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 …