Geoffrey Fox

Bellow, Saul

Humboldt’s Gift
Seize the Day

Bellow, Saul. Humboldt’s Gift. New York: The Viking Press, 1975.

Charlie Citrine, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and playwright, is haunted by the overwhelming spirit of Von Humboldt Fleisher, a once-brilliant poet and Charlie’s one-time mentor who went mad and abusive from his failure to make it big as a literary star or commercial success. Some very vivid character sketches of social types including sexy gold diggers, a would-be Mafioso, pretentious lawyers, and culture moguls after Charlie’s wealth (rapidly diminishing) or his talent (still intact), plus long-suffering wives (Humboldt’s ex and Charlie’s greedy brother’s current spouse); also amusing descriptions of Chicago society in the 1970s, and Greenwich Village in the 1940s. Most interesting to me were Charlie’s notes for a future essay or book on boredom, which “has more to do with modern political revolution than justice has. In 1917, that boring Lenin who wrote so many boring pamphlets and letters on organizational questions was, briefly, all passion, all radiant interest. The Russian revolution promised mankind a permanently interesting life.” (p. 200)

Also worth remembering: Humboldt, according to his widow, “used to say how much he would like to move in brilliant” circles, be a part of the literary world.”

“That’s just it. There never was such a literary world,” I [Charlie] said. “In the nineteenth century there were several solitaries of the highest genius – a Melville or a Poe had no literary life. It was the customhouse and the barroom for them. In Russia, Lenin and Stalin destroyed the literary world. Russia’s situation now [mid 1970s] resembles ours – poets, in spite of everything against them, emerge from nowhere. Where did Whitman come from, and where did he get what he had? It was W. Whitman, an irrepressible individual, that had it and that did it.” (p. 370)

The writing is energetic, witty, intelligent and linked through references to very wide reading, and so gives many moments of pleasure. But as a total fictional experience, I found it disappointing – disjointed and jerky, farcical realism but with an ending that that is more like a shrug than an explosion or any kind of resolution. 20050406

Bellow, Saul. Seize the Day. Crest paperback, 1965 ed. New York: The Viking Press, 1956. 128

A feckless fool has a really bad day. Clumsy, paunchy, 40-something Tommy Wilhelm, a failure as a salesman, soldier (he’s an undistinguished WWII vet), actor (he was an extra in 1 movie long ago, when he was still handsome but no brighter), son (his distinguished father, a retired physician, finds him repulsive) & husband (his estranged wife will not divorce him, nor let him have much time with their sons, but squeezes him for money he doesn’t have), entrusts his last $700 to an extravagant old con man, Dr. Tamkin (who may not be a real doctor), who gambles it on lard futures & disappears when the investment crashes.Tommy then stumbles into a funeral and weeps so at the futility of it all, the others think he must be a relative of the deceased. The end. All this takes place on upper Broadway, between 70th & Columbia U., in Bellow’s version an urban shtetl inhabited entirely by middle-aged & older Jewish men. Dr. Tamkin is amusing, but otherwise there’s nothing here to merit the extravagant blurbs; if it was “one of the central stories of our day” (Herbert Gold, The Nation) back in the ’50s, it’s neither central nor much of a story today (April, 1997).