Born a hundred years ago today, Saul Bellow was one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. He burst into public consciousness in 1953 with his novel The Adventures of Augie March:
I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that sombre 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. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
. . . My own parents were not much to me, though I cared for my mother. She was simple minded and what I learnt from her was not what she taught, but on the order of object lessons. She didn’t have much to teach, poor woman. My brothers and I loved her. I speak for them both; for the elder, it is safe enough; for the younger one, Georgie, I have to answer – he was born an idiot – but I’m in no need to guess, for he had a song he sang as he ran dragfooted with his stiff idiot’s trot, up and down along the curl-wired fence in the backyard:
Georgie Mahchy, Augie, Simey,
Winnie Mahchy, evwy, evwy love Mama
The dynamic and almost musical tempo yokes together the brash energy of the street and the erudition of the yeshiva, until the description of Georgie running “dragfooted . . . up and down along the curl-wired fence in the backyard” suddenly arrests the pace to present a textured and poignant detail that engages the emotional sympathy of the reader.
Marking a significant break with the lean, spare prose that characterised the writing of the previous generation under the influence of Ernest Hemingway, Bellow’s novels seemed to herald a new era in American literature. In other ways, however, it harked back to the nineteenth-century Russian novel more than the American tradition. Bellow was the son of Russian-Jewish emigres from St Peterbsurg, steeped in Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov on the one hand and Hebrew scriptures on the other; he saw writers as preservers and transmitters of civilisation. Although he himself ultimately rejected orthodox belief, many of his characters seem very much in a Jewish literary tradition of alienation in a disorienting and threatening world, surviving through their wits but also seeking some kind of transcendence in the face of what one of his characters (in The Dean’s December) calls the “big-scale insanities of the twentieth century.”
Amidst the vitality and vulgarity of his novels’ cityscapes, his characters indulge in angst-ridden philosophical conversations and speculations. His greatest novel is probably Herzog (1964), in which a Jewish academic who lives too much inside his own head, inhabiting a world of ideas, undergoes a profound sense of psychological fragmentation that mirrors a Western civilisation losing its own sense of coherence and identity:
He wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead and finally the famous dead . . . When he opened his eyes in the night, the stars were near like spiritual bodies. Fires, of course; gases, - minerals, heat, atoms, but eloquent at five in the morning to a man lying in a hammock, wrapped in his overcoat.
Bellow lived a full and complicated life. He was married five times and became a father for the final time at the age of 84. He died in 2005, aged 89.