How to access the novels of Saul Bellow (1915-2005) via the people he knew and loved.
Looking over the titles of Bellow’s novels, one notices how many include the names of their main characters: Augie March, Henderson, Herzog, Sammler, Humboldt, and Ravelstein. He was a character-driven novelist. As Mikics (English/Univ. of Houston; Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, 2013, etc.) notes in this “personal” approach to Bellow’s novels, he stayed true to what he saw as the “novelist’s highest purpose: to make people he had known and loved even more real, and more lasting.” Sure, every novelist draws upon real-life people for characters, but, Mikics argues, few “have ever given us such a wealth of…funny, passionate, overwrought people.” He feels Bellow rivals even Dickens in his “power to locate us through observation, to explain how appearances tell who we are.” Mikics selects 10 people who were important in Bellow’s life—friends, family, wives, sworn enemies—to show how each influenced his portrayals of some of his “pungent, unforgettable personalities.” Morrie, his older brother, shows up as Simon in that “explosive, shaggy picaresque” that is The Adventures of Augie March. Bellow made him a “rough apostle of life” instead of the “thwarted ogre that Morrie actually was.” Two of Bellow’s best friends make appearances in Henderson the Rain King. The African King Dahfu is Isaac Rosenfeld, who died young, while Chanler Chapman, who was also for a while his landlord, is Eugene Henderson. Chapman “lived in the present with gusto, never plagued by the shadows of failure that clung to Rosenfeld.” Mikics also shows how in Herzog, Bellow fictionally dealt with his wife Sondra’s affair with his good friend Jack Ludwig. Such literary lights of the time as Delmore Schwartz and Allan Bloom make appearances as Humboldt and Ravelstein.
Mikics has done a fine job uncovering how Bellow made art out of life, and he has given us a new way to approach that art.