A Century After His Birth, Saul Bellow's Prose Still Sparkles Bellow's centennial is being marked with reprints and a new biography. Today, critics still savor his metaphor-rich prose; his son remembers the personal pain the great writer caused.
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A Century After His Birth, Saul Bellow's Prose Still Sparkles

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A Century After His Birth, Saul Bellow's Prose Still Sparkles

A Century After His Birth, Saul Bellow's Prose Still Sparkles

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

One of the 20th century's greatest writers, Saul Bellow, was born 100 years ago next month. The anniversary is being marked with some important books - a Library of America edition of Bellow's fiction, a hefty tome of collected nonfiction and a big new biography. Bellow won all the major literary prizes - the National Book Award, The Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tom Vitale has this centennial appreciation.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Saul Bellow's best-known work is probably "Humboldt’s Gift." The Pulitzer Prize winning 1975 novel is based on his own friendship with poet Delmore Schwartz. Bellow read a scene from the novel in 1988 at New York's 92nd Street Y in which the narrator and the poet drive through the Holland Tunnel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAUL BELLOW: The car went snoring and squealing through the tunnel and came out in bright sunlight. Tall stacks, a filth artillery, fired silently into the Sunday sky with beautiful bursts of smoke. The acid smell of gas refineries went into your lungs like a spur. The rushes were as brown as onion soup.

JAMES WOOD: For my money, he is the greatest 20th-century prose writer.

VITALE: James Wood is editor of the Library of America's four volume edition of Saul Bellow's fiction. He says the exuberance of Bellow's language compares to that of Melville and Whitman.

WOOD: Above all, just this joyous comedy - a delight in adjectives and adverbs for their own sake, pleasure in metaphor - sparkling metaphors - a wonderful description of Lake Michigan, which is just a list of adjectives of the kind that Melville would've loved. I think it goes something like the limp, silk, fresh, lilac, drowning water - you can't get much better than that.

VITALE: Saul Bellow's imaginative descriptions came in part from a photographic memory, as he told me in 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

S. BELLOW: I have total recall. My parents came over to Canada in 1913. I was born in a little French village. Then we moved up to Montreal, and I was 3 years old. I lived in a Jewish neighborhood. These were all Old Country Jews. My parents were Old Country Jews.

VITALE: Bellow eventually rejected the orthodoxy of his parents' faith, but he retained the humor and wit of his Yiddish background. In 1986, he told an audience at Howard Community College in Maryland that as a young writer he imitated his idols.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

S. BELLOW: When I read Hemingway or Sherwood Anderson or somebody else like that, I would find myself composing in the same manner. I'd find myself making up sentences. It was hot. We went down to the street. I sat down in a cafe. The waiter came. I ordered a Pernod.

(LAUGHTER)

S. BELLOW: It was terribly hot. I went up to my room. I couldn't breathe. And so on.

VITALE: By his third novel in 1953, Bellow found his own voice. "The Adventures Of Augie March" won the first of the author's three national book awards. The Pulitzer followed and then the Nobel Prize for Literature. He told the students he never let it go to his head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

S. BELLOW: I think of myself as a working stiff.

(LAUGHTER)

S. BELLOW: If I got up in the morning and say to myself, well, great writer, what are you going to do today, I'd be paralyzed.

VITALE: Along with Bellow's fame came the pitfalls that often accompany it - five marriages and a string of affairs.

GREG BELLOW: He hurt my mother, and I didn't like that all. I still don't like it.

VITALE: Greg Bellow is Saul's oldest child from the author's first marriage. Greg is 71 years old now and a psychotherapist. Two years ago, he wrote a memoir called "Saul Bellow's Heart" in which he describes his father as an epic philanderer.

G. BELLOW: You know, the admirers, the hero-worshippers, say, you know, the books are great so shut up and don't complain about your father, you know? But I was his son and I feel like I have certain rights to complain.

VITALE: Greg Bellow says he loved his father and his father, he loved literature.

G. BELLOW: He lived for reading and writing his entire life. It was his - the most important thing to him by far, you know, of anything, and I include people.

VITALE: Greg Bellow says his father was most honest with himself when he was holed up in his study writing. Saul Bellow told me he unconsciously modified his memories to serve his fiction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

S. BELLOW: I can recall pretty well in pretty good detail. Of course, the only obstacle is that your recollection tends to have an aesthetic character. So you can't be sure that you're remembering literally. You're remembering what you experienced as a person whose habit for a lifetime has been to transform everything that he experienced and everything that he can recall.

VITALE: Saul Bellow transformed his experiences into art until the end. He published his last novel, "Ravelstein," when he was 85. He died five years later in 2005. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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