Saul Bellow dies aged 89

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The Independent US

The novelist Saul Bellow, a master of comic melancholy who in Herzog, Humboldt's Gift and other novels both championed and mourned the soul's fate in the modern world, has died at 89.

The novelist Saul Bellow, a master of comic melancholy who in Herzog, Humboldt's Gift and other novels both championed and mourned the soul's fate in the modern world, has died at 89.

Bellow's close friend and lawyer, Walter Pozen, said the writer had been in declining health, but was "wonderfully sharp to the end". Pozen said that Bellow's wife and daughter were at his side when he died at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Bellow was the most acclaimed of a generation of Jewish writers who emerged after the Second World War, among them Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick. To American letters, he brought the immigrant's hustle, the bookworm's brains and the high-minded notions of the born romantic.

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

Bellow was the first writer to win the National Book Award three times: in 1954 for The Adventures of Augie March, in 1965 for Herzog and in 1971 for Mr Sammler's Planet. In 1976, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt's Gift. That same year Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, cited for his "human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture".

In 2003, the Library of America paid the rare tribute of releasing work by a living writer, issuing a volume of Bellow's early novels.

"If the soul is the mind at its purest, best, clearest, busiest, profoundest," Ozick wrote in 1984, "then Bellow's charge has been to restore the soul to American literature."

In spite, or perhaps because, of all the praise, Bellow also had detractors. Norman Mailer called Augie March a "travelogue for timid intellectuals". Critic Alfred Kazin, a long-time friend who became estranged from Bellow, thought the author had become a "university intellectual" with "contempt for the lower orders". And biographer James Atlas accused Bellow of favouring "subservient women in order to serve his own shaky self-image".

He had five wives, three sons and, at 84, a daughter. He met presidents (Kennedy, Johnson) and movie stars (Marilyn Monroe, Jack Nicholson). He feuded with writers (Truman Capote, Mailer), and helped out others, notably William Kennedy, on whose behalf he lobbied to get his work published.

The son of Russian immigrants, he was born Solomon Bellows on July 10, 1915, in Lachine, Quebec, outside Montreal. 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.

When he was nine, his family moved from Montreal to Chicago. Bellow learned Hebrew and Yiddish as a young man, and the Old Testament was a living text. His family life was one of violence (his father), of sentiment (both parents) and of humour (everyone). Nothing was left unsaid.

Bellow will have a private funeral and a public memorial is being planned.

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