canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Goodbye Saul Bellow

April 2005

by Michael Bryson

"How does it feel/ to be on your own/ like a complete unknown?"
- Bob Dylan, "Like A Rolling Stone"

I've just returned from the used book store around the corner from my house. I went there to look for novels by Saul Bellow, who died earlier this week at the age of 89. I bought Mr. Sammler's Planet and Humbolt's Gift. About a decade ago, I saw Bellow speak at the University of Toronto. At the time, I asked a couple of different friends if they were interested in going; they weren't. "How often do you get to see a Nobel Prize winner?" I asked. Still, no takers. I went alone. 

This week seems to be the week of old men dying. The one getting all of the attention is Pope John Paul II. Others I've seen on CNN in the past couple of days: Johnnie Cochrane (best known as O.J. Simpson's lawyer: "if the glove don't fit, you must acquit") and Prince Rainier of Monaco (best known for marrying movie star Grace Kelly).

The Toronto Sun had a short article on Bellow's death, right below a larger article with a photograph and a headline: BRITNEY SPEARS GETS 'REAL' (the pop star and her new husband are going to be the feature of a new reality show on TV ... or is that "reality" show?).

At the University of Toronto a decade ago, Bellow read his short story "By the St. Lawrence" and answered questions. The short story had been published in Esquire. It was a reflective piece about a narrator born in Montreal early in the 20th-century who moved as a young child to the USA, as the author did. Someone asked Bellow if he revised his work much, or did the writing come out nearly fully formed. Bellow said it depended on what he was working on. He said the story he'd just read hadn't been revised very much, though as he was reading it he could see some places where he'd like to make revisions. Someone else asked about the decline of literature. Did it bother him that his audience was small, especially as compared to the audiences of popular TV shows? Bellow said it didn't bother him. His novels, he said, sold in the range of 200,000 copies, which was an audience comparable to that of Charles Dickens in the 19th century. Of course, as a percentage of the population, that audience was significantly smaller. But it was still substantial -- and dedicated.

As the obituaries this week have noted, Bellow is perhaps best known for the optimism that bouys all of his work. The New York Times ended its obituary noting that the author's "approach to his art was that of an alien newly arrived on the earth." The obituary quoted Bellow:

I've never seen the world before. Now I was seeing it, and it's a beautiful, marvelous gift. Enchanting reality! And when the end came, I was told by the cleverest people I knew that it would all vanish. I'm not absolutely convinced of that. If you asked me if I believed in life after death, I would say that I was agnostic. There are more things between heaven and earth, Horatio, etc.

Another quotation, this one the opening sentences of Bellow's novel Herzog. In my opinion, one of the great openings in literature:

If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog. 

Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong.

Henry Miller is blurbed on the cover of my copy of Bellow's Henderson The Rain King, surely one of the strangest, most wonderful, most ecstatic novels ever written. Miller says: "What a writer! I've made a great discovery. It's how I'd like to write myself." That Miller did, in a way, write in a manner similar to Bellow should be lost on no one. The famous beginning to Miller's Tropic of Cancer reads:

I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.

Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.

At its heart, Bellow's work, like Miller's, broadcast a powerful belief in the transcendent power of the human spirit. He was not afraid of words like "beauty" and his work resonates with the belief that however dark the day, however long the drought, light will shine, rain will come. The human spirit will prevail. (This is a sentiment, on the other hand, that one struggles to locate -- and wonders why it's so hard to find -- in the novels of this country's preeminent Nobel hopeful; yes, I mean Margaret Atwood.)

(And while I'm out on a tangent here, I'll take a moment to write against myself. Bellow's Henderson The Rain King [1958] has some stirring, inspiring moments, but it's also highly unselfconscious of the race issues embedded in its narrative -- a rich, urban, and urbane, white American becomes the "Rain King" of a tribe of rural black Africans ... It was written before the race riots of the 1960s -- and at a time when there was an even more stirring transcendent voice rising from black America: that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Bellow has written eloquently about the effects of the anxieties of modern life of the eternal characteristics of the human soul. At the same time, his championing of "universalism," as The New York Times obituary pointed out, put him "in fierce debates with feminists, black writers, postmodernists." As the Times noted, Bellow once asked: "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?" Bellow later called the ensuing controversy "the result of a misunderstanding."

What couldn't be misunderstood, was that Bellow stood on the conservative side of the aesthetic ledger. In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis tells of a visit to Bellow with friend Christopher Hitchens. Their talk came around to the author of Orientalism, Edward Said, a friend of Hitchens and someone Bellow vehemently disagreed with. Hitchens dug in his heels, while Amis kicked him under the table and tried to get him to cool his jets; never-the-less, a verbal slugfest ensued. Later, when everyone was well battered, Hitchens apologized, saying he would have felt bad if he hadn't stood up for his friend. Bellow asked: "How do you feel now?")

Besides an obituary, The New York Times also published two commentaries on Bellow's fiction. Joseph Berger wrote about how Bellow was "captivated by the chaos of New York." Berger noted Bellow's novels evoked New York's "emigre intellectuals and eccentrics, its connivers and kooks, its complicated women and vacillating men," a theme picked up by Michiko Kakutani in an article headlined: "Saul Bellow, Poet of Urban America's Dangling Men."

Kakutani called Bellow's novels "less plot-driven works than portraits of men trying to figure out their place in the world." Kakutani quoted Herzog's narrator asking what does it mean "to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes."

(Of course, whether those "radical hopes" have failed is very much open to question -- a point that relates to my tangential moment above. Herzog was written in the 1960s, when certain radical hopes were very much alive -- and one only need search "Naomi Klein" on Google to see that the hearts of radicals continue to beat strong -- and always will.)

What I most appreciated about Bellow, was his ability to place his narrators in context of grand themes. In a review of More Die of Heartbreak (1987) on this website, I quoted Bellow from that novel:

There aren't any words for what happens to the soul in the free world. Never mind "rising entitlements", never mind the luxury "life-style." ... Full wakefulness would make us face up to the new death, the peculiar ordeal on our side of the world. The opening of a true consciousness to what is actually occurring would be a purgatory.

This quotation shows, I believe, that Bellow was a critic -- like Pope John Paul II, incidentally -- of the unalloyed consumerism that was rampant in the 1980s, and is even more rampant now. He just approached his criticism in a way we're not used to seeing, in a way different from Naomi Klein -- or any other Toronto Star columnist or social activist. Bellow's narrators turn to ancient philosophy, high-brow literature, and transcendent emotions to assert meaning in the face of our contemporary insanity. 

What insanity? Remember BRITNEY SPEARS GETS 'REAL'? What do those quotation marks mean? Reality is a product to be packaged and sold. Bellow's novels remind us that a world fed only on pop culture is a world that cannot sustain the individual soul. They also tell us that individuals will fight against the current. The human spirit cannot be defeated. 

I heard one commentator on TV this week refer to the remarks Pope John Paul II gave when he was made Pope 26 years ago. "Be not afraid," the Pope said, quoting the angels who visit the shepherds on the night of the Christ child's birth. "Keep hope alive," is the catch-phrase of one-time US presidential contender Jesse Jackson. "If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me," thought Moses Herzog. 

Philip Roth has said that Bellow, along with William Faulkner, was "the backbone of 20th-century American literature." When Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, he noted that, in an era dominated by fears about the atomic bomb, in an era dominated by fears about the death of the human race, what writers couldn't forget was that literature was about "the human heart in conflict with itself." Bellow never forgot that. His narrators dreamed big dreams and eschewed easy, "radical" solutions. His narrators also delighted in the human spirit -- and believed that the possibilities of the human spirit never diminished, no matter what the obstacle, as long as the individual refused surrender.

RIP Saul Bellow. May your soul find other worlds to delight it.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.