Saul Bellow, 1915-2005
The great Saul Bellow has died. I read most of the earlier novels - from Dangling Man to Humboldt's Gift - a long time ago and still think that they represent his best work. Since most of my library is half a world away I just got myself a new copy of Henderson The Rain King which I remember enjoying while I was living, appropriately enough, in Africa. Beyond the comic touches, in the character of Henderson we find a tension: between the destructive symptoms of alienation and the potential for regeneration, between self-interrogation and expansive celebration. In this, Bellow was embodying both the fears and aspirations of his own generation, something that he dwelt on extensively in his famous Nobel prize lecture. As a mark of respect I decided to re-read the whole thing. There he reflects especially on the role of the writer and how the writer can reveal the same tensions in striving to be human. I was especially struck by this thoughtful passage.
Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul. If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is pre-empted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish.There are many obituary pieces and tributes but I especially like this piece by Xan Brooks. There's a collection of Bellow in his own words here, while the New York Times has collected together its reviews of his major novels here.