchens, 2011, p. 63)

"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)

From 1960 to 1962 Bellow co-edited he literary magazine The Noble Savage, and in 1962 he was appointed professor on the Committee of Social Thought at University of Chicago. In 1975 Bellow visited Israel and recorded his impressions in his first substantial non-fiction book, To Jerusalem and Back (1975). Noteworthy, the Arab inhabitants of the city are almost invisible in this work. Edward Said and Bellow, who were friend for a long time, ended up having a strong disagreement about the Palestinians.

Bellow's disenchantment with the liberal establishment reflected in his novel Mr Sammler's Planet (1970), where Arthur Samler, an elderly Polish Jew and survivor of the Holocaust, views with his only intact eye the world of black pickpockets, student revolutionaries and the ill-mannered younger generation. An acute observer of the signs of the times, Bellow wrote later in Ravelstein (2000): "Odd that mankind's benefactors should be amusing people. In America least this is often the case. Anyone who wants to govern the country has to entertain it."

Humboldt's Gift (1975), which won the Pulitzer Prize, was narrated in the first person. The protagonist, Charlie Citrine, is a writer, rich and successful. But in his heart he knows that he is a failure – he is under the thumb of a small-time Chicago gangster, ruined by a divorce and finally abandoned by his mistress. He admires his dead friend, Von Humboldt Fleischer, modelled on the poet Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966). Humboldt, a talent wasted, represents for him all that is important in culture. Citrine continues the series of Bellow's losers, from Herzog to Sammler, but like his other novels, it is not gloomy, and finds a comic side even in its protagonist's tragedy.

Bellow published also short stories and plays and translated from Yiddish into English works of his fellow-Nobel Prize winner I.B. Singer. His conservative tone of the 1970s and early 1980s changed with the short story collection Him with His Foot in His Mouth (1984) into a more relaxed mode of his earlier works. The Bellarosa Connection (1989) was based on an anecdote Bellow overheard at a dinner party.

Bellow proved again his ability to arouse controversy in his 13th novel, Ravelstein. It drew a portrait of Abe Ravelstein, a university professor and a closet homosexual who ultimately dies of AIDS-related illness. Ravelstein's character was based on Allan Bloom, Bellow's colleague at the University of Chicago and the author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), who died in 1992. The cause was officially announced as liver failure. Ravelstein's sexual inclinations were only a small detail but critics found it most interesting. "This is a problem that writers of fiction always have to face in this country. People are literal minded, and they say, 'Is it true? If it is true, is it factually accurate? If it isn't factually accurate, why isn't it factually accurate?' Then you tie yourself into knots, because writing a novel in some ways resembles writing a biography, but it really isn't. It is full of invention." (Bellow in Time, May 8, 2000) Bellow's attitude to blacks also aroused debate. In an interview (The New Yorker, March 7, 1988) he asked "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?" – this time behind the comment was not a fictional character but the writer himself, who wanted to point out that "Open discussion of many major public questions has for some time now been taboo."

Bellow left Chicago in 1993, tired of passing the houses of his dead friends, as he said, and settled in Boston, where he began teaching at Boston University. In 1994 he became seriously sick after eating a toxic fish on a Caribbean vacation. Bellow had three sons from his first four marriages. In 1989 he married Janis Freedman, his assistant. A PhD student at Chicago University, Bellow had been one of her professors. At his class, she first noticed his hands, "Judging by his hands, he was an extraordinary human being," she later said in an interview. They had one daughter, Naomi, born in 1999. Bellow died on April 5, 2005, at his home in Brookline, Mass.

For further reading: Saul Bellow by R. Deitweiler (1967); Saul Bellow's Enigmatic Laughter by S.B. Cohen (1974); Saul Bellow, ed. by E.H. Rovit (1975); Saul Bellow by M. Harris (1980); Quest for the Human by E.L. Rodrigues (1981); Saul Bellow by M. Beadbury (1982); Saul Bellow's Moral Vision by L.H. Goldman (1983); Saul Bellow by D. Fuchs (1984); Saul Bellow, ed. by H. Bloom (1986); On Bellow's Planet by J. Wilson (1986); Sort of Columbus by J.A. Braham (1984); Saul Bellow by R.F. Kiernan (1989); Saul Bellow against the Grain by E. Pifer (1990); Saul Bellow and the Decline of Humanism by M.K. Glenday (1990); Saul Bellow by R. Miller (1991); Saul Bellow by Peter Hyland (1992); The Critical Response to Saul Bellow, ed. by Gerhard Bach (1995); Handsome Is: Adventures With Saul Bellow by Harriet Wasserman (1997); New Essays on Seize the Day, ed. by Michael P.Kramer (1998); Saul Bellow: A Biography by James Atlas (2000) - See also: Chaim Potok, rabbi and author, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote most of his works in Yiddish. - NOTE: According to some sources (The Encyclopedia Americana, 1971; Lexikon der Weltliteratur, 1988, Encyclopedia of World Literature, vol. 1, 1999), Saul Bellow was born on July 10, 1915, not on June 10, also mentioned in several biographical and reference works (Encyclopedia of the Novel, vol. 1, 1988, World Authors 1900-1950, vol. 1, 1996).

Selected works:

  • Dangling Man, 1944
  • The Victim, 1947
    - Uhri (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1967)
  • The Adventures of Augie March, 1953 (National Book Award)
    - Augie Marchin kiemurat (suom. Kai Kaila, 1975) -
  • The Wreckers, 1954
  • Seize the Day, with Three Short Stories and a One-Act Play1956
    - Tartu tilaisuuteen (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1969)
    - TV  adaptation in 1987, prod. Learning in Focus, dir. by Fielder Cook, starring Robin Williams, Richard B. Shull, David Bickford, Glenne Headly, Stephen Strimpell
  • Henderson, the Rain King: A Novel, 1959
    - Sadekuningas (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1980)
  • Dessins / Jesse Reichek, 1960 (with Christian Zervos)
  • Scenes from Humanitas: A Farce, 1962 (play)
  • Recent American Fiction: A Lecture, 1963
  • Chicago in Fiction, 1963 (ed.; onwards)
  • Great Jewish Short Stories, 1953 (ed.)
  • The Wrecker, 1964 (tv play)
  • Herzog, 1964 (National Book Award)
    - Herzog (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1965)
  • The Last Analysis: A Play, 1965 (play)
  • Out from Under 1966 (play)
  • Under the Weather, 1966 (play)
  • The Wen, 1966 (published in Traverse Plays, ed. by J. Haynes)
  • Orange Souffle, 1966 (published in Traverse Plays)
  • The Arts & the Public, 1967 (with others; edited by James E. Miller, Jr. and Paul D. Herring)
  • Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories, 1968
  • Mr. Sammler's Planet, 1970 (National Book Award)
    - Mr Sammlerin planeetta (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1970)
  • Technology and the frontiers of knowledge, 1973 (with others, foreword by Daniel J . Boorstin)
  • The Portable Saul Bellow, 1974 (with a critical introd. by Gabriel Josipovici, compiled under the supervision of the author by Edith Tarcov)
  • Humboldt's Gift: A Novel, 1975 (Pulitzer Prize)
    - Humboldtin lahja (suom. Kai Kaila, 1976)
  • To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, 1976
  • Nobel Lecture, 1979
  • The Dean's December: A Novel, 1982
    - Dekaanin joulukuu (suom. Marja Alopaeus, 1983)
  • Him with His Foot in His Mouth, and Other Stories, 1984
    - Löyhäsuinen mies ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Marja Alopaeus, 1986)
  • Modernity and Its Discontents, 1987 (with Bill Bourne, Udi Eichler, David Herman, et al.) 
  • More Die of Heartbreak, 1987
    - Yhä useamman sydän pettää (suom. Jukka Kemppinen, 1987)
  • A Theft, 1989
    - Varkaus (suom. Marja Alopaeus, 1991)
  • The Bellarosa Connection, 1989
    - Bellarosa (suom. Marja Alopaeus, 1991)
  • Something to Remember Me By: Three Tales, 1991
  • It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future: A Nonfiction Collection, 1994
  • The Actual, 1997
    - Ainoa oikea (suomentanut Kristiina Rikman, 1997)
  • Ravelstein, 2000
    - Ravelstein (suomentanut Marja Alopaeus, 2001)
  • Collected Stories, 2001 (preface by Janis Bellow, introduction by James Wood)
  • Letters, 2010 (edited by Benjamin Taylor)


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