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December 15, 2017

Bellow's Human Comedy

On this day in 1976 Saul Bellow delivered his speech in acceptance of the Nobel Prize. At this point, Bellow had written only fifteen of his twenty-nine books, but among these are his major prize-winners -- The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970), and Humboldt's Gift (1975). These were proof enough, said the Academy, of Bellow's "exuberant ideas, flashing irony, hilarious comedy and burning compassion." His characters are anti-heroes more or less lost in a ram-shackle world, but they keep their chin up even as they stick their neck out, and are funny. In his acceptance speech, Bellow seemed to make an appeal on their behalf, urging modern writers to stick to the human comedy, and build their novels as if "a sort of latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter" from the dehumanizing storm.

Bellow's trip to Stockholm seemed to embody the 'human comedy' view, and leave a trail of one-liners in its wake. One of the numbing questions put by the never-ending interviewers concerned what he might do with the prize money: "At this rate, my heirs will get it in a day or two." One of his sons, Adam Bellow, was asked another chestnut about what it was like to have such a dad: "... like stepping on a rake," he said, "-- it comes up and smashes you in the teeth once in a while." (Adam had T-shirts printed for the family to wear in Stockholm: "Nobel Savage.") One of the many public functions was a formal dinner given by Bellow's University of Chicago colleagues: "After years of the most arduous mental labor," Bellow's speech began, "I stand before you in the costume of a headwaiter." One of those colleagues, the sociologist Edward Shils, forecast great renown: "So, you join the august company of Halldor Laxness and Carl Spitteler...." One of the rituals in Christmas time Stockholm was to be awakened by the "Lucia" ceremony, a group of white-robed, cranberry-crowned young women arriving with songs, coffee and buns: "They came bearing bad coffee and some buns which they set down on my bathrobe so that I couldn't reach it." One ambivalent summary of his accomplishment: "All I started out to do was show up my brothers. I didn't have to go this far."

Two more are worth note, taking Bellow's five wives and notorious philandering into account. "If I win I'll buy you a mink coat," Bellow told girlfriend Fran Gendlin, "if you promise to make love to me in it." If these promises were made they may not have been kept. Bellow's messy divorce from wife #3 suggests not, and provides this answer to the earlier question about what would be done with the prize money: "A lot of lawyers in Chicago got more out of the Nobel than I did. And they weren't my lawyers."

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