Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow dies at 89
April 07 2005 12:00 AM ET
Saul Bellow, who rose from writing book reviews for $10 apiece to become one of America's greatest novelists after World War II, passed away on Tuesday at age 89. Friend and lawyer Walter Pozen said Bellow died of natural causes at his home in Brookline, Mass., with his wife by his side. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, and three National Book Awards, Bellow was the author of such novels as The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Henderson the Rain King. Bellow's controversial 2000 novel Ravelstein caused a hubbub due to the fact that its lead character was a thinly veiled version of Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) and because Bellow's novel revealed that Bloom was gay and had died of AIDS-related complications, something known to Bloom's friends but not the public at large. Bellow's work touched on the essence of human existence, the experience of immigrants and Jews, and class and social mobility in 20th century America.
"Saul Bellow was not only a great writer, he was also a superb teacher and friend--a whole and marvelous man," said Boston University president emeritus John Silber, who helped recruit the author to the school in 1993. Born in 1915 in Canada to Russian immigrants, the young Bellow moved with his family to Chicago, the city with which his work would become most closely associated. Bellow's mother wanted her son to be a Talmudic scholar, and he could read Hebrew before he entered kindergarten, but young Bellow always knew he wanted to be a writer. "From my earliest days I had a conviction that I was here to write certain things, and so from the age of 13, I kept working at that," he told The [Manchester, U.K.] Guardian in 1997.
After serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II, Bellow spent time as a self-described bohemian in New York's Greenwich Village and supported himself writing book reviews. His first published novel came in 1944 with Dangling Man, but his literary career really only took off with 1953's The Adventures of Augie March, a saga of an amiable but aimless young Chicago man borne along by the forces around him. Bellow's greatest critical success was 1975's Humboldt's Gift, which won him the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.
Themes of death and mortality run through many of Bellow's works, and two near-death experiences marked the early and late stages of the author's life. The first occurred when Bellow was 8 years old and was hospitalized for six months with a respiratory infection. In 1995 Bellow ate a toxic fish while vacationing in the Caribbean. Bacteria attacked his nervous system, and he spent five weeks in intensive care. It took the aging author more than a year to recover.
Bellow's five marriages resulted in four children. His fifth wife, Janis Freedman, gave birth to daughter Naomi Rose in 1999, when Bellow was 84. "I learned that the sexual revolution is a very bloody affair, like most revolutions," Bellow told an interviewer in 1997 when asked for his thoughts on marriage. He spent his later years teaching literature at Boston University, although he stopped holding regular classes several years ago because of declining health, the school said.
Bellow could be a cantankerous personality, bemoaning the quality of contemporary literature and the decline of reading in American society. In an interview with Reuters in 1998, Bellow said: "There are only a few wonderful writers around, and then there's the field, as they say in horse racing." He cited Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Denis Johnson as contemporary writers he liked, but slammed Tom Wolfe as a "very gifted journalist" but not much of a novelist. Asked about his thoughts on what happens after death, Bellow offered two scenarios: oblivion or immortality. "My intuition is immortality," said Bellow, who was ambivalent about whether he believed in God. "No argument can be made for it, but it's just as likely as oblivion." (Greg Frost, via Reuters, with additional reporting by Advocate.com)