‘I got a scheme!’ – the moment Saul Bellow found his voice

From the age of 49, when the publication of Herzog in 1964 made him rich as well as famous, Saul Bellow was the most acclaimed novelist in America, the winner of three National Book Awards, the Pulitzer prize, the Formentor prize, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters gold medal for fiction. He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1976 and was made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the French. For Philip Roth, Bellow stands with William Faulkner as “the sturdy backbone of 20th-century American literature”, with a prose style “as rich and roiling as Melville’s”. James Wood has called him “the greatest of American prose stylists in the 20th century”, a view he characterises as “relatively uncontroversial”. Ten years after his death, all of Bellow’s books are in print and his reputation remains undiminished.

In addition to Herzog, chief among his critical and commercial successes are The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959), Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970), Humboldt’s Gift (1975) and Ravelstein (2000), published when he was 85. When asked which of Bellow’s works to start with, however, I often say the Collected Stories (2001), which contains several of his novellas, including The Bellarosa Connection (1989), a brilliant meditation on the psychic impact of the Holocaust, in Europe, America and Israel. Bellow’s stories and novellas, he claimed, were written “at the top of my form”.

He was born 100 years ago, on 10 June 1915, in Lachine, Quebec, a quiet working-class town just south-west of Montreal. His parents and older siblings, two brothers and a sister, were Russian-Jewish immigrants from St Petersburg. When he was three, the family moved from Lachine to the heart of Montreal’s Jewish district, where the hero of Herzog also spent his early childhood. Moses Herzog recalls this district as “rotten, toylike, crazy and filthy, riddled, flogged with harsh weather”, but possessed of “a wider range of human feelings than he had ever been able to find”. In Canada, Bellow’s loving, tyrannical father failed at everything: as farmer, baker, dry-goods salesman, jobber, manufacturer, junk dealer, marriage broker, insurance broker and bootlegger. In 1923, pursued by agents of the Canadian Inland Revenue, he fled Montreal for Chicago, followed months later by the rest of the family, who were smuggled across the border by bootlegging associates. The Bellows were illegal residents in the United States, as they had been illegal residents in Russia, St Petersburg lying outside the Pale of Settlement, the area of tsarist Russia to which most Jews were restricted.

The immigrant neighbourhood where the Bellows settled was on Chicago’s north-west side. Here, Bellow went to local state schools and became an American, while remaining loyal to his Russian, Canadian and Jewish heritage:
I never felt it necessary to sacrifice one identification for another. I’ve never had to say that I was not a Canadian. I never had to say that I was not Jewish. I never had to say I was not an American. I took all of these things for granted and in me you see a sort of virtuoso act of integration of all these diverse elements and I feel no particular conflict. I never felt any special discomfort over any of these elements. I’ve taken them all for granted because they are part of my history. If that history is mixed, scrambled, anomalous, difficult for any outsider less exotic to put together for himself, that’s not my fault ... I was faithful to what I was. I lived that way and I tried to write that way.
Bellow’s faith in his history, his “reverence for the source of one’s being” (a phrase taken from Santayana), could be said to underlie his mature style. At home he spoke to his parents in Yiddish. They spoke to each other and to Bellow’s older sister and brothers in Yiddish or Russian. At school he spoke English or French. And from the age of three he studied Hebrew. As a young child, “I didn’t know what language I was speaking and I didn’t understand if there was any distinction among these various languages”.

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