Saul Bellow: the literary worlds chairman of the board

From his first novel (“Dangling Man,” 1944) to his last (“Ravelstein,” 2000), Saul Bellow perfected a nervy, self-conscious voice.

In doing so, Bellow’s voice became that of American Jewish life.

“He made the language we spoke the language of literature,” said writer Ann Birstein during a Bellow panel this month at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. “We didn’t have to write like the New Yorker anymore.”

An audience hungry to learn about Bellow’s life packed Kanbar Hall on Nov. 2. Attendees heard a distinguished panel that included Bellow’s eldest son, Gregory; Bellow’s close friends and fellow writers, Birstein and Herbert Gold; and Steven J. Zipperstein, the director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University. The panelists provided an engaging discussion about Bellow and the themes in his novels.

Michael Krasny, host of KQED’s Forum, moderated the discussion.

Bellow, known for his philosophical fiction and amusing perspective, is widely considered one of the most important voices in American literature.

Born in Quebec, Canada, he was raised and spent most of his early adulthood in Chicago, the city which became the common backdrop to Bellow’s stories and their Jewish cast of characters.

His Jewishness is apparent also in his other professional pursuits. He served as a war correspondent for Newsday during the 1967 Israeli-Arab conflict and wrote his first nonfiction work about his extensive personal experiences throughout Israel.

Bellow died this year at 89.

The panelists shared their memories of their special and sometimes challenging relationships with Bellow. The night marked the first time Gregory Bellow ever spoke publicly about his father. Gregory, a psychotherapist, told the audience that while his father was alive, he was afraid appearing with him would jeopardize their personal relationship. He said Bellow chose writing over living fully.

“My father’s problems were with his day-to-day life. He was much more comfortable with what was in his head,” Gregory said.

Gold said Bellow had a talent for absorbing the world around him and filling his stories with his own reality. According to Gold, Bellow was lauded among other writers of his time as “the chairman of the board” because he paved the way for authors to use this type of realism in American writing. This title was an honor bestowed on only one other person outside the business community — Frank Sinatra.

Gregory Bellow treated the audience to an analysis of his father’s writing. He said Bellow clearly mirrored his views of the world in his stories, which changed dramatically over the course of his life. In early works, Bellow’s characters exemplified a faith in human nature. At the age of 37, Bellow published “The Victim,” in which his characters discussed how to seek and demand social justice in a patriarchal society.

Yet in later years, Bellow struggled. He went through five marriages, the unexpected and early deaths of three of his closest friends and the challenge of caring for three sons raised by different mothers. “You can’t make that stuff up,” Gregory Bellow said.

This pain became those of his characters. At the age of 55, Bellow wrote “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” in which the main character wakes up one day to realize the values he was raised with have been replaced by a changed political and social arena he rejects.

This very real interpretation of life in America is why people flocked to Bellow’s stories. Bellow enthusiast Werner Gottlieb and his wife, Shirley, drove down from Walnut Creek to hear the panel. They said they admire Bellow’s witty humor about common struggles.

“He wrote about the values we grew up with, American values,” Gottlieb said.

Bellow spent his life aiming to be both a great writer and a great man, Gold said. He received many top literary honors, including the Nobel Prize for literature, the National Book Award, the B’nai B’rith Jewish Heritage Award and the Pulitzer Prize.