There’s no point my going on about what a great writer Bellow was; if this is news to you, go read him. But the hullabaloo about his death has led me to a couple of odd mysteries. For one thing, nobody knows when he was born. For somebody born in a Montreal suburb in the twentieth century, this strikes me as unusual. The NY Times obituary says “his birthdate is listed as either June or July 10, 1915, though his lawyer, Mr. Pozen, said yesterday that Mr. Bellow customarily celebrated in June. (Immigrant Jews at that time tended to be careless about the Christian calendar, and the records are inconclusive.)” So he was either a day or a month older than my father.
The other mystery, of more pressing interest to me, is about names. The Times obit calls his father Abram and says nothing about the original family name, which I had always assumed was Belov (stressed on the second syllable). But James Atlas’s biography calls the father Abraham Belo (adding that “the family called him” Abram) and says “Belo—the name derives from byelo, ‘white’ in Russian—became, through a Halifax customs official’s haphazard transliteration, Bellow.” Atlas is clearly no Russian scholar (the word for white is belyi, or byelyi if you want to represent the prerevolutionary yat’ by ye), but you’d think he’d get the family name right, particularly when -ov is such a common ending that the bare -o stands out like a sore thumb. Does anybody know anything more about this? (Incidentally, the novelist was born Solomon, “known as Shloime or Shloimke and later as Saul,” in Atlas’s words, and his uncles later “added an -s to their surname, modeling themselves after Charlie Bellows, a well-known Chicago criminal lawyer who had once been the Bellows’ neighbor. They pronounced it Bellus.”)
Something else I wonder about is whether Bellow knew Russian; it’s not clear from Atlas’s account:
His parents spoke to each other in Russian and Yiddish; he and his three siblings spoke English and Yiddish at home; on the streets of Montreal they spoke French, and in public school they spoke English. “I didn’t even know they were different languages,” Bellow wrote.
Atlas several times refers to his reverence for Russian literature and emphasis on his own Russian roots; in the ’50s he aquired a “habit of addressing his friends with patronymics (‘Dear Yevgeny Pavlovitch’)”—but none of this proves anything except affinity.
I can’t resist adding that Bellow was celebrated in Chicago socialist circles in the ’30s for a Yiddish version of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; Atlas quotes the lines
In tsimer vu di vayber zenen
Redt men fun Karl Marx und Lenin
[In the room where the women go
they talk of Marx and Lenin]
Ikh ver alt, ikh ver alt,
Un mayn pupik vert mir kalt.
[I grow old, I grow old,
and my belly button grows cold.]
Also, when he was told Thomas Edison was an anti-Semite, he replied “That’s why Jews light candles.” Alevasholem.
Addendum. There’s a fine appreciation by Ian McEwan in the April 7 NY Times; a taste:
Bellow lovers often evoke a certain dog, barking forlornly in Bucharest during the long night of the Soviet domination of Romania. It is overheard by an American visitor, Dean Corde, the typically dreamy Bellovian hero of “The Dean’s December,” who imagines these sounds as a protest against the narrowness of canine understanding, and a plea: “For God’s sake, open the universe a little more!” We approve of that observation because we are, in a sense, that dog, and Saul Bellow, our master, heard us and obliged.
Update (Jan. 2016). I was hoping Zachary Leader’s new The Life of Saul Bellow would clear up the matter of the family name, but alas, he says pretty much the same thing as Atlas, except that he adds a new bit of confusion: “To explain this moment one must know something of Abraham’s history. He was born in Russia in 1881, the first son of Berel and Shulamith Belo (from the Russian byelo or bely meaning ‘white’).” The difference between the -ye- of byelo and the -e- of bely is just two different transliterations of the same vowel, and the byelo form is just as incoherent as it is in Atlas. And Belo still doesn’t look like a surname to me. Will no one get to the bottom of this mystery?