Saul Bellow, who died today at the age of 89, was one of the very few first-rate American novelists of the past century. (He was born in Canada.) His early novels heralded a new, postwar direction in American fiction, toward a more private, confessional approach. Unlike much of what came after he set the tone in that form, his novels were strong on narrative drive. Bellow was a thinker as well as a writer, and his characters tended to ponder life’s mysteries as they agonized over the choices before them.
One could say that Bellow was something of a Jewish Walker Percy. There was certainly a modern American Jewishness evident in Bellow’s work, as his protagonists struggled to find their place in the world and discover what purpose their lives were meant for. It is no coincidence that one of his major novels was called Seize the Day. Bellow’s evident sense of romance, a yearning to do important things, suffused his work and made his novels more than just the private musings of unhappy people; they express the longings of indiduals to be truly individual in a modern, mass society, and his stories explore the difficulty of achieving that.
Bellow’s work showed intelligence, perspective, and humor. His novels are not to everyone’s taste, but they definitely repay reading, and they provide many great insights into twentieth century American life. Books such as The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet will last.