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SAUL BELLOW | 1915-2005

Author Depicted Men's Spiritual Crises

April 06, 2005|Jon Thurber and Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writers

Saul Bellow, the Nobel Prize-winning giant of American letters whose erudite writing portrayed men in the throes of profound spiritual crisis in a dangerous, even brutal world, died Tuesday. He was 89.

Bellow died at his home in Brookline, Mass., said his lawyer and longtime friend, Walter Pozen, who added that the author had been in failing health for some time but was mentally sharp to the end. Bellow's wife, Janis, and their young daughter, Naomi Rose, were with him when he died.

Widely regarded as one of the most important novelists and thinkers of the post-World War II era, Bellow also won three National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.

"The backbone of 20th century American literature has been provided by two novelists -- William Faulkner and Saul Bellow," novelist Philip Roth said Tuesday. "Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne and Twain of the 20th century."

Novelist, critic and essayist Cynthia Ozick said Bellow was "a fearless writer and a genius."

"He dealt with ideas, where most American authors are afraid of ideas," Ozick told The Times on Tuesday. "His language was both mandarin and the language of the street, together. Before him, we've had one or the other, but not both at once."

In awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, the Swedish Academy cited his "exuberant ideas" and added that his work displayed "flashing irony, hilarious comedy and burning compassion."

His typical hero, the academy said, is one "who keeps trying to find a foothold during his wanderings in our tottering world, one who can never relinquish his faith that the value of life depends on its dignity, not its success.''

More than a quarter of a century after his Nobel, Bellow was still considered at the top of the literary heap. All told, he wrote 10 novels, as well as novellas, short stories, plays, literary criticism and nonfiction. He was writing impressively well into his later years, most notably in the novel "Ravelstein,'' which was published in 2000 when he was 85.

Many of his books are considered autobiographical, and the dominant characters have Bellow's own characteristics. They generally live amid the clamor of cities like Chicago and New York. Ambition, money, success, sexual conquests and death are the dreams and nightmares that haunt them. And, in the way he treated those themes, he became known as "a man's writer." Yet, as Morris Dickstein, an English professor at City University of New York, said: "Bellow was important for the way he broke with the hard-boiled Hemingway-style tradition in American literature for one that was more interior, reflective and psychological."

Speaking of Bellow's characters, Ozick said Tuesday: They "were true presences, each one utterly idiosyncratic. His physical descriptions were so original. He once described somebody's head 'coated with flour.' It was a metaphor for white hair."

In novels like "The Adventures of Augie March," which many consider his masterpiece, and other works, Bellow explored monumental themes, from identity and fulfillment to morality.

In "Augie March," the title character drifts from job to job, dreaming up ever more grandiose schemes for making it big in the world without compromising his optimistic vision.

In "Herzog," Moses Elkanah Herzog, a cuckolded English professor, frantically tries to shore up his disintegrating life.

Charles Citraine, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and narrator of "Humboldt's Gift," faces his career in a free fall but finds some measure of peace through meditating on the life and death of his friend Von Humboldt Fleischer.

In "Henderson the Rain King," Eugene Henderson is a millionaire's son, violent in both love and hate who is squandering his life with drink while trying desperately to understand the voice in his head that proclaims, "I want, I want, I want."

"One of the key themes of his fiction," critic Alfred Kazin wrote early in Bellow's career, " ... is the attempt of his protagonists to get a grip on existence, to understand not themselves (they know that this is impossible) but the infinitely elusive universe in which, as human creatures, they find themselves."

But for all the difficulties his characters face, much of Bellow's fiction is doggedly optimistic, a reproach to the prophets of the wasteland who proclaim life's absurdity.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Bellow criticized modern writers for their limited view of mankind, commenting that the essence of our condition was revealed in what Marcel Proust and Joseph Conrad termed "true impressions." Although they may be fleeting, Bellow said, the impressions connect us to the fact that "the good we hang onto so tenaciously -- in the face of evil, so obstinately -- is not illusion."

In his view, modern writers should aim for a "broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are and what this life is for."

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