The Nobel Prize in Literature 1976
Presentation Speech by Karl Ragnar Gierow,
of the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
When Saul Bellow published his first book, the time had come for a change of climate and generation in American narrative art. The so-called hard-boiled style, with its virile air and choppy prose, had now slackened into an everyday routine, which was pounded out automatically; its rigid paucity of words left not only much unsaid but also most of it unfelt, unexperienced. Bellow's first work, Dangling Man (1944), was one of the signs portending that something else was at hand.
In Bellow's case emancipation from the previous ideal style took place in two stages. In the first he reached back to the kind of perception that had found its already classic guides in Maupassant, Henry James and Flaubert perhaps most of all. The masters he followed expressed themselves as restrainedly as those he turned his back on. But the emphasis was elsewhere. What gave a story its interest was not the dramatic, sometimes violent action but the light it shed over the protagonist's inner self. With that outlook the novel's heroes and heroines could be regarded, seen through and exposed, but not glorified. The anti-hero of the present was already on the way, and Bellow became one of those who took care of him.
Dangling Man, the man without a foothold, was thus a significant watchword to Bellow's writing and has to no small extent remained so. He pursued the line in his next novel, The Victim (1947) and, years later, with mature mastery in Seize the Day (1956). With its exemplary command of subject and form the last-mentioned novel has received the accolade as one of the classic works of our time.
But with the third story in this stylistically coherent suite, it is as if Bellow had turned back in order at last to complete something which he himself had already passed. With his second stage, the decisive step, he had already left this school behind him, whose disciplined form and enclosed structure gave no play to the resources of exuberant ideas, flashing irony, hilarious comedy and discerning compassion which he also knew he possessed and whose scope he must try out. The result was something quite new, Bellow's own mixture of rich picaresque novel and subtle analysis of our culture, of entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession, interspersed with philosophic conversation with the reader-that too very entertaining-all developed by a commentator with a witty tongue and penetrating insight into the outer and inner complications that drive us to act or prevent us from acting and that can be called the dilemma of our age.
First in the new phase came The Adventures of Augie March (1953). The very wording of the title points straight to the picaresque, and the connexion is perhaps most strongly in evidence in this novel. But here Bellow had found his style, and the tone recurs in the following series of novels that form the bulk of his work: Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), Mr Samler's Planet (1970) and Humboldt's Gift (1975). The structure is apparently loose-jointed but for this very reason gives the author ample opportunity for descriptions of different societies; they have a rare vigour and stringency and a swarm of colourful, clearly defined characters against a background of carefully observed and depicted settings, whether it is the magnificent facades of Manhattan in front of the backyards of the slums and semi-slums, Chicago's impenetrable jungle of resourceful businessmen intimately intertwined with obliging criminal gangs, or the more literal jungle, in the depths of Africa, where the novel, Henderson the Rain King, the writer's most imaginative expedition, takes place. In a nutshell they are all stories on the move and, like the first book, are about a man with no foothold, but (and it is important to add this) a man who keeps on trying to find a foothold during his wanderings in our tottering world.
Even a few minutes' sketch of Bellow's many-sided writings should indicate where that foothold lies. It cannot be pointed out, as none of his protagonists reaches it. But during their escapades they are all on the run, not from something but towards something, a goal somewhere which will give them what they lack - firm ground under their feet. "I want, I want, I want!" Henderson exclaims, and sets off for an unknown continent. What his demands are he does not know; what he demands is to find out, and his own desire is the unknown continent. "A worthwhile fate," Augie March calls his goal. And Herzog, the restless seeker after truth, for his part tries out one phrasing after the other of what he means by "a worthwhile fate". At one point he says confidently that "the realm of facts and that of value are not eternally separated". The words are uttered in passing but are worth dwelling on, and if we think of them as coming from Bellow himself they are essential. Giving value a place side by side with palpable facts is, as regards literature, a definite departure from realism. As a philosophy it is a protest against the determinism that must make man unaccountable for his actions as well as inert or hostile to life, since it prevents him from feeling, choosing and acting himself. The awareness of a value, on the other hand, gives man freedom, thereby responsibility, thereby a desire for action and a faith in the future. That is why Bellow, never one to look through rose-coloured spectacles, is at heart an optimist. It is the light of that conviction which makes the facets of his writing sparkle. His "anti-heroes" are victims of constant disappointment, born to defeat without end, and Bellow (it cannot be over-emphasized) loves and is able to transform the fate they find worthwhile into superb comedies. But they triumph nonetheless, they are heroes nonetheless, since they never give up the realm of values in which man becomes human. And, as Augie March says, anyone can become alive to this fact at any moment, however unfortunate he may be, "if he will be quiet and wait it out".
The realm of facts and that of value - the very combination of words is reminiscent of a work by the philosopher Wolfgang Köhler, professor first at Göttingen, then in Berlin, finally at Princeton, to which he fled from the Nazis. Köhler's book is called The Place of Value in a World of Facts and lent its name to an international Nobel symposium in Stockholm some years ago, at which a lecture was given by E. H. Gombrich, disciple and younger friend of Köhler. He told of the latter's last night in Berlin, before the flight could be carried out. Köhler spent the slow hours with like-minded friends, and while they waited, wondering if a patrol would clamp up the stairs at the last moment and pound on the door with rifle butts, they played chamber music. "Such is," Gombrich remarked, "the place of value in a world of facts".
The threatened position of value between obtrusive realities has not escaped Bellow; that is what he is always writing about. But he does not think that either mankind's conduct or the explosive development of the sciences betoken a world catastrophe. He is an optimist-in-spite-of-all, and thus also an opposition leader of human kindness. Truth must out, of course. But it is not always hostile. Facing the truth is not necessarily the same as braving death. "There may be truths on the side of life," he has said. "There may be some truths which are, after all, our friends in the universe."
In an interview once Bellow described something of what happens when he writes. Most of us, he supposed, have a primitive prompter or commentator within, who from earliest years has been telling us what the real world is. He himself has such a commentator in him; he has to prepare the ground for him and take notice of what he says. One is put in mind of another man who went out into the highways and byways with his questions, taking notice of his inner voice : Socrates and his daemon. This introspective listening demands seclusion. As Bellow himself puts it, "Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm." This was what prevailed when Köhler played chamber music on his last night in Berlin while, aware of imminent disaster, "being quiet and waiting it out". It is there that the value and dignity of life and mankind have their sole haven, ever storm-lashed, and it is from that stillness that Saul Bellow's work, borne on the whirlwind of disquiet, derives its inspiration and strength.
Dear Mr Bellow, it is my task and my great pleasure to convey to you the warm congratulations of the Swedish Academy and to ask you to receive from the hands of His Majesty the King the Nobel Prize for Literature of the year 1976.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1976