A Higher Selfishness?

Humboldt’s Gift

by Saul Bellow
Viking, 487 pp., $10.00


Saul Bellow has written repeatedly about overextended family men who fancy themselves solitaries and cranks. His first novel starts out like one by Kafka or Beckett with a man alone in his room, warding off doubts about his own existence. Ten pages later he is surrounded by a large cast of in-laws, relatives, and partying friends. Moses Herzog appears on the first page of Bellow’s sixth novel, living alone in a big house in the Berkshires, eating “Silvercup bread from the paper package, beans from the can.” Herzog’s elected solitude can hold out for barely a dozen pages before he is navigating dizzily among ex-wives, old friends, loyal family, and a new girl friend toward a realignment of his social life. Even Seize the Day and Mr. Sammler’s Planet, two of his finest books, conform after their fashion to this pattern. Now comes Bellow’s eighth novel—ambitious, sardonic, vulnerable. In his first “big book” since The Adventures of Augie March the solitude is becoming very real and leans toward self-absorption.

Humboldt’s Gift is immediately recognizable as a novel by Bellow. No other contemporary novelist writes with his careful mixture of control and abandon. Yet compared to previous works it shows striking differences that cannot be described as developments of earlier tendencies. The changes occur at all levels. The characters’ names have a jocose eighteenth-century flavor: Charlie Citrine, Von Humboldt Fleisher, Rinaldo Cantabile. Citrine, the floundering family man here, appears to confront solitude more fatefully than Bellow’s other protagonists. The tone of the narrative has shifted markedly toward irony. Yet the currents of philosophizing reach a more urgent pitch than ever before. It is necessary to read Humboldt’s Gift with great care—with caution even.

The elements of Bellow’s story are as variegated as anything in Dickens or Dostoevsky. The time is the early Seventies. About fifty-five, Citrine enjoys the substance and the trappings of success as a playwright and biographer. Broadway, Hollywood, and President Kennedy have welcomed him. He has returned to live in Chicago where he grew up, and now a painful court settlement with his divorced wife (she has their two young daughters) is sapping his resources and his attention. A beautiful young girl friend, Renata, is remodeling his life according to her plans for marriage and life in heavy syrup. In the midst of this decline, vividly yet somehow unfeelingly narrated by Citrine himself in the first person, a series of mysterious events awakens him from his long slumber of money, success, and bourgeois values. An imperious, small-time gangster type with a rasping intelligence forces his way into Citrine’s life. This character, Rinaldo Cantabile, obliges Citrine to plunge back into his memories of Humboldt, a great boisterous figure of the artist as a young dog, whose reputation as a poet in the Thirties lured Citrine out of the Midwest. For fifteen years they were inseparable, blood brothers, until Citrine’s success led to bitter estrangement.

Now, five years after Humboldt’s death in shoddy obscurity, Citrine flies out of Chicago with Renata and stops off in New York to pick up Humboldt’s legacy to him. It consists of a long fond letter of reconciliation and an apparently worthless film treatment. Reaching Spain, Citrine finds himself deserted by Renata, near broke, and pursued into the depths of his middle-aged desperation by Cantabile. The endlessly agitated gangster has a scheme for making big money out of Humboldt’s film scripts. Wary yet fascinated, Citrine retreats deeper and deeper into theosophy and meditation. He resolves to reorganize his life when things calm down. Perhaps he will. At the end of the novel Citrine is reinterring Humboldt in proper style thanks to money made, against all expectations, from the scripts. An old friend of the family calls Citrine’s attention to a strange sight in the New Jersey cemetery: crocuses.

In the foreground of the story lie two well-tried themes. Bellow’s touch is sure in depicting the comedy of a vain man’s attempt to age gracefully or even honorably. A kind of embittered absorption clings to the second theme: the perils of worldly success and its lurking connections with money, sex, power, and crime. The setting is Chicago—not a mere background but a vibrant city of people and places laden with associations. New York, Corpus Christi, Madrid, and Paris drift by like painted flats for the characters in transit. Chicago represents a personage of its own, with an exciting physical existence and, if not a mind, at least a character. Cantabile belongs to its entrails, almost literally as one scene insists.

After bullying Citrine and in effect beating him up in the middle of a busy street, Cantabile is suddenly gripped by the need to empty his bowels. He forces Citrine to precede him down into the lower regions of an old Russian Bath, described like an allegorical sequence out of Dante. Held at gun point, Citrine witnesses Cantabile’s defecation.

…thinking improving thoughts, I waited with good poise while he crouched there with his hardened dagger brows. He was a handsome slender man whose hair had a natural curl. It was cropped so close that you could see the roots of his curls and I observed the strong contraction of his scalp in this moment of stress. He wanted to inflict a punishment on me but the result was only to make us more intimate.

The timing and texture of this moment strongly recall the scene of the pickpocket who exhibits himself to Mr. Sammler in the apartment lobby. Both scenes establish an emphatically physical base for the action and certify the authenticity of the works that contain them. All the details of the infernal scene in the new novel are also designed to tell us that it could happen only in Chicago, the teeming environment that produced both the gangster and his intellectual victim. To his own city Bellow applies his full powers.

Partly for this reason I find that the outrageous Cantabile comes close to overshadowing Humboldt, a more orthodox portrait of hounded genius in New York. Cantabile becomes Citrine’s nemesis, the male fury who pummels him awake to his own predicament as no woman has been able to do. Citrine cannot miss what is happening.

But it was just possible that Cantabile’s death-dealing fantasy, his imaginary role as Death’s highest-ranking deputy, was intended also to wake me up—“Brutus, thou sleep’st,” etcetera. This had occurred to me in the squad car.

The whole second half of the novel is curiously suffused with images of sleep, at times confusing because many of them refer to a state of higher consciousness rather than to Citrine’s bemused worldliness. But no ambivalence mars Cantabile’s role as the demon who goads Citrine to react to himself.

Through all these events there is an elementary test on which Bellow performs superbly. His prose frequently makes you want to read it aloud—to someone else or to yourself. I can do no better than to quote. Citrine is watching the opposing lawyers in his divorce case.

Tomchek and Srole entered the courtroom, and from the other side came Cannibal Pinsker in a bright yellow double-knit jazzy suit and a large yellow cravat that lay on his shirt like a cheese omelette, and tan shoes in two tones. His head was brutally hairy. He was grizzled and he carried himself like an old prizefighter. What might he have been in an earlier incarnation, I wondered. I wondered about us all.

A hundred pages later Citrine flees from these ordeals of the mind in an airplane with his girl friend beside him.

My head lay on the bib and bosom of the seat and when the Jack Daniel’s came I strained it through my irregular multicolored teeth, curling my forefinger over the top of the glass to hold back the big perforated ice cubes—they always put in too many. The thread of whisky burned pleasantly in the gullet and then my stomach, like the sun outside, began to glow, and the delight of freedom also began to expand within me. Renata was right, I was away! Once in a while, I get shocked into upper wakefulness, I turn a corner, see the ocean, and my heart tips over with happiness—it feels so free! Then I have the idea that, as well as beholding, I can also be beheld from yonder and am not a discrete object but incorporated with the rest, with universal sapphire, purplish blue. For what is this sea, this atmosphere, doing within the eight-inch diameter of your skull? (I say nothing of the sun and the galaxy which are also there.) At the center of the beholder there must be space for the whole, and this nothing-space is not an empty nothing but a nothing reserved for everything. You can feel this nothing-everything capacity with ecstasy and this was what I actually felt in the jet. Sipping whisky, feeling the radiant heat that rose inside, I experienced a bliss that I knew perfectly well was not mad. They hadn’t done me in back there, Tomchek, Pinsker, Denise, Urbanovich. I had gotten away from them. I couldn’t say that I knew really what I was doing, but did it matter so much? I felt clear in the head nevertheless. I could find no shadow of wistful yearning, no remorse, no anxiety. I was with a beautiful bim. She was as full of schemes and secrets as the Court of Byzantium. Was that so bad? I was a goofy old chaser. But what of it?

There are moments of excess in these two passages.1 But both surpass their momentary weaknesses, and the second displays Bellow’s remarkable capacity to create an “air of reality” and then to move convincingly beyond it. Adopting a deliberately archaic style, he carries us through delicate filterings of sensation to poetic recognition crinkled slightly by irony, yet sustained by unabashed philosophical reflexion—and then down again. The rhetorical effects, like “bib and bosom” linking up with “beautiful bim,” go by effortlessly.

Bellow found his style and his voice with Augie March, his third novel. Since then he has alternated regularly between first and third person narrative. Yet that alternation does not seem to modify the controlling sensibility in his novels any more than does the varied series of central characters he creates. A Jewish intellectual from Chicago speaks in a voice indistinguishable from that of an eccentric ivyleague millionaire crashing around the African landscape. These modern picaros talk to us from inside deeply disjointed worlds, with a ready supply of funny stories and off-beat culture, stumbling occasionally into a moment of illumination.

However there is something beyond the prose that makes Humboldt’s Gift read well, aloud and in the mind. Divided into loose unnumbered sections of varying length, the book gives the impression of recording. Citrine’s voice wherever he goes. Everything is included. We read long digressions on pet subjects, overblown descriptions, and remarks implying that no accumulation of detail will suffice to portray a character. Some of the throwaway lines, comic and critical, bring things to a standstill. “I don’t want to interfere in your marriage, but I notice that you’ve stopped breathing.” “It made me think what a tremendous force the desire to be interesting has in the democratic USA.” The book is studded with trinkets and oddities. But unlike what is going on in much contemporary French and American fiction, Bellow’s irregularities grow not out of doubts about the value of continuous narrative but out of a calm confidence that he has a story to tell. That story can carry with it many excrescences. Robbe-Grillet and Burroughs, though very different from each other in other respects, go to great lengths to fit one sentence to the next according to aural and visual patterns that evade linear narrative. In contrast, Bellow’s faith in the shapely existence of a tellable story unites and lends significance to the miscellaneous elements of Citrine’s world.

Out of all these aspects of Bellow’s fiction grows its most characteristic quality: the sense of plenitude. The world is full to overflowing, and it all connects even though the ultimate enigma will never be dissipated. It is not just that Bellow tells us in scrupulous detail how everyone’s breath smells and what they wear and the way they move—and sometimes overdoes it, as I have pointed out. His filling in of the parts outruns mere naturalism and represents a desire to direct the basic act of attention to everything that confronts us—that means to everything there is. This sensuous and spiritual plenitude furnishes both the subject of Citrine’s epiphany in the jet and the narrative technique by which it is conveyed. Bellow has had to earn the right to use totem-taboo phrases like “universal sapphire” and “everything-nothing capacity.”


This full-bodied novel will reward readers of all types, for it successfully blends forward motion with reflection. I must also point out some things I see as flaws or problems deep within it. Bellow does not hesitate to make transitions and to introduce flashbacks and new characters in a casually episodic way. Yet he is writing the consecutive story of one man’s five-month crisis. Though part-picaro, Citrine concerns us to the extent that we follow the Aristotelian action he lives through. Such a story imposes a basic narrative economy. Two characters (Naomi’s hippie son and Cantabile’s PhD wife) severely strain that economy. I would even question the contribution of Citrine’s visit to his brother in Texas. And is it necessary to have two film treatments rather than one? They begin to interfere with each other in such a way as to detract from the play-within-a-play effect.

I also found myself wondering why Citrine has two alter egos—Humboldt for his earlier days of budding talent, and Cantabile for his present vulnerability. That complex arrangement would work effectively if Humboldt came through more convincingly. “I saw Humboldt in the days of his youth, covered with rainbows, uttering inspired words, affectionate, intelligent.” The poet animates several magnificent scenes during his long decline. But something unassimilated about this larger-than-life character intimates that he is based too closely on a real person or persons. Overabundance in this case has extramural sources.

Thus Humboldt brings us to the second problem, the fictional quality, a more delicate matter than economy. Humboldt’s Gift is not a roman à clef, yet it toys repeatedly with that possibility. The process goes on both at the outer edges of the story, where “real people” (Stevenson and Kennedy, literary types like Philip Rahv and Lionel Abel) prowl in the shadows, and at the center where Citrine is endowed, more or less, with Bellow’s age, profession, background, success, place of residence, and much more. Since before Rousseau and Sterne the novel has embraced autobiography without shame. No form of self-revelation through fiction need upset us. What troubles me here, however, is the tone of the book, audible yet less insistent in Bellow’s recent novels. It is a tone of self-irony, which seems to increase in direct proportion to the autobiographical content, and in compensation for it. The more closely Bellow projects himself into Citrine, the more mocking his voice seems to become. The risks involved here will emerge better if we look not directly at Citrine, whose nearly nonfictional voice we never stop hearing, but at another person, this one historical, who figures in the story through his writings.

More than either Humboldt or Cantabile, Rudolf Steiner is Citrine’s guide to the promised land. Steiner (1861-1925) was a German literary scholar and philosopher who invented anthroposophy (his brand of theosophy) and wrote books like Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, Between Death and Rebirth, and The Occult Significance of Blood. He also founded theaters, schools, and study centers, some of which still exist. Citrine has been reading Steiner, reflecting at length on his doctrines of metempsychosis and spiritual communication during sleep, and consulting a Chicago anthroposophist, Dr. Scheldt. Much of his theory and imagery of upper wakefulness comes out of Steiner. One of the few things about which Citrine feels certain at the end of the novel is that he will go to live for a spell at the Goetheanum, or Rudolf Steiner Institute, near Basel. I find over twenty passages in which Steiner and his ideas are discussed seriously.2 Yet at several points Citrine resorts to irony. “All the way to Texas I read occult books. There were many stirring passages in them, to which I shall come back later.”

Twentieth-century artists like Kandinsky have looked to Steiner for a new content in art. Swedenborg played a parallel and more powerful role for an earlier generation. To Citrine, however, Steiner’s doctrines seem to lead out of art.

Of course I was just a beginner, in the theosophical kindergarten.

But I was serious about it. I meant to make a strange jump and plunge into the truth. I had had it with most contemporary ways of philosophizing. Once and for all I was going to find out whether there was anything behind the incessant hints of immortality that kept dropping on me…. I had the strange hunch that nature was not out there…but that everything external corresponded vividly with something internal,…and that nature was my own unconscious being.

What are we to make of the anthroposophist Steiner haunting Bellow’s astringent pages?

In seeking an answer I came upon Bellow’s 1963 essay, “Some Notes on Recent American Fiction.” In the crucial passage he berates middle-class writers who are brought up on a mixed diet of affluence and radical ideas.

They are taught that they can have it both ways. In fact they are taught to expect to enjoy everything that life can offer. They can live dangerously while managing somehow to remain safe. They can be both bureaucrats and bohemians…. They are both conservative and radical. They are not taught to care genuinely for any man or any cause. [Italics added.]

Bellow could be our Jeremiah; the denunciation has not lost its sting. Humboldt’s Gift might be read as a fictional treatment of that lamentation, especially of the last sentence. The passage also brings out an important overlap in the book’s construction. Citrine nourishes a fierce devotion to Humboldt. In this respect he has lifted himself out of middle-class security. But Humboldt is five years dead and survives for Citrine by proxy in his literary legacy and his widow. Gradually Humboldt takes on the appearance less of a man than a cause—posthumous justice for a mistreated talent.

At the same time, the nearest approach to a cause that Citrine sees himself as espousing is Steiner’s spiritualist doctrines. I am not prepared to call Steiner a quack, for his concern with humanity and education partially redeemed his tendencies to superficial cultism. But Citrine is primarily attracted to Steiner’s ideas about transcendence and immortality of the self—a highly egotistic cause.

Bellow seems to want to reconcile these two elements when he has Humboldt end his legacy with the admonition, “…remember: we are not natural beings but supernatural beings.” But every detail in the book tells us that Citrine cares “genuinely” about Humboldt (or Humboldt’s memory) and speculates with only half-committed conviction about Steiner’s anthroposophy. The fact that Humboldt is not fully convincing as a character contributes to these confusions about man and cause.

I believe that Bellow uses Steiner as a kind of clue to tell us that part at least of what he is writing here is the “Intellectual Comedy of the Modern Mind,” the subject Citrine has reserved for his uglier and more intelligent daughter to write about one day. But the reader is left floundering in his attempts to fit together the presumed integrity of Citrine’s feelings toward Humboldt and the ironies that undercut his reflections on Steiner’s doctrines. This split contributes to the uneasiness of Citrine’s narrative voice and the jocularity with which the text sometimes addresses the reader as “you” or “Dear Friends.” And the uncertain tone stems also from the original dilemma of fictionality—are we listening to Citrine or to Bellow? Irony, however subtle, will not resolve these conflicts, only confirm their presence.

There is another split or disparity in the book. Bellow displays it convincingly at the seat of Citrine’s character. Despite his loyalties to his family and his past, Citrine is driven by a deep need to escape his Midwestern middle-class origins. Middle is precisely the word; he was born like Houdini the escape artist (so he reminds us several times) in Appleton, Wisc. His aspiration to a larger life takes on two contrasting forms; high intellect and the underworld. He covets both. The story turns on this axis. While he reads Steiner, he lets himself be morally kidnaped by a hoodlum. He seeks spirituality and finds himself examining watches in an elegant apartment belonging to a Mafia type. “These may or may not have been stolen…. I was excited, I admit, by these currents of criminality.” Citrine sums himself up succinctly as “a lover of beauty who insisted on living in Chicago.”

An ancient theme lodges in these divided circumstances. For it has been argued many times that the stature and dignity of humanity reside in the capacity of certain individuals to range wide, to accept no limit on their freedom of experience and of moral movement. Bellow treats the theme with increasing ambivalence in the novel. First of all he shows Citrine being deprived one by one of the presences in his life that could mediate between the extremes. Humboldt was the major one. Earlier there was his boyhood sweetheart. “When I loved Naomi Lutz I was safely within life.”

Institutions also fail to hold Citrine’s life together. His marriage died years ago of early blight. Money lasts much longer. It functions, we are told at first, as a “vital substance” representing “freedom.” Humboldt conceives the metaphor of money as blood in a bond of friendship sealed by exchanging blank checks. But the power of money backfires when Humboldt cashes Citrine’s check for a whopping sum, and it explodes when the divorce settlement cleans out Citrine. When Humboldt’s film treatments turn out to be marketable after all for considerable sums, it is too late. By then Citrine, in his search for a higher selfishness, has lost interest in money. And by then his last two supports have collapsed also: sex, for which Citrine imagines himself well-preserved, and his writing. Renata leaves him flat in Madrid and marries a mortician. Though he juggles a few fond projects, Citrine never sets pen to paper. At the end he is a solitary in earnest, and an institutionless man. No element remains to reconcile his soaring and his slumming selves.

The theme of irreconcilables in man contains potential grandeur. It runs intensely through St. Augustine and Faust, through Baudelaire and Dostoevsky and Melville. But instead of power and passion Bellow again chooses irony for his treatment. Citrine does not really register the presence of evil; he keeps seeing it as a mockery. Cantabile half-hypnotizes him into playing the part of a hired gun in a borrowed hat, “a dummy impersonating a murderer.” But nothing seems to be at stake. The whole mood that surrounds Citrine is desultory and sardonic, even when he is thrust up against evil, or attains spiritual release. And why not? Isn’t the dandy the hero of modernity? He walks invulnerable inside his all-encompassing aesthetic of detached intensity in living.

Bellow himself provides an answer when he has Mr. Sammler reprove Hannah Arendt for accepting the expression, “the banality of evil.” In the earlier novel he writes, “The idea of making the century’s great crime look dull is not banal.” The idea of making Cantabile look comic, harmlessly attractive, is not banal either. Citrine may be a dummy, but the gun Cantabile carries, as a Chicago cop finds, is deadly, a Magnum. Bellow wants no part of Dostoevsky’s heavy dramatics, but what he does write sounds occasionally like spoof resorted to as a means of evading the large questions he cannot help raising.

And then there’s the ending, the crocuses Citrine sees in the cemetery. At the end of The Adventures of Augie March it was a French peasant woman walking off across the fields; in Henderson the Rain King it was the Persian boy carried in Henderson’s arms; in Herzog, the freshly picked flowers. In the final burial scene of Humboldt’s Gift I find no hint at parody, nothing to cloud the implication that a kind of redemption is beginning. Somehow, we are to understand, Citrine will place himself back within life.

Can it be so? I read unconvinced. The previous pages have set the stage for comic catastrophe. The celebrity-writer who has hobnobbed with Kennedys is now so deeply wounded that he must settle for a rest cure at the Swiss Steiner Center. As his life comes apart, Citrine talks to himself constantly about significant changes for the better taking place within him. But I detect no shift in mental metabolism, no climacteric, only a stronger concern with survival of the self. The well-rounded sensibility responding to the plenitude of life, the voice itself, does not change. For it is Bellow’s, masked by the irony that provokes our caution.

Humboldt’s Gift shows no flagging of Bellow’s intelligence and stylistic powers. He writes like a bird planing, sure of his height, sure of his wings, sure of the language there beneath him, sustaining his flight and as transparent as air. Alert to all his ancestors and rivals from Diderot to Joyce to Pynchon, Bellow has chosen to write an autobiographical novel in the realist tradition. By sheer command of words, he succeeds in animating the busy, smug, self-deprecating I of the narrator. But, as my earlier remarks should suggest, the fictional impulse is out of adjustment. The spark is unsteady. Charlie Citrine is too close to Bellow to fill out a fully extruded novel. He is not close enough to impose the dark challenge of confession. Bellow, of course, plays across that gap—whence his arch and often apologetic tone. He knows there are no rules. But in the characters of Augie March, Henderson, Herzog, and Sammler, all in some degree projections of himself, he employed devices to create an adequate distance from himself. In Humboldt’s Gift Bellow gets in his own way.

He must have foreseen the risks and decided to take them. He sounds like an ironic ventriloquist, a nearly impossible feat. I was absorbed by the book because Bellow cannot write a dull page. But his awaited masterpiece of exuberant intelligent fiction is still to come. One can hear it muttering through the sardonic treasures of Humboldt’s Gift.

  1. 1

    In the first passage, “jazzy” overloads the picture; the shoes aren’t needed. The fussiness about ice cubes in the second passage has only sham documentary interest, like the brand names that keep cropping up. “Bim” strikes my ear as an inappropriate British usage.

  2. 2

    We might have seen it coming. In Augie March Einhorn is on the mailing list of “the Rudolf Steiner Foundation in London.”