This “is not absolutely relevant but somehow I can’t avoid mentioning it,” says Chick, the narrator of Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein (2000). Apparently, he and his friend, the titular philosopher Abe Ravelstein, are lodged in the same Paris hotel as Michael Jackson. “He performs nightly in some vast Parisian auditorium. Very soon his French fans will arrive and a crowd of faces will be turned upward, shouting in unison, Miekell Jack-sown.” If on the occasion of Bellow’s death last Tuesday at 89, this anecdote appears not absolutely relevant to the matter at hand—that’s hardly the case. Ravelstein’s appreciative reaction to the Jackson entourage is the fittest possible epitaph for the literary monuments and the uncompleted manuscript, entitled Millennium, that Bellow leaves behind: “Terrific, isn’t it, having this pop circus?”
Bellow wrote about the noisy, predatory spectacle of 20th-century life as if it was fun to watch, as if all the world was a barkered tent rather than a stage. He never shied from villainy—his characters specialize in deceit—but to the end he maintained a humanist optimism unique among great novelists (though the 1956 novella Seize the Day is one of American literature’s finest tragedies). That the passing of this titan, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize, will be overshadowed by the louder cacophony attending the pope’s death only affirms Bellow’s bemused cosmic vision. The spinning whirligig never stops.
The youngest of four children, Solomon Bellow was born in 1915 in Quebec to newly arrived immigrants from Russia. When he was nine the family moved to Chicago, “that somber city,” as he called it in The Adventures of Augie March (1953), his third and best-known novel. There, his father eked out a meager, inconsistent living from dubious endeavors, among them a stint as a bootlegger. Bellow’s earliest novels,
Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), are, like most of the late-career work, minor. “Two small and correct books” was how he later dismissed his apprenticeship. But The Victim—a tense account of a Jew abruptly and mysteriously accused by a gentile of ruining his life—remains sinisterly atmospheric.
The problem with the novel was that it had all of Dostoyevsky’s sense of brooding and none of his sense of humor. To find his own comic voice, Bellow had to cast aside this affected Russian gloom.
In the famous opening declaration of Augie March—”I am an American, Chicago born”—he at last embraced the boisterous sounds of the United States. It’s tough to imagine now the impact this picaresque had on a succeeding generation of writers. “Engorged sentences had existed before in American fiction notably in Melville and Faulkner,” writes Bellow’s protégé Philip Roth, “but not quite like [these].” This is young Augie explaining the tribulations of his job as a delivery boy for a florist:
And then if it was an undertaker’s I was bound for, swinging my package overhead like a bass fiddler and making slow way through the beeping, grinding, and the throng, there hardly ever was anyone in the quilted, silent plush and rose glow of mahogany in the parlor to give me a tip, but only some flunky received me in my pointed skating cap and with my runny nose kept just decent by an occasional touch of my wool glove.
As in the novels of his contemporary William Gaddis, the manic intensity in this prose captures the crazed sensations of urban life. It’s no accident that the setting for Bellow’s fiction nearly always is Chicago or New York, dense cities where the sidewalk has all the action.
Herzog (1964), Bellow’s masterpiece, turns the epistolary novel on its head with similar New World ecstasy. After his wife leaves him for his best friend (the flame-haired, peg-legged Valentine Gersbach, literature’s premier cuckolder after Blazes Boylan), a combustible Moses Herzog suffers a breakdown. He copes—not so effectively—by writing increasingly irrational, unmailed letters to colleagues and unfamiliars, including Nietzsche and Adlai Stevenson (“The general won because he expressed low-grade universal potato love.“)
“Who—who was I?” asks another one of Bellow’s restless, inquisitive heroes, the eponymous tycoon of Henderson the Rain King (1959). Having abandoned Manhattan for Africa, Henderson still can’t answer his own question. Bellow’s enduring legacy rests on his evocation of what Shakespeare called “the universal wolf,” the hunger and greed and lust that drive us inexorably even when we don’t understand our needs. We’re all of us like Henderson, who knows only that he’s a “fellow whose heart said, I want, I want.”