My God. A friend just called to tell me that Saul Bellow died today.
David Kipen remembers him in the San Francisco Chronicle, and includes this quote from Philip Roth:
The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists — William Faulkner and Saul Bellow…. Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the 20th century.
I was a very contrary undergraduate more than 40 years ago. It was my habit to register for a course and then to do most of my reading in another field of study. So that when I should have been grinding away at “Money and Banking” I was reading the novels of Joseph Conrad. I have never had reason to regret this. Perhaps Conrad appealed to me because he was like an American – he was an uprooted Pole sailing exotic seas, speaking French and writing English with extraordinary power and beauty. Nothing could be more natural to me, the child of immigrants who grew up in one of Chicago’s immigrant neighborhoods of course! – a Slav who was a British sea captain and knew his way around Marseilles and wrote an Oriental sort of English. But Conrad’s real life had little oddity in it. His themes were straightforward – fidelity, command, the traditions of the sea, hierarchy, the fragile rules sailors follow when they are struck by a typhoon. He believed in the strength of these fragile-seeming rules, and in his art…. he said that art was an attempt to render the highest justice to the visible universe: that it tried to find in that universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what was fundamental, enduring, essential.
In the mid-90’s, Bellow nearly died from eating a poisonous fish. Joanna Coles interviewed him two years later, and asked whether he had any regrets. Here’s an excerpt:
‘There are things I’d like to mend but it’s a little late for that, and I find that everyone else is in the same condition.’ What things? He pauses, then mutters ‘Oh, you know, St Paul… ‘I’ve done things I ought not to have done and not done things I ought to have done’, and so forth…’ I’m intrigued; specific things? There is another pause, filled only by the shrieking of the blue-jays outside, scavenging the blueberry bushes. ‘Well I gave a lot of time to women and if I had my time again I don’t think I would do it that way.’