I keep getting drawn back to Saul Bellow’s novels like a crazy-ass bee to a barren flower. I must love the disappointment, the confusion, the frustration. I’m a literature masochist. Bellow sees my eagerness, my dog-like enthusiasm, beckons me in closer…and then smacks me on the nose. His novels are never truly satisfying; they almost enrage me. How could a man be so talented, such a great writer, and yet churn out such flawed books? In truth, I don’t know how to review Humbodt’s Gift. It defeats me. Yet to live these days you have to be ok with defeat, I guess, so I am going to give it a go.
My mother taught me that if you’re going to say something critical about someone or something you always ought to say something nice first. Well, I am not going to do that. I’m going to jump right in with the things I don’t like about the book, which, I am sure she would agree, is more my style. There is a hell of a lot wrong with Humboldt’s Gift. Fatally wrong. These things kill the book, if your expectation is that it will be a masterpiece [and why shouldn’t that be your expectation, bearing in mind its reputation?] Some of them are predictable Bellovian problems, some of them new, unexpected, flaws. Bellow goes all out here to fuck up his novel; he doesn’t hold back.
Typically, it starts well. We are introduced, via Charlie Citrine, the first-person narrator, to Humboldt Fleisher, who appears to be a gargantuan personality, a potentially classic tragicomic character. Yet twenty or thirty pages into the book and you start to realise that he has no depth whatsoever, that Bellow is just listing things in lieu of developing him in a substantial manner. For example:
“We were off: we discussed machinery, luxury, command, capitalism, technology, Mannon, Orpheus, and poetry.”
“He moved easily from the tabloids to General Rommel and from Rommel to John Donne and T.S. Eliot/and this rained down on me/the sayings of Einstein and Zsa Zsa Gabor, with references to Polish socialism and the football tactics of George Halas…”
Bore off, Saul! This tells us nothing. It feels, in fact, as though the author was simply showing off. And it’s not even good showing off, because anyone can do it:
[P] was a great reviewer; a great mind; he would bring in Joyce on the English language, the Cuban missile crisis, Beckett in French, and the movies of Yasujiro Ozu. He’d be off, riffing on Rilke’s stay at Duino castle, Proust’s mother fixation, the Son of Sam serial killer and the Summer of Love.
And Bellow doesn’t do this kind of listing once or twice, he does it frequently. As a result, Humboldt is reduced to a kind of Uni reading list, a series of topics or themes. We’re meant to believe that he is an intellectual, someone with an encyclopaedic mind, but it’s a classic case of an author telling us rather than showing us. Bellow’s approach is akin to a poet trying to convince someone he’s great by counting off his influences, rather than by reciting some poems.
Of course, Citrine is narrating sometime after the events he is describing. Therefore, that he can only remember topics, rather than content is understandable, I guess. But, still, you can excuse anything if you try hard enough. I don’t buy that Bellow was trying to make a point about how we remember people, because Citrine’s memory works fine in other parts or passages of the book. Besides, Humboldt is meant to be charismatic and there is no sense of that in the book at all. In fact, it’s pretty much unfathomable as to why Citrine loves or admires the man.
Humboldt isn’t the only one lacking substance either. Demmie is little more than a pill-popping hot chick who suffers from night terrors, and Kathleen, Humboldt’s wife, is pretty much a total void. The only characters with any personality are Citrine himself and small-time hood Rinaldo Cantabile. In all fairness, Cantabile is fantastic. He’s the right amount of tough guy and the right amount of sensitive/vulnerable schmo. I enjoyed all his bits very much. As for Citrine, he is mostly charming and endearing. However, the tone of the novel is sometimes too patronising; Bellow, much like the searingly average Javier Marias, appears to believe that he is blowing our minds with his philosophical, cultural, societal musings, but, really, he isn’t at all; there’s no great insights to be found in the book. Indeed, I studied philosophy and English and the narration, at times, reminded me of having to listen to first-year students gabbing on, without any sense of their own pretension or middle-of-the-road opinions, in seminars.
As with many novels-of-ideas the plot is pretty thin on the ground. That’s not really a problem for me, if the ideas are top-notch. But, as noted in the previous paragraph, Bellow does not bring a new or even fresh perspective to the issues he tackles in the book. This is not to say, however, that what he does tackle isn’t at all interesting. It is. Humboldt’s Gift is about many things – the changing face of Chicago, money, alienation, ennui – but, at heart, it is a book about art and commercialisation, about how increasingly difficult it is to be an artist, how undervalued they are, etc. Coming from an artist himself, in the broadest sense of the word, there is a chance that one could view Bellow’s concerns as well-to-do, self-interested whining. I can’t argue against that, I’m afraid.
I said earlier that you can excuse anything if you try hard enough, and that is true of what, for me, was the biggest issue, which are the passages of Anthroposophical guff that turn up intermittently in the text. I know next to nothing about Anthroposophy, other than it is attributed to a Rudolf Steiner, and having read Humboldt’s Gift I am none the wiser. It appears to be some kind of mystical claptrap about soul and the afterlife. Now, if you were being kind you would perhaps want to explain away all the cringy mystical crap as satire. Citrine is a celebrity, a celebrity under pressure and, in need of some form of salvation, is wanting to engage with the big questions in life. From the celebrities around us these days one can see how these people often turn to some weird form of spiritualism for their answers; look at Madonna with Kabbalah, or Tom Cruise with Scientology. So, as a genuine satire, I would be impressed and amused by the Anthroposophy passages. However, that stuff is clearly not satire, because it is well documented that Bellow was, around the time of writing the novel, actually studying, and well-disposed towards, Steiner’s work. Furthermore, he is clearly, to some extent, Citrine, just as Humboldt is his friend Delmore Schwartz. If you draw this conclusion, then the book kind of feels like a joke played, unintentionally, upon himself.
So, what, then, did I like about it? Why did I read all 500 pages? It always comes back to the same thing with me and Bellow: on a sentence by sentence basis he is terrific, almost without peer. Yes, there’s a lot of hair-tearing stuff to endure, but I still enjoy myself because at least once on each page he will deliver a paragraph or a line that floors me. Things like:
“She’s very pretty but she’s honey from the icebox, if you know what I mean. Cold sweets won’t spread.”
“Maybe America didn’t need art and inner miracles. It had so many outer ones.”
Reading Bellow is a kind of archeological exercise for me. One that is, just about, worth it.