Dave Eggers, et al., on Saul Bellow.

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April 8 2005 2:40 PM

Saul Bellow

Novelists and critics remember an American master.

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Saul Bellow remembered

On Tuesday, April 5, Saul Bellow died in his home in Brookline, Mass., at the age of 89. (Read Slate's obit here.) Bellow was the Nobel Prize-winning author of, among other novels, The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Humboldt's Gift, and, most recently, Ravelstein. He is known for having captured the vitality of the American street and the hybrid energies of the immigrant experience in America; he did so in prose of inimitable density and power. His influence on American fiction is nearly as refractive and boisterous as his prose. To capture a sense of just how extensively Bellow has affected contemporary fiction, Slate invited a number of writers and critics to offer a few thoughts on the nature of his influence, or to single out a book for comment.

—Meghan O'Rourke, Slate culture editor

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In Humboldt's Gift, Charlie Citrine is about to be pumped for gossip by the columnist Mike Schneiderman. "In the right context, I was good copy," thinks Citrine. "People in Chicago are impressed with the fact that I am taken seriously elsewhere." And of course Saul Bellow is Charlie Citrine. But he is also every other male character in the book, including Ronald ("Rinaldo") Cantabile, who only a page later is asking Citrine, "What the fuck is the matter with you?" Bellow could do every tone of the American voice, and somewhere underneath his range of mimicry he had the basic tone, the deep rhythm of the American demotic that could bring even his most directly expository prose to poetic life. At the Playboy Club, Rinaldo, a member, "walked away from his supercar, the Bechstein of automobiles." No wonder Martin Amis admired Bellow. In any part of the world that the voice of America could reach, for any writer who wanted to get the uncontrollable abundance of the moronic inferno under the control of a shaped sentence, Bellow was the Man. He was taken seriously elsewhere.

Humboldt's Gift is my favorite Bellow novel at the moment only because it was the first one I picked up after the news of his death came through. At one time or another I have been enthralled by every book he wrote, but I have always tried to forget each one as soon as possible, because he makes me think that he has used up the world, with nothing left over for the rest of us. Philip Roth, strangely enough, doesn't have that effect. He opens the world up: Reading Portnoy's Complaint made me want to go on being a writer. Herzog made me wonder if it wasn't too late to become an accountant. So really I didn't even like Bellow's work, let alone love it. I was flattened by it. Arguing about him with Martin Amis, I always asked, "What about the wives?" I was trying to take comfort from the only theme Bellow skimped. Martin answered me with a glance that said, "What the fuck is the matter with you?" One of the marks of a great writer is that he is always present when other writers talk shop. Bellow was always there, and always will be, until the age of American cultural imperialism is over. It wasn't just that he was that good. He was that powerful.

I met Bellow in Partisan Review circles early in his career. We were all aware of his great worth—a feeling he seemed to share in a suitable way. I also remember about town a number of young women who, when introduced, would say: Hello, I'm Saul Bellow's girlfriend. Thus, the brilliance of Dangling Man made its mark.

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I've never been able to make it all the way through The Adventures of Augie March, but I've read those totemic first pages over and over and over, and loved them every time. Bellow's often credited with bringing the big intellectual ideas of modernity into the great barbaric yawp of American letters, but I think he should also be seen as a great American humorist, who saw that ideas were funny, and made them funny in an American way. He indulged in big-think but he was never a snob. And somehow he recognized that the immigrant experience is, in this land of hybrids, a native experience. To be a first-generation American was not, for Bellow, about coming from some old country so much as it was about embodying and exuding the essence of the new country. He was, consciously, and in every sense, an original. Still, while he's thought of as a writer who's always thrusting himself and his characters out into the world with huge appetite, I love best his two novels about men who are largely confined to single rooms—his first book, Dangling Man, and, much later, Seize the Day. In Dangling Man, you get immediately the same sense of vernacular agility that came to be the hallmark of Bellow's voice, and yet what's most amazing is to see this writer from the Jewish-immigrant streets of Chicago writing, in 1944, a novel that makes existentialism totally American—at pretty much the same moment that the French thought they were inventing it. Saul Bellow understood totally how the little guy can be tragic and also how much cosmic comedy always hovers around that tragedy.

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