Saul Bellow

This felt weird: Today’s NYT carries the obituary of Saul Bellow, just after I had finished reading one of his most famous works. Check out Featured Author: Saul Bellow, especially Edward Rothstein's appreciation with the slide show. Here's my take on one big book: 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.

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