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Saul Bellow: Humboldt’s 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 (1975; Pulitzer).  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.

humboldts-gift

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 detourhe 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.

12 thoughts on “Saul Bellow: Humboldt’s Gift

  1. Welcome to Bellow — you know I like him, so I am glad to have another reader on the journey. I do find it interesting that while Roth and Bellow provoke similar amounts of admiration — and dispute — in the academic critical world, Roth gets much more attention in the blogging world. I can’t help but hypothesize that perhaps that is because Roth wrote more shorter books (your closing comments about the length challenge of much of Bellow’s work are spot on).

    I haven’t read all of Bellow (I’m deliberately stretching out the process) but the good news for you is that of those books I have read, I found Humboldt’s Gift to be the densest and at times drudgiest (not sure that’s a word, but you get my drift) of the lot. I too found the philosophical stuff distracting, annoying and not worth the attention — I was less put off by the detours than you were.

    I found another factor, which you allude to, also came into play. Bellow was born in Canada, grew up in Chicago, spent some obligatory years in Paris, lived in New York and then returned to Chicago — his true home. I couldn’t help buy feel when reading Humboldt’s Gift that he felt he had to write a New York novel. I like that genre (from James and Wharton through to your beloved Roth) and — as a New York novel — this is one of the worst of the lot. Bellow certainly has more of an ear and eye for Chicago then he does for New York. On the other hand, I do think his exploration of the strengths and tensions of a writing mentoring relationship in this book bear fair comparison with Roth’s Zuckerman.

    My advice would be not to give up on Bellow by any means, but do stretch out the process — you might want to throw a shorter title in next, because the shorter books do read quickly.

    I can’t help but include a final, somewhat grouchy observation. As you know, I am a bit of a chauvanist about Canadian fiction. And I know you are a big fan of Penguin Classics, in all there various formats. I googled Penguin Classics Canada the other day. Of the 42 titles listed under “Canadian”, 21 are by Saul Bellow (there are repeats of several of his works). The guy left the country, permanently, at age 9. Even I don’t claim him as Canadian — Penguin Canada should be ashamed.

  2. Trevor says:

    That’s interesting about Penguin Canada, Kevin. I know that the Nobel Prize considered him to be from the USA. But we still claim Henry James and, even more strangely, T.S. Eliot. They did spend more time in the US than Bellow spent in Canada, and, after all, why would we let them go?

    Also strange that twenty-one of his books are there. From a quick glance at wikipedia (not a good source, I know) I only count fourteen novels, four short story collections, and two non-fiction works for a total of twenty. Did they also release his translation of I.B. Singer’s Gimpel the Fool?

    And no worries about my giving up on Bellow. I’m definitely in. And it’s encouraging to know that his afficionados don’t necessarily consider this his most esteemed work. So, for the biggies, do you recommend Augie March next? Perhaps Mr. Sammler’s Planet? Or should I just keep up with the challenge and dig into Herzog? Which of his shorter works do you most prefer? Roth says that Dangling Man and Seize the Day are not that good, and that Augie March seems like it was written by a much different, much more skilled writer.

  3. On the Penguin front, with some writers in Canada we get both Penguin Classics (which is the U.S. brand) and Penguin Modern Classics (which is the UK new brand with the covers you like). Bellow shows up with volumes in both, plus there seem to be a few Red Classics, a label I’m not familiar with. Here’s a link so you can see — and figure out for yourself. Of the shorter ones I have read, I’d have a tough time saying whether I liked Seize the Day or Henderson the Rain King better — the two are such different books that I can’t really compare them. I too regard James and Eliot as American — I guess I tend to regard their decision as sort of a self-imposed exile, for whatever reason. I don’t think a nine-year-old is capable of that kind of decision.

    Incidentally, if you are serious about Bellow the Library of America has two volumes with three books each that are excellent value — every book (including Augie March up to Herzog — my guess is that everything later than that is still under copyright and LA hasn’t been able to negotiate a deal like they have with Roth.

    For my money, Augie March is definitely Bellow’s best book that I have read so far — the issue for you would be whether you wanted to take on another long volume next or try one of the shorter one’s first. My next Bellow will be either The Dean’s December or <Ravelstein — final decision will likely be how I am feeling when I next get to him. One of the things that I do like about him is how different many of his works are. Of the “biggies” I only have Mr. Sammler’s Planet to go and I suspect it is going to be some time before I get to that one.

  4. Sarah says:

    It’s always good to see a reader take a deep breath and try a book that intimidates them! I’ve not read Humboldt’s Gift, but love Herzog and would recommend it regardless of its length.

  5. Deucekindred says:

    Augie has one ‘g’ :)

    Personally I love Bellow but I have to read his novels during the end of term holidays (I’m a School Librarian by profession) so that I can soak up his use of language and winding narratives. Without doubt my favourite (and first one I read) is Herzog. You can see where authors such as Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth (and dare I say Martin Amis- from a linguistic point of view) come from.

  6. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the editing tip, Deucekindred! Duly noted.

    Seems like Herzog might be in my sights.

  7. Richard says:

    I know this post is two months old, but I do want to say one thing: I don’t think Bellow considered Humboldt his New York novel–NY is in there, but it’s a small part of the story, relatively, and the book begins, ends, and reveals most of its actual “present-time” action (and thought) in Chicago. Mr. Sammler’s Planet is actually, truly, Bellow big New York novel–it takes up what he describes in Dangling Man and Seize the Day on much smaller canvas and truly expands it in fascinating ways. As a New Yorker, I love digging up books that truly feature this behemoth of a city as a character, and Sammler certainly does that. I think you’ll both love the book for numerous reason–and it is also a troubling book, in the best possible way–but if you’re a lover of New York novels, you’ll definitely find much pleasure in this one. Happy reading!

  8. Richard says:

    Eeek…sorry for the typos…I’m on a new keyboard here…But now that I’m back momentarily, let me say thanks for the fascinating post and responses on one of our truly great writers…

  9. Trevor says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Richard! I definitely look forward to reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet, though I haven’t even picked another of Bellow’s books from the shelf since finishing Humboldt. I think I’ll be ready for more soon, particularly when you call it a New York novel!

  10. Thanks for bringing this post back up Richard. I have been contemplating another Bellow and had completely forgotten about Mr. Sammler’s Planet, which I think tends to get overlooked when people talk about Bellow. It will be my next “New York” novel.

  11. Trevor says:

    Good news, Kevin. And I hope anyone who wants to will bring a post back to our attention, no matter how old. It can only lead to good things.

  12. manpreet says:

    I love Saul Bellow and I had read almost all his works. They all are best in their own ways. I feel connected to Bellow’s thoughts.

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