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Saul Bellow, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in literature, in his office at Boston University.
Saul Bellow, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in literature, in his office at Boston University. (1997 AP File Photo)

Saul Bellow, novelist who charted ironies of modern soul, dies at 89

Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, whose singular, majestic voice cascaded through more than a half-century of American literature with runaway intelligence and grace, died yesterday in his home in Brookline. He was 89.

Mr. Bellow's close friend and attorney, Walter Pozen, said the writer had been in declining health but was ''wonderfully sharp to the end."

Although his name seems inextricable from the streets of Chicago, where Mr. Bellow spent much of his life, the three-time National Book Award winner had been a resident of the Boston area since 1993, when he began his affiliation with Boston University.

Mr. Bellow was the author of more than two dozen books, including novels, novellas, short story collections, plays, and volumes of nonfiction. The recipient of virtually every major honor in Western literature, he achieved preeminent stature with the fiction he produced in mid-century: ''The Adventures of Augie March" (1953), ''Seize the Day" (1956), and ''Henderson the Rain King" (1959).

He may still be most widely known and beloved for the two novels that displayed the full range of that commanding intelligence ''Herzog," in 1964, and ''Humboldt's Gift," in 1975, though he began his ascent in the world of letters with the 1944 publication of his first novel, ''Dangling Man." Mr. Bellow's next book, ''The Victim" (1947), confirmed the emergence of a new protagonist in American literature: modern, Jewish, as alienated from his surroundings as Kafka's Gregor Samsa in ''The Metamorphosis." Along with Bernard Malamud and Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow was soon to form the triumvirate of Jewish-American postwar fiction. Writing in the aftermath of Fitzgerald's and Hemingway's mythic self-inventions, Mr. Bellow and his contemporaries replaced that gentility with a far more equivocal, even precarious world view: If the new Augie Marches were worried to the point of anguish, they were also profoundly, sometimes profanely, alive. And they stood at the entrance to literature's shadowy post-atomic age, in a decade shared by Ralph Ellison's ''Invisible Man" and David Riesman's ''The Lonely Crowd."

''The backbone of 20th-century American literature has been provided by two novelists: William Faulkner and Saul Bellow," novelist Philip Roth said yesterday. ''Together they are the Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain of the 20th century."

Armed with a Renaissance reach --he could quote Milton without showing off --and a wit as biting as the Chicago wind, Mr. Bellow set out to capture the human condition, if not remedy it, in all its bruised beauty and sweat-drenched Sisyphean days. He wanted to span the moral fissure left in modernity's wake, and did.

For though he drew from two of the strongest traditions of English literature, the tale of the wanderer and the novel of ideas, Mr. Bellow was most of all a realist of the modern age. He wrote with a brainy, urbane acuity, uncluttered by sentimentality and unblemished by polemic. Heralding modernism's tacit creed, he believed in art above all else. ''Truth is higher than the sun," writes the title character in ''Herzog"; his creator mastered that refrain over the years with the thunderous range of a downtown choir.

He was born Solomon Bellows in Lachine, a suburb of Montreal, on June 10, 1915, to recent Latvian immigrants; in 1924, his parents moved the family to Chicago. A 1937 graduate of Northwestern University, Mr. Bellow studied sociology and anthropology before deciding he wanted to become a writer. He dropped the final ''s" from his last name and changed his first name to Saul when he began publishing his writing in the 1940s.

Mr. Bellow worked for the Works Progress Administration's Writers' Project in Chicago and then supported himself with odd jobs and teaching. During World War II, Mr. Bellow served in the Merchant Marine. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1948 on the strength of his first two novels.

His 1953 novel, ''The Adventures of Augie March," won a National Book Award. (''Herzog" and ''Mr. Sammler's Planet," in 1970, would follow suit, making Mr. Bellow the only three-time winner in the award's history.) Mr. Bellow spent most of the next two decades in Paris and New York, returning in the early 1960s to the Midwest to teach at the University of Chicago.

''A man without a city is either a beast or a god," says the weary academic protagonist of ''The Dean's December" (1982), invoking Aristotle. ''Well, Chicago was the city." Certainly it was Mr. Bellow's city, although, like Faulkner and his mythic Yoknapatawpha, he made the crush and signature of place into universal song.

If Tommy Wilhelm's self-wrought miseries in ''Seize the Day" are suffered in New York, they're nonetheless being played for broke by the commodities market in Chicago, where he has dumped his money into lard. If in ''Humboldt's Gift" the title character, the self-destructing poet Von Humboldt Fleisher (modeled after the poet Delmore Schwartz) once lived in a backwater New Jersey where ''even the bushes were on welfare," his beloved counter-protagonist, Charlie Citrine, ''remained to mourn him in prosperity out in Chicago." In the midst of a brilliantly rendered breakdown, Herzog carries his letters to God and lesser beings from New York to Woods Hole to Chicago and back again, but his real geography is interior, a place of solitary anguish and embittered wit that no compass could have found.

Mr. Bellow found it, easily, and found it again in ''Humboldt's Gift," returning long enough to the real world to pick up a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1976. ''The Pulitzer is for the birds," says Humboldt, insistently immune to the prize his story would take. ''For the pullets. It's just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates. You become a walking Pulitzer ad, so even when you croak the first words of the obituary are Pulitzer prizewinner passes."

Well, yes, unless you happen to win the Nobel as well, which Mr. Bellow did that same year. He was cited by the Swedish Academy for ''the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work." He loved Proust and Conrad and Hardy and Dreiser, heralding the form of the novel in his Nobel Lecture as ''a sort of latterday lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter." The ultimate modern man, he placed most of his faith in the gods of creativity.

His recent works included ''The Actual," a sentimental novella published in 1997, and ''Ravelstein," a 2000 novel based on the life of his late friend, Allan Bloom, author of ''The Closing of the American Mind." Also in 2000, Mr. Bellow was the subject of an acclaimed biography by James Atlas. In 2003, the Library of America paid the rare tribute of releasing work by a living writer, issuing a volume of Mr. Bellow's early novels.

''Saul Bellow was not only a great writer, he was also a superb teacher and friend, a whole and marvelous man," former Boston University president John Silber said in a statement.

Mr. Bellow was revered for his self-reflective irony and his side-angle anguish, the schlemiels and existential heroes he created before the archetype even existed. But he could be impossible, too, and when Mr. Bellow titled his 1984 story collection ''Him With His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories," he was putting a name to an outspoken churlishness that would emerge more in the next decade. That surliness sometimes took a toll on his private life; he was married five times.

He railed against tyranny of any sort, but he could lash out at subjects from Stalinism to feminism as though they were all of a piece. In the spring of 1994, an unflattering portrait of Mr. Bellow appeared in African-American writer Brent Staples's memoir, ''Parallel Time," and he was forced to defend himself against charges of white-guy literary provincialism by Alfred Kazin in The New Yorker. Defend he did, writing an eloquent, if cranky, op-ed piece for The New York Times, urging above all ''the autonomy of the literary imagination."

That same spring, Mr. Bellow was the guest of honor at the Boston Public Library's annual Literary Lights dinner. A small, impeccably dressed man on the streets of Boston, he could be spotted in his trademark fedora. Mr. Bellow spoke that evening in private conversation with an off-the-cuff graciousness; for all his irascibility, he could be both eloquent and kind. Then, in the midst of an anecdote about living in New York in the 1940s, he rose to make his scheduled after-dinner remarks.

Addressing a well-heeled crowd of hundreds, he continued the story, peopling it with such names as Schwartz and Whittaker Chambers, never dropping a note of the melodious narrative that had begun, only moments before, as a spontaneous recollection. It was pure Bellow, articulate in the way his novels are articulate, scattering intelligence with generosity and ease and never looking back.

He was more American than Augie March, with a voice as memorable as Wrigley Field and just about as big. He recognized the staggering triumphs of his culture even as he witnessed its most egregious follies, art's braided mix of mud and glory, or, as he called it in an early story, ''the heart in its cage of bone."

He leaves his wife, Janis (Freedman); two sons from his first marriage, Gregory and Adam; a son from his second marriage, Daniel; and a daughter, Naomi Rose.

Mr. Bellow will have a private funeral, Pozen said. A public memorial is also planned.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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