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?


  1. Yo, me leyent ot dem iberzetsung afn Yidishtish in di Universitet fun Shikako biz haynt.

  2. I always thought that the literal translation of Byelorussia (the old name for Belarus) was “White Russia”. If so, “byelo” for “white” seems an accurate statement. I don’t know much about Russian, but I do know that it has a great number of cases. Perhaps this is a case of mistransliteration (i.e. whoever choose Byelorussia as the transliteration for whatever it actually is in Russia was sniffing glue at the time) rather than mistranslation?
    Can anyone fluent in Russian lend a helping hand?

  3. That’s like saying the Latin word for ‘all’ is omni because that’s the form it takes in the word omnivore. Yes, the Bel- part of Belorussia/Belarus means ‘white,’ but that’s a prefix, not a word. Before it got smooshed together into one word, the region was called Belaya Rus’ ‘White Rus,’ where belaya is a separate word, the nominative singular feminine of belyi; if you’re going to talk about “the Russian word for white,” the latter is the form you want — it’s the form under which the word is entered in dictionaries. (Incidentally, it’s not at all clear how the name “White Rus” came about — it may have had some social significance — but it’s been used since the 14th century, well before there was a “Russia” as such.)

  4. So I don’t know much about Saul Bellow (other than I love to read him), and I have no idea where his or his father’s name comes from. In the paragraph you quote, Hat, it’s unclear to me whether “Abraham Belo” is a first and last name, or a double name (common to Ashkenazim), or a single, formal name plus a nickname (also common).
    But let’s assume either of the last two — that Abraham was SB’s father’s “official” name, but (some) people (had?) called him “Belo.” Though there is no name like that for males (at least according to Beider’s “Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names”) there is a widespread name “Beyle” for girls (including my daughter…).
    This exhausting preamble is just meant to back up my speculation that SB’s father’s name might have been Abraham Belo(s), or Abraham Bella(s), and that his mother’s name was Belo/Bella, where the “o” is a schwa and the “s”, well, dropped off somewhere.
    Of course, this could be all completely wrong. But it sure is fun to guess.
    I think the birthdate unclarity is a bit more common than you might think, by the way.

  5. What I meant to say was that it could be that Abraham Belo’s mother’s name was Belo/Bella, not SB’s mother’s name.

  6. It’s quite clear from the Atlas bio that Belo (if that’s the correct form) was the father’s family name; use the “Search inside the book” feature at the Amazon site linked above and search on “Belo.” It’s not clear to me whether it’s a dialect (Polish? Litvak?) variant on Russian Belov or whether it’s another formation entirely. But I sure hope somebody can clarify this matter. Surely with the writer’s fame somebody must have paid attention to the paternal lineage back in the Old Country!

  7. Surely with the writer’s fame somebody must have paid attention to the paternal lineage back in the Old Country!
    Do you mean somebody in the Old Country? Let me assure you, absolute majority in the Old Country never heard of Saul Bellow, fame and all.
    Birthday record: this practice was quite common. In my own family we never knew when exactly birthday wishes are due to my late grandma. All she could tell us was she was born on a second day of Passover in 1917. And she was quite sensitive if we’d make a mistake congratulating her, say, on April 4th of current year, based on our record of the last.

  8. Let me assure you, absolute majority in the Old Country never heard of Saul Bellow, fame and all.
    Oh, of course. (Frankly, I’m not sure an absolute majority in this country has heard of him, even with the publicity of his death.) But the majority is not the point; the Belo (?) family lived in Saint Petersburg from 1905-12, and you’d think the Nobel would have inspired somebody around there to do some digging. There are a number of sites that claim Bellow as a quasi-Russian writer, after all (for instance this one, which claims that he was born in Baku!).

  9. Well, may be now they will, since he’s a DEAD writer.
    LH, if you read the article you linked to (in heavy-accented English but with names and deeds of a few interesting people mentioned) – you surely know the answer to your question. Russia by default doesn’t like Russian emigrees. She makes polite noises towards them when the rest of the world recognises these people’s achievements of if she’s interested in emigrants as investors in Russian economy.
    And god forbid a relatively recent emigrant dares to form a negative opinion about his native land and express it publicly – oh, boy, what a collection of epithets he’s likely to attract – from an incompetetent who has no right to speculate to a traitor fit for a firing squad.
    Inherent suspicion, envy and hatred are very much alive and wide-spread (although not an official government policy); I can give you some links @ Russian Live Journal with examples of seemingly educated and cosmopolitan people ranting away in righteous patriotic fits.
    Sorry if this went a bit off-topic.

  10. Please don’t apologize — in the first place, it’s more on topic than a lot of comments around here, and in the second place, the topic isn’t necessarily anything more than a starting point for a lively discussion.

  11. Reg Cæsar says

    Isaac Asimov had a similar dating problem. He always claimed as his birthdate Jan. 2, 1920 (my own dad’s birthdate), but his biographers are fairly certain he was born a several weeks earlier.
    Speaking of Belarus/Byelorussia/White Russia, this error pales (or Pales) next to Irving Berlin’s. He always said he was born in “Temun” in distant Siberia, but biographer William G. Hyland says Berlin was “in fact, born in Mogilev, a moderate sized town in the Pale, about one hundred miles east of Minsk in Byelorussia.”
    Or White Russia, as we called it then, and as the Germans still do– “Weißrußland”. (Or is it “Weissrussland” now? They keep changing the rules.)

  12. Reg—not that you’re still reading—it’s Weißrussland—the idea with the reform was to have short vowels more consistently followed by double consonants (a rule English also has, to some extent.) So „dass“ loses its ß, „Spaß“ keeps it.

  13. I’ve updated the post to complain about the lack of relevant surname information in the new biography (over 800 pages, and it only goes up to 1964!).

  14. On the other hand, Leader says unequivocally “Saul Bellow was born on June 10, 1915,” so there’s that.

  15. Lack of equivocation may just mean he doesn’t understand the issues.

  16. Doubtful, since he seems to have read every scrap of paper connected with Bellow, and has certainly memorized the Atlas bio. On the other hand, you’d think he’d at least mention the difficulty. Maybe there’s a footnote; I’m just going by what I see on Google Books.

  17. Speaking of odd names:

    I went to high school with someone who bore the rare surname Boitz. The intertubes are completely unhelpful on the origin of this name, though the New York passenger lists show two immigrants who bore it, one from Germany and one from Poland. When I mentioned the name to my (German-born) mother, she immediately said “Boitz? Impossible. That’s not a name.” I never got anything more out of her on the subject.

    Being named Twivvle.

  18. What if the old-country name was not the seemingly impossible Belo but Белый – a real, (non-exclusively) Jewish surname? The transliteration Bely would have been as imprecise as Belo while looking like “belly” misspelled.

  19. Possible, but then why would none of the biographers have come up with it? We’re not talking about some obscure Himalayan valley and a language spoken by a few dozen people here.

  20. I was astonished to learn that the eminent American evolutionary biologist Douglas J. Futuyma has Polish roots and that Futujma ~ Futyma is a genuine Polish name, although a rare one, endemically restricted to some parts of SE Poland (the Subcarpathian Voivodeship). I’ve tried my best to discover its origin — with only partial success. It seems that the name came to Poland with the migrating Vlach shepherds in the 15th-16th c., but it was so mangled in transmission (dialectal Romanian –> Carpatho-Rusyn –> Polish) that its original form and derivation can hardly be recovered.

  21. That is indeed a remarkable name!

  22. This may be a bit far-fetched, but Belo is an attested Sephardic surname of Portuguese origin (‘senhor Attractive’).

  23. David Marjanović says

    That’s fascinating about Futuyma. It looks so much like misspelled Japanese that I’ve been wondering for years what’s going on there.

    “Boitz? Impossible. That’s not a name.”

    Perhaps not, but Beutz looks like it ought to be (even though I can’t guess at an etymology)… oh yes, it is: a Google suggestion, 61500 ghits, and three de.wikipedia articles.

    Boitz comes with 57400 ghits, several of the first of them from a doctor of internal medicine right here in Berlin.

    And then there’s a town and Google suggestion called Boizenburg an der Elbe.


    From 11 years ago:

    Reg—not that you’re still reading—it’s Weißrussland—the idea with the reform was to have short vowels more consistently followed by double consonants (a rule English also has, to some extent.) So „dass“ loses its ß, „Spaß“ keeps it.

    Spaß/Spass has both pronunciations and therefore now both spellings. They seem to be distributed geographically; possibly Spaß is a spelling-pronunciation.

  24. King of Farts says

    John Cowan:
    “Boitz? Impossible. That’s not a name.”
    But we have Joseph Beuys and the place name Scharbeutz, so Boitz or its homophones Beutz and Bäutz sound like convincing if unusual surnames to me.

  25. King of Farts says

    D. M.:
    >possibly Spaß is a spelling-pronunciation
    Would that mean that originally there were no speakers who used a long vowel there? I seem to be surrounded by Spaß pronouncers, by the way.

  26. The etymological dictionaries I checked say that Spaß is first attested in the 17th century and is a loan from an Italian spasso, so the vowel probably was short originally. German dialects show a lot of variation in the length or shortness of vowels in such monosyllabic nouns and before the orthography reform of 1996, final “ß” could indicate a long or a short vowel , so it’s possible that people who learnt the word from writing were not sure whether the “a” was long or short and just picked what sounded right to them. FWIW, I learnt the pronounciation with long “a” as the correct standard, and I have encountered the one with short “a” only in dialectal or regiolectal speech that deviates from the standard in other aspects, too.

  27. King of Farts says

    Thank you.

  28. I should clarify that my mother heard the name from me and did not see it written, so she undoubtedly perceived it as Beutz.

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