“The novel can't be compared to the epic, or to the monuments of poetic drama. But it is the best we can do just now. It is a sort of latter-day lean-to, a hovel in which the spirit takes shelter. A novel is balanced between a few true impressions and the multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life. It tells us that for every human being there is a diversity of existences, that the single existence is itself an illusion in part, that these many existences signify something, tend to something, fulfill something; it promises us meaning, harmony and even justice. What Conrad said was true, art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential.”—Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize Lecture, delivered on December 12, 1976
On this day 35 years ago, the news came from Sweden that Saul Bellow had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The lecture from which I just quoted featured much of the intellectual pugnacity of his novels, but--except for this passage--it did not show what readers of his fiction came to know over the years: just how flashing, memorable--or, as his conclusion states, “fundamental, enduring, essential”--even a sentence could be in his hands.