Humboldt’s Gift
by Saul Bellow (1975)
Penguin Classics (2008)
494 pp

humboldts-gift

I have been very intimidated to start any book by Saul Bellow. For one thing, I feel almost obligated to like him yet ill-equipped to do so. I know that he’s highly erudite. And I don’t know Chicago like I know New Jersey and New York, so that personal connection is gone. So it is with a great sense of pride that I write this post because I got over my fear. Thanks to this little lead-up-to-the-Pulitzer project I’ve been doing this month, I took a deep breath and dove head first into Humboldt’s Gift. This might be slightly ironic considering this paragraph found early in the novel:

When reports were brought of the damaging remarks he made I often found that I agreed with him. “They gave Citrine a Pulitzer prize for his book on Wilson and Tumulty. The Pulitzer is for the birds — for the pullets. It’s just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates. You become a walking Pulitzer ad, so even when you croak the first words of the obituary are ‘Pulitzer prizewinners passes.'” 

Sidestepping briefly: this is one worth buying for the brilliant cover alone.

In his introduction to this edition of the novel, Jeffrey Eugenides encouragingly remarks that this book was not well received by critics at first (though it was a huge commercial success for Bellow, and didn’t take long to get some critical praise since it won the Pulitzer). Further making me wonder what I’m about to get into, he calls Humboldt’s Gift Bellow’s detour de force. When Eugenides calls this book a detour he is referring to the fact that this large comical work came after several more serious novels, particularly Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which deals with the Holocaust. For some critics, this seemed like a major regression. Besides that, though, I’m sure Eugenides is also referring to the book’s narrative path, which winds around and around everything it almost touches. Apparently Bellow originally intended it to be a short story about the relationship between a writer and his protégé, and I got the impression that Bellow wrote the short story and then just added added added material around it, going around and about the main narrative, never quite settling down before moving again off into a different direction.

Largely, this is a book about a now-dead writer, Von Humboldt Fleischer, and his younger friend and protégé, Charlie Citrine. They started their relationship well (and with similarities to Roth’s The Ghost Writer: “Having written Humboldt a long fan letter, I was invited to Greenwich Village to discuss literature and ideas.”). Together they discussed art and philosophy, and Humboldt (like Bellow) managed to fit in hundreds of cultural / philosophical / historical / lyrical footnotes into any discussion. Later, though, when Charlie started experiencing success, mainly in the form of a Broadway play called Von Trenck, Humboldt accuses him of selling out and of stealing his personality for Von Trenck. They had a falling out, and it seemed that in his senescence Humboldt lost himself to madness. Now, a while later, Charlie’s life is going downhill fast. He’s mired in a lengthy divorce proceeding that is taking him for all he’s worth. He’s also going broke by squandering his money on a younger woman who really only wants his money. And, though unwilling, he’s getting more and more involved with a lapsed gangster, Rinaldo Cantabile. As things get worse, he comes upon a gift left to him by Humboldt.

That’s a fair rundown of the book’s foundation, but I can’t begin to explain the circuitous pathway Bellow takes to lead us through the book’s plot. It is largely driven by a philosophy. In fact, for many of the pages, Charlie is lying on his couch thinking about the past and infusing the memories with a kind of philosophy about the soul. At times (many, actually) I was annoyed by this. The book began to feel more a philosophical tract than a novel. And the philosophy seemed rather droll and unoriginal to me (I’m sure it’s my own ignorance that prevented my appreciation, however). One reason this book wasn’t well received was because of Bellow’s apparent infatuation with and preaching of anthroposophy, a philosophy whose nuances I have not tried to understand, but that has something to do with gaining insight into the human condition by accessing an objective spiritual world. Access to this world is gained by inner cultivation. Events and movements over the last three hundred years have stifled this inner cultivation.

There came a time (Early Modern) when, apparently, life lost the ability to arrange  itself.  It had to be rearranged. Intellectuals took this as their job. From, say, Machiavelli’s time to our own this arranging has been the one great gorgeous tantalizing misleading disastrous project.

This rearranging by intellectuals leads to the commodification in modern America, leading to the degredation of the individual and his or her inability to access the spiritual world, thereby living blindly in this modern world. I wonder what Bellow would think today. It hasn’t been a decade since he died, but the world is a very different place. Some of his passages felt very relevant (as I’m sure they were when he wrote).

The world, identified by a series of dates (1789 – 1914 – 1917 – 1939) and by key words (Revolution, Technology, Science, and so forth), was another cause of busyness. You owed your duty to these dates and words. The whole thing was so momentous, overmastering, tragic, that in the end what I really wanted was to lie down and go to sleep. I have always had an exceptional gift for passing out. I look at snapshots taken in some of the most evil hours of mankind and I see that I have lots of hair and am appealingly youthful. I am wearing an ill-fitting double-breasted suit of the Thirties or Forties, smoking a pipe, standing under a tree, holding hands with a plump and pretty bimbo — and I am asleep on my feet, out cold. I have snoozed through many a crisis (while millions died).

I’m glad to say that after hearing so much about Bellow’s writing, I am a fan. Many of his sentences are beautiful, stand-alone poems: “Some women wept as softly as a watering can in the garden.” And he has a great ability to evoke a sense of place and of discomfort. Here is a segment where Charlie remembers nights in Chicago without an air conditioner.

I kept Denise from installing it. The temperature was in the nineties, and on hot nights Chicagoans feel the city body and soul. The stockyards are gone, Chicago is no longer a slaughter-city, but the old smells revive in the night heat. Miles of railroad siding along the streets once were filled with red cattle cars, the animals waiting to enter the yards lowing and reeking. The old stink still haunts the place.

And much of his meanderings reminded me about what I like about Philip Roth: the prose is generally tight yet playful; a sentence can seem to be going in one direction but then turn around on itself to end in an unexpected coda that subverts what was said before; a topic can be dealt with from a comedic perspective, making me laugh out loud, and then shift into dead seriousness with profound insight. The following is an example of that last quality. Here Charlie has just come out of his house to find his Mercedes has been beaten by a bat.

The attack on this car was hard on me also in a sociological sense, for I always said that I knew Chicago and I was convinced that hoodlums, too, respected lovely automobiles. Recently a car was sunk in the Washington Park lagoon and a man was found in the trunk who had tried to batter his way out with tire-tools. Evidently he was the victim of robbers who decided to drown him — get rid of the witness. But I recall thinking that his car was only a Chevrolet. . . .

So on this morning I was wiped out as an urban psychologist. I recognized that it hadn’t been  psychology but only swagger, or perhaps protective magic. I knew that what you needed in a big American city was a deep no-affect belt, a critical mass of indifference. Theories also were very useful in the building of such a protective mass. The idea, anyway, was to ward off trouble. But now the moronic inferno had caught up with me.

I found the book flawed, however, in its excess. Though the detours often brings new and welcome vistas, sometimes they add nothing to the journey but time. It’s obvious Bellow was deliberate in this. Late in the book, Charlie begins a section of the narrative by saying he was going to visit a woman. But first, he says, he’d like to talk about another subject. It takes us five pages to get back to the visit he introduced in his first sentence and hasn’t brought up since, and I didn’t feel I got anything from the interim. It felt like it was set up to be nothing more than a detour. This does say something about Charlie’s mind, and someone more interested in the intricacies of his character might find this profound. I found it annoying due to overuse. Fortunately, Bellow’s prose is so amusing that, for the most part, I was willing to follow him as he wandered around the block; however, in the end I suffocated under the book’s weight. Five hundred small-type pages with nothing but an extra hard return to separate sections made this book my longest read of the year, and often I felt I was trudging through the deep mud of Bellow’s philosophy to get to Bellow’s narrative. It was enough to make me anxious to read Bellow’s (three!) National Book Award winning books (The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet), but not enough to make me want to indulge in all things Bellow.

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