Saul Bellow chastised America for its own good
Saul Bellow was too cornucopian a writer to need anyone else's words. But just maybe the prose master with the street-kid defiance would accept the poet's epitaph hoped for by Robert Frost: "I had a lover's quarrel with the world."
For all the highs and lows, the eloquence and vulgarisms, the comedy and pain, Mr. Bellow was on the side of humanity he often had to chastise for its own good. A would-be biographer once compared him to Frost's "Drumlin Woodchuck" - "As one who shrewdly pretends/That he and the world are friends."
But pretense was in short supply with Bellow. The real-life storms over his alleged politically incorrect remarks were weathered rather than explained away.
Amidst the tributes following Bellow's passing Tuesday, what comes to mind is a character in which he said he saw himself, Henderson, in a watershed novel, "Henderson the Rain King" of 45 years ago. Henderson is an American who goes to the Africa of Bellow's imagination for salvation. He's ill when he leaves. But it's just some disease, he says, "Otherwise I'm well." At the time British novelist John Wain wrote, "Mr. Bellow writes with such energy that to read him is like clinging to the rigging of a China clipper in a high sea.... [He] is deliberately not supplying any answers. He is supplying questions."
Three decades later there's an echo in "More Die of Heartbreak" (than by nuclear radiation, says a character). It deplores a time when "love is replaced by Health, and Health is obtained by anatomical means." A key line is "what is sent forth by the seer affects what is seen."
Bellow continued writing into the 21st century, garnering more honors than any other US writer (though this all-American was born in Canada).
But the stats - a Nobel, a Pulitzer, a Presidential Medal, three National Book Awards - tell only part of the story. And so do the evocative titles: "Dangling Man," "The Victim," "The Adventures of Augie March" (his breakthrough bestseller), "Seize the Day," "Herzog," "Humboldt's Gift" (based on Bellow's poet friend, Delmore Schwartz), "The Dean's December," "Him With His Foot in His Mouth," "The Last Analysis" (a play that didn't last long even with the help of players like Sam Levene), "Ravelstein" (inspired by another friend, scholar Allan Bloom).
In a rare book of nonfiction, "To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account" (1976), Bellow applied his descriptive gifts to the ironies of actually traveling to Israel.
Then comes a discussion of the Mideast situation: "I have been hearing conversations like this one for half a century. I well remember what intelligent, informed people were saying in the last years of the Weimar Republic.... Such intelligent discussion hasn't always been wrong. What is wrong with it is that the discussants invariably impart their own intelligence to what they are discussing. Later, historical studies show that what actually happened was devoid of anything like such intelligence."
But Bellow finds exceptions to the idea "we've come to believe that passionate intensity is all on the side of wickedness."
And that's the thing about Bellow. He's known as a realist. He can bring to life the details of any environment.
But his realism is not limited to the surfaces of life.
"A book, any book, may easily be superfluous," he writes. "But to manifest love - can that be superfluous? Is there so much of it about us?"
Like many an author, Bellow's reported private life had turbulences like his prose. Those who know see some of it relived in his fiction.
The work is what lives on. Here, all in one, we have the Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Peck's Bad Boy of American literature - all somehow coming back to Bellow's moral accountancy.
He risked being like another character: "a phoenix who runs with arsonists."
But he knows cinders don't always win. "Well, let's see what can be done, whether I can rise from these ashes."
See what can be done. What could be more in the American grain?
Yet Bellow's wit won't go away. His stance is like one of his characters who says: "I was still explaining myself to people who couldn't have cared less."
Who are those people?
• Roderick Nordell is the Monitor's acting Books editor.