Saul Bellow, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, is one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century. His characters struggle with questions of meaning and self against a backdrop of moral and social unease. Many of his books are set in Chicago, and the theme of Jewish identity pervades. In Herzog (1964), we see the life of the eponymous anti-hero crumbling inexorably around him. Herzog writes letters compulsively, to the living and the dead, treading an existential trail as he pursues his identity to the edges of insanity.
The drama in Bellow often centres on sudden intense moments of realization. Move on from Herzog to his novella Seize the Day (1956), which follows middle-aged Wilhelm through the course of one desperate day during which he confronts the failure of his life. The ending is typically Bellow: nothing more than a man weeping inexplicably at a stranger's funeral, yet a moment of passionate catharsis. Such epiphanies constantly redeem the bleakness of much of Bellow's vision. Turn now to Humboldt's Gift (1975), a complex novel full of humour and compassion, that interweaves the life of writer Charlie Citrine with memories of the friend and mentor of his youth, Humboldt, the archetypal self-destructive genius. Like the poet Delmore Schwartz, on whom he is based, Humboldt died young. Charlie has gone on to success on the back of a character based upon him. His spiritual odyssey brings him to an understanding of Humboldt's true worth and the debt he owes him.
Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud. See UNITED STATES OF AMERICA CB