December 23, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Jonathan Safran Foer remembers Saul Bellow

JUNE 10, 1915-APRIL 5, 2005

Saul Bellow made it acceptable, even fashionable, to write about American Jews as Americans, rather than as Jews. And it’s not only Jewish writers who should be grateful for that. And it’s not only Jews, either. But even more important than what he wrote about was how he wrote: He was the most energetic novelist of the 20th century. Bellow wrote every sentence like it was going to be his last. In every paragraph one can find a reason to dog-ear the page. Sometimes I imagine his books singeing the covers of those they’re wedged between on the shelf. Behind that wild exuberance, which often takes the form of humor, is something very serious: an almost religious belief in language. We’ve become so used to thinking of language as a vehicle (for documentation, for storytelling) that we too often forget about language as its own end — writing itself. Bellow wrote rhythmically, humorously (even when he wasn’t making jokes), angrily, and ecstatically. He wrote joyously. He wrote with aims greater than entertaining his reader. He proclaimed, by example, that well-chosen words can shake us from our satisfaction and our certainty. And in a world that is increasingly satisfied and certain, we need him more than ever. (Bellow died of natural causes in Brookline, Mass.)

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