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In Memory of Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow, who died on April 5, 2005, two months before his 90th birthday, once met Sy Agnon who asked him: "Young man, do you use Jewish themes in your books?" Surprised and somewhat abashed by the question, Bellow replied: "Yes, I think I generally do," and Agnon replied: "If so, you will have a great future!" Indeed, Bellow's subsequent success strongly relied, in addition to his other undeniable skills and qualities, on his Jewish themes, ethics, values and backgrounds.
With the winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, Saul Bellow became a firmly established American classic. Since then, his position as a humanistic and conscientious novelist, a rigorous thinker, and a wise and staunch realist, has been strengthened.
Bellow has always opposed what he calls the parochial "pigeon-hole" trend of labeling him: "an American-Jewish novelist." He preferred considering himself a universal writer, arguing that even when he deals with specific Jewish themes, characters and backgrounds, he is using them as symbolic of modern man in general.
On closely examining Bellow's novels, it can be discerned that the Jewish themes, including the quest for a Jewish identity, are major ones throughout his works. The fact that the quest for an identity is also symbolic of universal modern man only adds to Saul Bellow's greatness and it does not reduce the Jewish content of his fiction in any way.
Since the appearance of his first book, Dangling Man (1944), to Ravelstein (2000), Jewish themes, philosophy, characters and environment, permeate all his books, with the use of Biblical archetypes, and tragic-comic views that symbolize the human condition. Bellow's use of his Jewish heritage mainly functions on two levels: 1. The material that he chooses as an integral part of his fiction - themes, characters, backgrounds, situations and relationships; and 2. The Jewish ethics, values and norms that were ingrained into his psyche and personality from his childhood and throughout the years.
Most of Bellow's protagonists are concerned with the freedom of choice, social responsibility, the preservation of human dignity and individuality, and a staunch belief in the possibility of change. In Henderson the Rain King, for instance, the protagonist clearly expresses this idea when he exclaims: "What Homo Sapiens imagines, he may slowly convert himself to be."
In his second novel, The Victim (1947), the main theme is a reflection of the phenomenon of modern anti-Semitism. The problem of human differences is closely connected with that of human relations and human responsibility, since meaningful relationships can only be possible if we are willing to accept the differences between human beings. Bellow raises the relationship of Jew versus anti-Semite to a metaphysical level. At the end of the novel, the Jewish optimistic and humanistic view triumphs.
Jewishness is not only a source of guilt and worry in Bellow's novels, but also a source of strength and fullness, and in book after book, his heroes' emergence from their various existential crises and their return to a healthy equilibrium - are linked with their return to their Jewish identity. Bellow's novel, Herzog (1965) is acknowledged by most critics as his masterpiece. At the end of the novel, the hero, Moses, draws strength from his return to his roots and is now ready to embrace his responsibilities and to fully confront life again.
Bellow's deep sympathy to Israel and concern for her safety is the main theme of his book, To Jerusalem and Back (1976), which is Bellow's only book written in a journalistic style. His yearning for peace in the Middle East permeates the novel. At one central point, arguing with a hostile interlocutor who states that bombs are planted everywhere in the world and not only in Israel, Bellow retorts that there is a great difference between planting a terrorist bomb in Jerusalem or in London. The bomb in Jerusalem is a declaration that Israel should not exist - while planting a bomb in London implies no such genocidal intention.
In my interview with Saul Bellow (published in GALIM 9, December 2000), he said: "As every Jew, I certainly wish for peace between Israel and the Arabs. But I am certainly not in a position to tell Israel what the peace terms should be. I feel that some Israelis have a residual bad conscience about the treatment of the Arabs, though they may deny there's any need for such discomfort. However, some facts are obvious: the political disequilibrium, the comparative birthrate between Jews and Arabs - these are sure signs that steps should be taken to stop the conflict. And the quicker the better. My priorities are that the State of Israel should continue to exist and flourish. Therefore my preferences are for a peace that would assure the survival of the Jewish State as such, and as a sanctuary for Jews everywhere. Whether in America or in Israel, I am part of the Jewish people."
In true Jewish tradition, throughout his writings, Bellow struggled against the isolating and destructive forces of defeatism and nihilism, and towards the attainment of meaning, fullness, and spiritual richness in life. In so doing, he has indeed deeply enriched Jewish-American literature and world literature, as well as us his readers, by making us more aware of the world we live in and by making us more thoughtful and better people. May he rest in peace.
Prof. Ada Aharoni, 26/May/2005
Founder and International President of IFLAC
Ada Aharoni is the co-author of the book: Saul Bellow: A Mosaic (Peter Lang, New York).