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Chicago Honors the Spirit of Saul Bellow

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CHICAGO - It was, said the rabbi, a service "in the simple, traditional manner that Saul would have wanted."

There was the haunting cadence of the 23rd Psalm, chanted in the traditional Hebrew. The soaring voices of opera singers boomed three of his favorite arias against the vaulted ceiling of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. The mayor spoke well of him.

And there was just the right amount of levity.

To remember Saul Bellow - their friend, their teacher, their colleague, their relative and often all of that together - some 300 people gathered in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on Sept. 27 to honor the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who died April 5 at the age of 89 in his home in Brookline, Mass.

It was an achingly beautiful afternoon at the University of Chicago, with a blue sky, green grass and the mellowed comfort of old Gothic buildings weathered by a century of demanding weather. It was also a time to link Bellow to a city whose virtues, vices, foibles and fancies he made known to the world.

"Saul understood Chicago like no one else, its beauty, its aspirations, its history. He appreciated that Chicago was built as a city of immigrants and that diversity is an enormous strength," noted Mayor Richard Daley, who was one of eight speakers at the 90-minute service.

The mayor also recalled, with a chuckle, that Bellow had accompanied him on the campaign trail, once regaling an audience with 40 minutes of amusing tales of the city he loved. To get a chance to talk, the mayor said, "I had to remind him that it was, well, my campaign."

Others spoke of Bellow's "lifelong preoccupation with the large questions" of life, the "conjuring quality of his prose" and his brilliant observational skills as "a first-class noticer." Novelist Richard Stern, a longtime friend, noted "his ability to shuttle comfortably between the faculty lounge and the pool hall."

"What a kick Saul would have gotten from this afternoon," Stern added, looking out from the chapel's podium over a crowd of "people who remember him in the streets, the classrooms and the living rooms of Hyde Park," his favored venues for much of his literary and academic career.

One of the most influential American novelists of the 20th century, Bellow taught at Chicago from 1963 to 1993 as a member of the university's Committee on Social Thought, where he was the Raymond W. and Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor.

He also attended the university for a time in the 1930s.

In 1993, he left a second time, at the age of 78, for a teaching position at Boston University, to be near his beloved country retreat in rural Vermont. Yet he remained ever identified with the city that sourced so much of his work.

Though Bellow's works - a dozen critically acclaimed novels and works of non-fiction - "are timeless, that does not mean they are place-less," noted Rabbi William Hamilton of Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline, Mass., who also officiated at Bellow's funeral service in Brattleboro, Vt., in April.

Bellow was "a divinely gifted creative force," Rabbi Hamilton suggested.

"Chicago was the home, is the home, from which soaring words, sorrowful sentences, were launched," he added.

During what was described as a service "of celebration and comfort," soprano Susanna Phillips, baritone Quinn Kelsey and pianist Alan Darling from the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists performed two arias from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" and one from Handel's "Julius Caesar."

"They were his favorites," reported Danny Newman, a Lyric Opera emeritus executive and longtime friend of Bellow.

Seated in the front rows during the service, along with university officials, were members of Bellow's family, including his fifth wife, Janis Freedman Bellow, who - as several speakers reported - had saved Bellow's life several years ago during an incident of food poisoning at a Caribbean resort.

As others suggested, one hallmark of Bellow's legacy is an enduring optimism, even during periods of personal travail. He did not believe in "a cheap and reflexive pessimism," one speaker said. "The miracle was that when he described what he saw and knew, millions then saw it his way," added another.

For author Eugene Kennedy, the mark of Bellow was that "he could survey the parade of the lofty and the lowlifes, the professionals and the pretenders, the seeker and the psychopath - all who had eaten the apple of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Chicago - and murmur, what a species."

Among the speakers was one of Bellow's four children, his oldest son, Gregory, now 61.

His father's idea of a university, he told the audience, had nothing to do with "minds down and pencils up."

A good mind, he suggested, should be restless.

Growing up in a household where adults loved to kick around big ideas, "my singular goal was to emulate their ability to analyze an argument," he said.

Now, "to perpetuate my father's spirit," he urged, "all we have to do is to keep asking questions."


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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