Saul Bellow, one of the world's most honored and widely read novelists, is dead at the age of 89.
His parents emigrated to Quebec, Canada. His father was from Lithuania, his mother from Latvia. The Bellows had a son, Saul. When the boy was nine, the family moved to the United States and settled in Chicago. Saul Bellow spent most of his life in this great, brawny city of the American Middle West and he reflected its people, its places and its way of life in many of his novels. Chicago, Mr. Bellow once said, was a natural ingredient of his stories:
"I think wherever one has lived for a long time, there's been a kind of exchange between the environment and one's soul. And, it goes back and forth. And, you've invested part of your existence here in this place," he said. "So it has a meaning for you. It isn't necessarily love. It's just a powerful attachment. I don't know what it is really."
An insightful, intellectual novelist, Saul Bellow decided to teach, in addition to being a writer. He taught briefly at Princeton, at New York University and at the University of Minnesota. But, for most of his academic career, he was a professor of English at the University of Chicago.
Mr. Bellow enjoyed the university because it was a place where he could exchange ideas with people from many different disciplines. But he said he was troubled by literature professors who over-analyzed books and set themselves up as arbiters of what is worth reading:
"Of course, there's always more bad books than good ones," said Mr. Bellow. "And, there's always more poor readers than good readers. As for the professors, I think that they have fallen into the bad habit of coming between the reader and the book and made the reader feel uncertain of his ground and estranged him from the book, perhaps unintentionally, because a writer wants to reach as many people as possible. but the university professor has a way of making the text into something arcane and esoteric and difficult to understand without professional or academic assistance, and I think the common reader ought to be protected from academic overinterpretation or misinterpretation of books."
In his novels and plays, Saul Bellow showed his concern for the individual in an indifferent society. Among his more well-known works were Henderson the Rain King, a comic treatment of a serious subject - the pathos of human suffering; Herzog, a chronicle of a contemporary Jewish Everyman; and Humboldt's Gift, a work which questioned the role of art and culture in everyday life.
The critics were not always kind to Mr. Bellow, although award juries seemed to be. Saul Bellow was the first writer to win the National Book Award for fiction three times. He also won both the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for literature in 1976 and was the first American to receive the International Literary Prize.
The characters in Mr. Bellow's novels often shared his personality traits. To read Saul Bellow is to know him. That is what he intended.
"My experience has taught me that when you begin to read a writer, you read his words. But there is something under the words that really speaks to you. And, there is something that comes from the breast of the writer, rather than from his brain or from his fingertips," he said. "You hear the sound of a certain person. That person either attracts you or repels you. And, I am sure that souls of my kind will recur, just as i am a recurrence of something that existed in the past. If I survive at all, it will be because I belong to a ... kind of spiritual family. That's what makes a writer a writer."
Words from Saul Bellow, who died Tuesday at the age of 89.