Herzog Lives on
By Dr Afzal Mirza
CA

I first heard of Saul Bellow in 1968. I must say for a person interested in literature it was rather a late introduction to the writings of a novelist who was destined to provide a new dimension to literature.
In former Yugoslavia’s small industrial town of Sisak there was a gentleman named Ivo Sebelj who was living in my neighboring flat. One evening he invited me for a chat over coffee and I found that he had much interst in art and literature. He told me that those days he was reading a book called Herzog by Saul Bellow. Ivo was enormously impressed by the writer and recommended to me that I should also read him. Incidentally it was a Croatian version of Herzog. I liked it even in the Croatian language though it reminded me of one of the sayings of famous Italian writer Italo Calvin who was once told by a friend that he immensely liked Calvin’s certain book. Calvin in return asked him in which language had he read the book, Italian or English. “English….,” replied the friend and Calvin said, “I wish you had read it in Italian.”
So I bought a copy of Herzog when I found its English version -- a rare thing in one of the bookshops of a communist country. It impressed me more. It reminded me of the time when I had first read Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment. Though there was no resemblance but the character of Herzog became much engrained in my mind like that of Raskolnikov of Dostoevski. Herzog was suffering from conusmption and would in frustration write letters to celebrities of the world. Saul Bellow’s style reminded me of the Russian writers of the pre-revolution era. Then I had no inkling that Saul Bellow was actually Solomon Belov. Bellow's parents had emigrated in 1913 from Russia to Canada. In St. Petersburg Bellow's father, Abraham (Abram), had imported Turkish figs and Egyptian onions. Solomon was born on July 10, 1915, in Lachine, Quebec, outside Montreal. He changed his first name to Saul and Americanized his surname when he began publishing his writings in the 1940s.
The family moved to Chicago when Saul was 9. Being Jewish he learnt Hebrew and Yiddish as a young man. The family life of his parents was not a peaceful one. His father was violent and unpredictable. The period of Depression in America had a profound effect on every young writer who had to grow up during a period of economic uncertainty resulting in poverty and unemployment. So the nature of Saul Bellow as a self-absorbed philosophic intellectual was the result of those trying times.
However Bellow later on wrote that those years were exciting and even liberating. He once talked of those times in an interview, “There were people going to libraries and reading books. They were going to libraries because they were trying to keep warm; they had no heat in their houses. There was a great deal of mental energy in those days, of very appealing sorts. Working stiffs were having ideas. Also, you didn’t want to waste your time getting a professional education because when you finished there would be no jobs for you. It seems that the time of the Depression was a suspension of all the normal activities. Everything was held up.”
Until the age of nine Bellow was raised in an impoverished, polyglot section of Montreal, full of Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, and Italians. In 1924, his family moved to Chicago. His mother’s death when he was 17 was a deep emotional shock for him. "My life was never the same after my mother died," Bellow said. In 1933, Bellow entered the University of Chicago, but transferred to Northwestern University, where he studied anthropology and sociology and graduated in 1937. During the Christmas vacation Bellow fell in love, married, and abandoned his postgraduate studies at Wisconsin University to become a writer. Writing was the only way of giving vent to his sensibilities and he started to write a novel which he destroyed, and later in 1944, came out with his first novel “The Dangling Man”. He himself acknowledged that his earlier writings were too priggish and stiffly precise. So when he published his second novel “The Adventures of Augie March” in 1953 the readers came across a new and different Bellow. He once wrote, ”There was a way for children of European immigrants in America to write about this experience with a new language. I felt like a creator of a language suddenly and was intoxicated. It was truly intoxicating and I couldn’t control it. It took me several books to rein it in.” “Augie March” was followed by his other books “Seize the Day,” “Henderson the Rain King,” but it was “Herzog” that established him as an important writer.”
Saul Bellow taught at Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers' College, Chicago, from 1938 to 1942, and worked for the editorial department of the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1943 to 1944. After the outbreak of WWII, he was first rejected by the Army because of a hernia, but in 1944-45 Bellow served in the US Merchant Marine. After the war Bellow returned to teaching, holding various posts at the universities of Minnesota, New York, Princeton and Puerto Rico. Novel of characters was for a long time the hallmark of literature till in the contemporary European novels by Sartre, Camus and Kafka the characters were relegated to the secondary position. But Saul Bellow’s characters of Herzog and Humboldt of Humbodl’s Gift and even Ravelstein of his last novel were living characters.. In his speech at the time of receiving the Nobel Prize Saul Bellow said, “Characters, Elizabeth Bowen once said, are not created by writers. They pre-exist and they have to be found. If we do not find them, if we fail to represent them, the fault is ours. It must be admitted, however, that finding them is not easy. The condition of human beings has perhaps never been more difficult to define. Those who tell us that we are in an early stage of universal history must be right. We are being lavishly poured together and seem to be experiencing the anguish of new states of consciousness. In America many millions of people have in the last forty years received a ‘higher education’ - in many cases a dubious blessing. In the upheavals of the sixties we felt for the first time the effects of up-to-date teachings, concepts, sensitivities, the pervasiveness of psychological, pedagogical, political ideas.”
His long career as a writer did land him in polemics and troubles sometime. As he stated in his Nobel address he found the characters of his books from people around him. So his Humboldt was actually modeled on the poet Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966) and Ravelstein's character was based on Allan Bloom, Bellow's colleague at the University of Chicago and the author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), who died in 1992. The cause was officially announced as liver failure but Bellow showed Ravelstein as a homosexual who suffered from AIDS and died from that disease.
To answer his critics he once said in an interview appearing in Time weekly, "This is a problem that writers of fiction always have to face in this country. People are literal minded, and they say, 'Is it true? If it is true, is it factually accurate? If it isn't factually accurate, why isn't it factually accurate?' Then you tie yourself into knots, because writing a novel in some ways resembles writing a biography, but it really isn't. It is full of invention."
Bellow’s comments on blacks also caused a debate. Ravelstein observes while passing out slices of delivered pizza to his students at NBA parties in front of television, that jazz and basketball are two Negro contributions to the higher levels of American culture It is again in Ravelstein that he comments ,"Odd that mankind's benefactors should be amusing people. In America at least this is often the case. Anyone who wants to govern the country has to entertain it."
Bellow left Chicago in 1993, tired of passing the houses of his dead friends, as he said, and settled in Boston, where he began teaching at Boston University. In 1994 he became seriously sick after eating a toxic fish on a Caribbean vacation. Bellow had three sons from his first four marriages. In 1989 he married Janis Freedman. They had one daughter, Naomi, born in 1999 when he was 84. Bellow died on April 5, 2005, at his home in Brookline, Mass.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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