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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.

  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.

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