“All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it,” Saul Bellow said of his breakthrough novel “The Adventures of Augie March” (1953). Augie is a dreamy idealist with a drifting mind. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he grew up in a poor working-class neighbourhood in Chicago—just like his creator.
Bellow, who died in 2005, has his centenary on June 10th. He is best known for his big books: “Herzog”, “Mr. Sammler’s Planet”, “Humboldt’s Gift” and “Ravelstein”. But his short stories—“Seize the Day”, “Him with His Foot in His Mouth”, “A Theft”—may be even better. The big books are named after his heroes. Unlike Virginia Woolf, he did not believe that character was dead in the modern novel. He created suffering jokers who fall in love, get divorced and take on “the big-scale insanities of the 20th century” (“The Dean’s December”).
Reality caught up with art when Bellow won the Pulitzer prize in 1976 for “Humboldt’s Gift”, a story of friendship and death, whose protagonist is a Pulitzer-winning author. In the same year he received the Nobel for his “human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture”. He was rated “the greatest American author ever” by Martin Amis. Ian McEwan admired his Dickensian amplitude. “If you are born in the ghetto,” Bellow told Amis, “the very conditions compel you to look skyward and thus to hunger for the universal.”
Key decision To read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, aged eight, when he spent six months in hospital with a respiratory infection. He resolved to become a writer, dashing his mother’s hopes for a rabbi or a violinist. She died when he was 17, but part of her wish did come true: his prose pulsates with wisdom and rhythm.
Golden rule Disclose a deeper truth. Much like Plato, Bellow believed in a more genuine reality that we tend to lose sight of. In his Nobel lecture he said: “This other reality is always sending us hints, which, without art, we can’t receive. Proust calls these hints our ‘true impressions’.”
Strong points (1) Balancing a high aphorism with a low quip. (2) Revealing the inside through the outside. Bellow studied anthropology as a postgrad and it shows. His protagonist Wilhelm watches the crowd and observes “in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence” (“Seize the Day”). A neighbour’s cough “is partly alcoholic and partly nervous. And it is also a sort of social activity” (“Dangling Man”). (3) Saying what’s happening even when nothing is. Introspection, memories and stream of consciousness hustle Bellow’s plots, which are apt to move at the speed of honey. Herzog spends much of his time writing letters to newspapers, people in public life, friends, relatives and the dead.
Favourite tricks (1) Vivid similes. When Professor Ravelstein laughs, he throws his head back “like Picasso’s wounded horse in ‘Guernica’” (“Ravelstein”). Eddie Walish has a woodwind laugh, “closer to oboe than to clarinet, and he releases his laugh from the wide end of his nose as well as from his carved pumpkin mouth” (“Him With His Foot in His Mouth”). A man with a wooden leg walks “bending and straightening gracefully like a gondolier” (“Herzog”). (2) Urban vitality. Chicago, Montreal and New York are to Bellow what Dublin is to Joyce. He finds precision in the carnival of the streets: “pushcarts, accordion and fiddle, shoeshine, begging”, while the dust is “going round like a woman on stilts” (“Seize the Day”).
Role models He read the Old Testament from the age of four, followed by Shakespeare and 19th-century Russian novelists. He identified with Conrad because “he was like an American—he was an uprooted Pole sailing exotic seas, speaking French and writing English with extraordinary power and beauty.”
Typical sentence From “Seize the Day”, a description of the New York subway: “And in the dark tunnel, in the haste, heat, and darkness which disfigure and make freaks and fragments of nose and eyes and teeth, all of a sudden, unsought, a general love for all these imperfect and lurid-looking people burst out in Wilhelm’s breast.”