Him with His Books

Saul Bellow, who until April was one of two surviving American Nobel Laureates in literature, shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 89, leaving behind a body of work whose ferocious intelligence, searing moral intensity, comic exuberance and sheer lan vital we haven't seen in this country since maybe William Faulkner. Bringing together tough street sense with a deep knowledge of the Western intellectual tradition. Bellow was possibly the only American novelist ever to write convincingly about intellectuals. You may not have heard much about Bellow's death—he died right after the pope did, so his death got amazingly short shrift from the media—but that neglect probably wouldn't have surprised him. He spent the last quarter century in partial eclipse, much of the culture elite and certainly the academic left having turned up their noses after he published, in 1970, Mr.Sammler'sPlanet,his brilliantly bilious rant against 1960s excess. There will follow the usual re-evaluation of his work in the coming years, so if you're interested in getting a jump on the discourse, here's a summer syllabus for you, culled from more than half a century of Bellow's work:

SEIZETHEDAY(1956)Lots of people start with this one. The book is short (novella length) and focused—it takes place in a single day—and features in Tommy Wilhelm one of the great father-harassed, put-upon sons in the American canon, rivaled only by DeathofaSalesman'sBiff Loman.

HERZOG(1964)Often considered his greatest book, it begins, “If I am out of my mind, that is all right with me, thought Moses Herzog,” and goes on for more than 400 deliriously energetic pages, its main character going through a blazing and brilliant crackup over his divorce as well as the modern history that yielded the Holocaust, the Bomb, and the “Wasteland Outlook”—which is to say, the postwar nihilism that Bellow inveighed against his entire career.

HUMBOLDT'SGIFT(1975)My favorite of all Bellow's books, his funniest, most compassionate novel, at once a loving tribute to Bellow's friend and early mentor, Delmore Schwartz, and Bellow's tender, graceful, loopy investigation into the possibilities of spiritual transcendence in a world he characterized as a “moronic inferno.”

MR.SAMMLER'SPLANET(1970)Despite the fact that it's lately gaining a rep as a sort of bible for neoconservatives, and despite its clear misogyny and borderline racism, this novel, like Updike's RabbitRedux,is one of the great documents of establishment culture's terror at the dissolution promised by 1960s radicalism.

HIMWITHHISFOOTINHISMOUTHANDOTHERSTORIES(1984?)One of several story collections, this one featuring his most perfectly shaped story, “The Silver Dish,” along with such novellas as “What Kind of Day Did You Have?”—which is vintage Bellow intellectual comedy, pitting a Clement Greenberg-like high culture art critic against a George Lucas-styled film director in a battle for cultural supremacy. Nobody wins, incidentally, unless you consider the reader.

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