Saul Bellow: Remembering a Great Novelist on his Birthday

Joseph Coulson, President, Great Books Foundation

Saul Bellow sketched the shadowlands of dislocation, regret, and loss, showing us that cultural upheaval, whether spiritual, political, or technological, can derail our lives long before death finally descends. His lyricism and dark humor invited us into the worlds of his fiction but, as readers, we traveled those worlds at our own risk. If Lord Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” then the same could be said of Bellow, particularly when you found the worst part of yourself pinned with surgical accuracy to one of his pages—indeed, his friends and lovers often felt slandered by the characters crowding his books.

Open a novel by Bellow and you’ll be asked to relive difficult moments, perhaps none so harrowing than the gradual realization that, despite our penchant for individuality, we too often find ourselves living lives designed by someone else. In Seize the Day, Tommy Wilhelm mourns the death of a stranger. His complete anonymity in the funeral party gives him the freedom to grieve, and he weeps for a world that vanishes along with the man he hoped to be. This moment, for me, is the core of Bellow’s humanity—and so we remember the birthday and the passing of a great writer, and experience once again the meeting place of grief and joy.

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