Whenever someone asks me to name my favorite novel, I find myself putting on a ridiculous but revealing little performance, pretending to a natural consternation—after all, who can narrow a lifetime’s evolving preferences down to a single title?—but in fact using the consternation as a cover for the real calculation, which is whether I have the interest or energy to explain my choice. For in fact I do have a favorite novel—Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow—but I know it to be an eccentric work, one that a number of reputable critics had problems with when it was published, and that many intelligent readers I know have shaken their heads over. How much easier to cite Middlemarch, or Portrait of a Lady, or Ulysses, or To the Lighthouse, all works that I admire without reservation. But the question was favorite novel, which I take to mean the novel that I visit most often in my thoughts, that I know most intimately down to the cell-structure of its cadences, that fills me with the greatest covetousness and inspires me to emulation. Most simply: When I think of Humboldt’s Gift I immediately want to write.
They say that love is blind, but I don’t buy it. Love is often well aware of the flaws of the beloved—but love is love because it overrules the fault-finding impulse altogether in the name of . . . In the name of some flow of higher sympathy that feels like an end in itself. I love Humboldt’s Gift—much as anyone can be said to love a book—and my love is unperturbed by all that my judging intellect whispers as I read—that it is structurally lopsided, overwrought in its Rudolph Steiner-inspired meditations, improbable in its deus ex machina resolutions. I grant that there are problems and shortcomings, but they do not ruffle my devotion at all. And this fascinates me.
I remember my first reading of Humboldt’s Gift with an almost exaggerated vividness, though I can’t recall how the book itself came into my possession. I mention this because I know that my copy was a new hardcover—cover price a round $10—and because this was a period in my life when I was routinely counting the change spread out on the dresser top. I would never have paid full price in a bookstore. Was it a birthday gift? That makes sense, because my birthday is in late September, and I read the novel first in October of 1975 in a single great gulp. And this I remember because it was the most desperate season in my life so far and for a long time after I credited Bellow with helping to save me from a descent into utter hopelessness.
That story is outwardly simple enough. The previous August I had ended a relationship with the woman I had believed was the love of my life. I had left our life in Maine and returned broke and empty-handed to my old haunts in Ann Arbor, where I had gone to college a few years before. I had been back for some weeks, and whatever plan I had for rebuilding my life was not working. Though I had a small room I rented and a job in a bookstore, these were not support enough. I would wake up each day wondering how I would make it through to the next. The sadness was overwhelming. I had no one except my sister to confide in, and nothing at all to hold against my thoughts of “never again.” One afternoon I snapped. I made the impulsive (and ultimately foolish) decision to borrow money from a friend and fly to Boston the next morning. There I would board the first bus north. I had no idea of what I might do, or even of what I was after; but once I’d decided there was no other choice. There was only the rest of the day and the night to get through.
In my room, a shabby attic box high up among the tree tops—it felt that way—I paced and kneaded my hands, Raskolnikov in every sense but the criminal. I was beside myself, twitching in my skin. I had no idea how I would pass the time. And then—I can’t remember why—from among the handful of books I had stacked up on my dresser, I took down Humboldt’s Gift and, miracle of miracles, read. I turned the pages through the late afternoon and the evening, and then on through the night. I read like I’d never read anything before, with a lock-on fury that pushed the world and my extraordinary anxiety aside. At first it was to get away from my situation, and then at some point that shifted and I was reading to get further and further in. Did I finish? I don’t think so, not entirely. But I entered so deeply into the narrative of Charlie Citrine’s fate that I awakened, by reader’s proxy—that sympathetic magic that is part of what can happen between book and author—my own sense of fatedness, and it was there in me at every moment in the next days as I walked up and down the roads outside Kennebunkport and blundered through the finale of what had been the finest friendship of my life.
About that night I remember several things. I remember the narrow spring-shot bed that was part of the Calvary of that room, that season, and how I arranged myself there, propped up in a corner, scarcely minding the discomfort, mainly glad that I was able to rig the desk lamp on the chair to get the right illumination. And, contents aside—for of course Bellow’s narration impressed itself on me with a once-in-a-lifetime clarity—I remember the physical book, the cover and the feel of the pages, pulpier than any paper I’d felt before in a trade hardcover, an anomaly which somehow became linked in my mind with the eccentric novelty of Bellow’s plot, underscoring for me the feeling that this was not just another novel, was in fact an advance posting of imminent changes in the literary life of our times.
We never know, do we, if the future is just more of the present pushed forward, or whether the look and feel—not to mention the core essence—of life might not be changing? Isn’t this part of the galvanizing horror—and thrill—of great disasters: the possibility that the great change might have at last begun? For my part, I subscribed for a long time to the idea that artists and writers were, pace Pound, our antennae, and that if news of transformation were to come, it would be through the channels they created. And when I read Humboldt’s Gift, keyed-up, white-knuckling through my own inner torment, I felt that something very new and important was being delivered. Bellow had done it. He had gotten to that level of seeing where lives could be viewed without derision as destinies; he had given me a glimpse of a larger system of meaning that I could use directly in my life. And he had done it in a way that felt of the moment, contemporary.
I did not recognize all of this directly, of course. I experienced it as I experience much of what I read—as atmosphere, as tone, as an agitation of suppositions and surmises, as a kind of extended daydream. But the correcting gaze of hindsight now tells me that it was there from the start, drawn—all of it—like electricity through the circuit system of the opening passage:
The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit. Humboldt was just what everyone had been waiting for. Out in the Midwest I had certainly been waiting eagerly, I can tell you that. An avant-garde writer, the first of a new generation, he was handsome, fair, large, serious, witty, he was learned. The guy had it all. All the papers reviewed his book. His picture appeared in Time without insult and in Newsweek with praise. I read Harlequin Ballads enthusiastically. I was a student at the University of Wisconsin and thought about literature day and night. Humboldt revealed to me a new way of doing things. I was ecstatic. I envied his luck, his talent, and his fame, and I went east in May to have a look at him—perhaps to get next to him. The Greyhound bus, taking the Scranton route, made the trip in about fifty hours. That didn’t matter. The bus windows were open. I had never seen real mountains before. Trees were budding. It was like Beethoven’s Pastorale. I felt showered by the green within. I felt showered by the green, within. Manhattan was fine, too. I took a room for three bucks a week and found a job selling Fuller Brushes door to door. And I was wildly excited about everything. Having written Humboldt a long fan letter, I was invited to Greenwich Village to discuss literature and ideas. He lived on Bedford Street, near Chumley’s. First he gave me black coffee, and then poured gin in the same cup. “Well, you’re a nice-enough looking fellow, Charlie,” he said to me. “Aren’t you a bit sly, maybe? I think you’re headed for early baldness. And such large emotional handsome eyes. But you certainly do love literature and that’s the main thing. You have sensibility,” he said. He was a pioneer in the use of this word. Sensibility later made it big. Humboldt was very kind. He introduced me to people in the Village and got me books to review. I always loved him. (1)
The pull was irresistible. I loved the velocity, the declarative forthrightness, the apparent ease with which Bellow nailed the urgency of literary adoration, a vice to which I was highly susceptible back in my middle twenties, and which I have only very slowly outgrown. But beyond the adoration was something more potent still—the narrator’s certainty that this business of poetry and writing and publishing mattered, that it was the sovereign real thing.
Humboldt’s Gift is a baggy, talky book, crammed with episodic set-pieces—comic as well as elegiac interludes—but the gist of the narration is as follows. Charlie Citrine, the man pegged early on as having ‘sensibility,’ is in Chicago fumbling through what is thankfully never called a ‘midlife crisis,’ but which bears all of the now clichéd markings of that disorder. A successful thinker and man of letters (he has two Pulitzers under his belt), Charlie finds himself in his mid-50’s assailed from all sides as well as from within. His ex-wife, Denise, has her cut-throat lawyers after him for a fat divorce settlement; his sensuously manipulative younger girlfriend, Renata, is trying to get him to go with her to Madrid, with some idea that she will re-connect with her long-lost father and marry Charlie. Moreover, his beloved Mercedes has just been pulverized by a bat-wielding hood named Rinaldo Cantabile, who claims that Charlie welched on paying a poker debt and who now insists on restitution.
At the same time, more centrally, Charlie, an amateur student of the anthroposophy of Rudolph Steiner (premised on the possibility of the attainment of ever-higher states of spiritual consciousness), has begun to experience vivid memories of the eponymous Humboldt, the great friend of his young manhood, the poet—supposedly based on the poet Delmore Schwartz—who went down to pills, alcohol and dementia in his own middle years, and who Charlie now feels he abandoned to his demons.
The novel becomes a self-accounting on every level, its diverse plot strands drawn together, its elements put into play, by the revelation that a legacy of sorts left by Humboldt has turned up. How Bellow manages to orchestrate everything is hard to discover, even when the pieces are all lined up for study, but then this has always been Bellow’s particular art—creating a narrative voice so rich and suggestive, so fluid in its movements between past and present, that the plod of sequential development is avoided altogether. There is the feeling when reading this novel that a tightly rolled sultan’s carpet has splashed open before our eyes with a single prompting nudge of the foot.
I have read Humboldt’s Gift four or five times now and each time it tunes me up differently, not to the point where I would say it’s a new novel—for the sense of deep familiarity remains for me one of its magnetic attractions—but in terms of offering me vital new information. That’s the kind of book it is, and don’t we all have them—books we re-read not for any purpose of overt self-betterment, not to add to our trophy bag, but because they nourish us with clues about the nature of life as we try to solve it for ourselves?
When I lay in that ramshackle bed in that tiny upstairs room in Ann Arbor, threading the sentences end to end as if my life depended on it, I took two major kinds of solace from my reading. The first, as I already suggested, was the solace of literature mattering, this in spite of the fact that literature—writing—does not in the end save either Humboldt, who for all his literary wisdom went down in flames, ultimately consumed by the very demons that originally drove him to write, or Charlie, who never does make headway on his great projected study of boredom. Even so, the intoxication Bellow creates in the opening sections is so powerful, so triumphantly idealized, that it is enough—and here I crib from Joseph Brodsky’s “Roman Elegies”—“enough to last the whole blackout.” Page after page we are lifted by a mighty swell as Bellow does what he does best of all: summoning the passion of the mind for ideas and the being for expressions of beauty. He does it by main force of enthusiasm, with lists, little symphonic surges of reference, evoking through his rhythms the very excitement he is bent on conveying.
But Bellow does not just rely on the cumulative power of the catalogue. He creates the surrounding atmosphere—the mise en scene—and invites us into the life of the moment, sharpening our sense of the pressure of intellect and sensibility on these characters.
In one of his early Chicago reveries (he is hiding from the world for the morning, meditating on Humboldt), Charlie recalls a visit he paid to the poet and his wife Kathleen when they lived in rural New Jersey. He gets the manic chaos of the drive out, leaving New York with Humboldt at the wheel of his old Buick. “Steering, he was humped huge over the wheel, he had small-boy tremors of the hands and feet, and he kept the cigarette holder between his teeth. He was agitated, talking away, entertaining, provoking, informing, and snowing me.” (21) And: “We were off: he discussed machinery, luxury, command, capitalism, technology, Mammon, Orpheus and poetry, the riches of the human heart, America, world civilization. His task was to put all of this, and more, together. The car went snoring and squealing through the tunnel and came out in bright sunlight.” (22)
Then they arrive: “Briars lashed the Roadmaster as we swayed on huge springs through rubbishy fields where white boulders sat. The busted muffler was so loud that though the car filled the lane there was no need to honk. You could hear us coming. Humboldt yelled, “Here’s our place!” and swerved. We rolled over a hummock or earth-wave. The front of the Buick rose and then dived into the weeds.” (22)
And so it goes, the most vividly deployed scene-making setting us up for the cataracting conversation, which I excerpt midflow lest the pages-long hammering overwhelm everything else:
About Eliot he seemed to know strange facts no one else had ever heard. He was
filled with gossip and hallucination as well as literary theory. Distortion was inherent, yes, in all poetry. But which came first? And this rained down on me, part privilege, part pain, with illustrations from the classics and the sayings of Einstein and Zsa Zsa Gabor, with references to Polish socialism and the football tactics of George Halas and the secret motives of Arnold Toynbee, and (somehow) the used-car business. Rich boys, poor boys, jewboys, chorus girls, prostitution and religion, old money, new money, gentleman’s clubs, Back Bay, Newport, Washington Square, Henry Adams, Henry James, Henry Ford, Saint John of the Cross, Dante, Ezra Pound, Dostoevski, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, Gertrude Stein and Alice, Freud and Ferenczi. (31)
The early pages of Humboldt’s Gift offer a supercharged saturation of such heady referential narrative. Remembering his great doomed friend, Charlie recreates in the rhythm of his thoughts a sense of the very mania that brought Humboldt down. To me, a confused, intellectually ambitious 24-year-old, it was an elixir. Even in the state I was in, my reading brought me to a pitch of wanting. This was it. This was the life of the mind; this had to be what brilliance felt like. These were not the isolated facts and concepts—the slow contents of the books I studied. This was the pay-off, this was how a powerful mind took hold of the world, turning the rough givens of circumstance into intense comprehension. This was how the world was re-made into meaning, and I believed then that there was no higher use to which the responsive psyche could be put.
I’d had my own glimpses of this fever, but at a much lower level. I’d put in my seasons working in bookstores, falling now and then into associative fugues in which every page I scanned somehow related to something else I’d just been reading. Night after night I’d made my way home from the store with stacks of borrowed books in bags, frustrated that I could only follow one path at a time, wishing for some Faustian pill that would confer on me the mastery I craved, even at the price of ———. Well, I had nothing much to offer up in trade.
Bellow’s Humboldt passages lit all of this up in me, that night as later, removing me from the immediate burn of my romantic obsession, in part through my absorption in the writing, but also by drawing the energies of one obsession temporarily into another. From the exalted vantage offered by Humboldt’s intellect—a vantage comprehending history, poetry, politics—my lovelorn condition seemed consolingly small-potatoes. The problem with these easily acquired perspectives is that they don’t last long once the book is closed.
Then there was the balm of commiseration, the great gift of the later chapters. Here I could join Bellow’s narrative to my own. Heartache was the link. In the novel, Charlie has gone with Renata to Europe. He has not done the right thing, has not offered to make her an honest woman. And now, suddenly—to him, shockingly—Renata has disappeared. She has stranded Charlie in Madrid with her elderly mother, the scheming Senora, and her young son. And Charlie is stunned, bereft. “Good-by, good-by to those wonderful sensations,” he thinks. “Mine at least had been the real thing. And if hers were not, she had at least been a true and understanding pal. In her percale bed. In her heaven of piled pillows. All that was probably over.” (417)
The news arrives while Charlie is still in Madrid. Renata has married his rival, the mortuary king Flonzaley. Charlie goes into a precipitous decline. At one point, he imagines how he must look to others in the pensione he has retired to: “His brown eyes were red from weeping, he dressed with high elegance although the kitchen smells made his clothing noticeably rancid, he tried with persistent vanity to comb his thin and graying hair over the bald middle of his head and was always disheartened when he realized that in the lamplight his scalp was glistening.” (437)
Oh the sadness and indignity of life! And what a bond I felt, pushing through the later pages of the novel in the early morning hours after a night of turning pages. In Charlie’s abandonment I saw my own, even though technically speaking I had been the one who went away. No matter. The absence he felt touched the absence I felt, and between fiction and life there passed a sense of the Virgilian ‘tears of things’ that accomplished the paradoxical miracle of art—it fortified me, allowed me to admit my grief and at the same time to hold it as in a frame. And when I finally finished, a day later, seeing Charlie through to his hard-won acceptance, to his redemptive moment of laying his ghosts to rest and pushing on, I felt subtly altered.
I find this whole transaction fascinating, how in reading I experience the emotional situations created by the author, the way these scenarios play upon my own susceptible nature, sometimes so intensely that I experience a full-blown physical agitation, a kind of shortness of breath of the whole being. How much of this, I wonder, is the result of the author’s art, the formal tension of scene-making and the sentence by sentence evocation of feeling-states in the characters, and how much has to do with the intensity of my own projected emotions? To what degree was I filling in Charlie’s sense of loss with my own? My guess now, after my most recent re-reading, is that it was quite a bit. Moved as I was, I was not devastated this time through. But then, I was reading a novel that has become familiar; I knew in advance that Charlie would get past his grief. My focus—this time as in earlier re-readings—was on other things.
At some point after this first encounter, Humboldt’s Gift took on a somewhat different significance for me. It became, along with everything else, a literary model, a work I nearly fetishized for its voice and narrative energy, for its human reach. Bellow, I thought, had cracked the code. Almost alone among contemporary novelists, he had found a way to show the complexity of our way of living without losing the contemplative register or sacrificing the full emotional spectrum. He could be, as the situation required, philosophical, comedic, descriptively evocative, elegiac, dramatic—and he could get in close to the endless psychological push-pull of relationships, the tenderness and leveraging manipulation of lovers, the odi et amo of embattled friendships… I fell in love with Bellow’s scenes and, even more specifically, his prose. So many moments spoke to me exactly. Whole sequences of his sentences lit me up but also filled me with the despairing thought that I could never write as well, though of course it is the hubris of every young writer to imagine that all obstacles to greatness will be overcome in the indeterminate future.
I’ll let a single passage showcase the prose for me. Here is Charlie, set to meet Cantabile at the old Russian Bathhouse, describing the clientele:
These Division Street steam-bathers don’t look like the trim proud people downtown. Even old Feldstein pumping his Exercycle in the Downtown Club at the age of eighty would be out of place on Division Street. Forty years ago Feldstein was a swinger, a high roller, a good-time Charlie on Rush Street. In spite of his age he is a man of today, whereas the patrons of the Russian Bath are cast in an antique form. They have swelling buttocks and fatty breasts as yellow as buttermilk. They stand on thick pillar legs affected with a sort of creeping verdigris or blue-cheese mottling of the ankles. After steaming, these old fellows eat enormous snacks of bread and salt herring or large ovals of salami and dripping skirt-steak and they drink schnapps. They could knock down walls with their hard stout old-fashioned bellies. Things are very elementary here. You feel that these people are almost conscious of obsolescence, of a line of evolution abandoned by nature and culture. So down in the super-heated subcellars all these Slavonic cavemen and wood demons with hanging laps of fat and legs of stone and lichen boil themselves and splash ice water on their heads by the bucket. Upstairs, on the television screen in the locker room, little dudes and grinning broads make smart talk and leap up and down. They are unheeded. Micket who keeps the food concession fries slabs of meat and potato pancakes, and, with enormous knives, he hacks up cabbages for coleslaw and he quarters grapefruits (to be eaten by hand). The stout old men mounting in their bedsheets from the blasting heat have a strong appetite. (78)
This is more than just a bravura description. Any good sense-attuned writer could have put together the details. What makes the passage stand out for me is the deep, almost primal regard—the love, the awe—Bellow transmits. We feel, through Charlie, that we are spying on history itself—our ancestors’ ancestors caught in full-flesh. How does he manage everything at once, the grotesque excess, the atmosphere, the analogies? There is always a mystery with great writing, how one thing is brought to combine with another. How do I account for the sense I get while reading that this is not just a scene, an evocation of people in a place, but something almost closer to a philosophy? That Charlie’s particular regard is in some deep way also a reflection on the ontological fitness of what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers”? These staggering old troglodytes are, in Charlie’s vision of things—a vision we have by this point become immersed in—set against the new, the young, the modern (“Upstairs, on the television screen in the locker room, little dudes and grinning broads make smart talk or leap up and down.”) and if they are a physical shambles with their fatty old breasts, they are yet a force of superior denomination. They are—so I read it—closer to fundamental being.
And then there is the voice, Charlie’s wonderful—and nearly simultaneous—command of registers, how he can swerve from the wise-guy voice (“dudes” and “broads”) to the reflective (“these people are almost conscious of obsolescence”), to the overtly literary-descriptive (“They stand on thick pillar legs affected with a sort of creeping verdigris”) and pull it off.
Though I envy more than a few writers, coveting this one’s fluency, that one’s exactitude, I am seldom provoked to outright emulation. The Catcher in the Rye had that effect, I remember, and Lolita, but no novel got to me in the way that Humboldt’s Gift did, especially in my younger years. The mere contemplation of the Bellovian sweep would set me thinking along parallel tracks. I wanted badly to write a novel of equal range and texture, alive down to its least bit character, able to transmit the drama of the inner life even as it staged episodes from the human comedy and registered in its least inflection the tone of our times. I sat long hours straining to dream up the perfect opening, the sentence that would seem as electric and inevitable as Bellow’s beautifully simple: “The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit.” It was not to be. I did not understand that the perfect sentence is not a happy accident but something more like a consummation, an announcement that everything—the whole work—is in place, ready.
* * * *
I want to stay near this business of voice, the particular spanning of outer and inner that Bellow has fashioned to such a high art. For the voice was a big part of what so affected me in my most recent reading of the novel. Indeed, this time through I was less caught up in the tragedy of Humboldt, or the comedic Chicago set-pieces, or even the romantic travails which were so piercing to me the first time. I was, this time, most taken up with Bellow’s rendering of Charlie as a man aswim in time, a man in search of the larger synthesis.
In my earlier readings of the novel I somehow missed the importance of the fact that Charlie was a middle-aged man not just living his life, but even more significantly re-living it. But this is—dare I say mercifully—the blindness of youth. Young, we cut the cloth of the world to our own feelings and understandings. To me, back then, Charlie was just an adult of indeterminate adult status. I had no way of grasping him otherwise. I hadn’t, certainly when I was first reading Humboldt, experienced the wonderful and terrible ways in which at a certain point the film of our own lives doubles over on itself, returning us to things we had thought safely buried, recirculating old poisons, throwing the glare of hindsight down onto choices made. . . . Well, now I know. And this time in my reading I got it. I grasped—felt—the extent to which the work is—and I don’t think the comparison is that far-fetched—Bellow’s Inferno. Charlie is nothing if not a man awakening to himself in the middle of a dark wood and finding that the straight way has become lost. Of course, where Dante is allegorical, Bellow is often hammy and oblique, full of comic and ironic impulses. But the overall feeling of the work is nonetheless one of often sorrowful retrospection. And the ultimate thrust is transformational—the point is to show us a man who goes into his darkness to wrestle his devils, and who finally comes through.
The core confrontation is, of course, with memories of his younger self, more particularly of his friendship with Humboldt and what he must face there: his own egotism, his fear of the decline and failure Humboldt represented, and the fact that he deserted the poet in his time of need. Of course the relationship is complex, and Humboldt from his side acted unpardonably toward Charlie, using him as a pawn in his paranoid schemes, taking advantage of his loyalty, and later, when Charlie found success as a playwright, trying to sabotage him. That Humboldt drifted in and out of delusion only partially exonerates him. Charlie had good reasons for pulling away from his friend in the end.
But these kinds of reasons and explanations only satisfy on what we might call the psychological plane. Charlie in middle age is determined to break through to a higher spiritual apprehension of things, and from his new vantage—when he can attain it—he sees the past very differently. Tormenting and manipulative as his friend was, he was also, over and above that, a radiant spirit, a man of soul dreaming his way toward the original world: “Ah Humboldt had been great,” thinks Charlie, “handsome, high-spirited, buoyant, ingenious, electric, noble. To be with him made you feel the sweetness of life. We used to discuss the loftiest things—what Diotima said to Socrates about love, what Spinoza meant by amor dei intellectualis. To talk to him was sustaining, nourishing.” (162) And in the light of this recognition, Charlie has come up seriously short in his self-accounting. When, toward the end of the poet’s life, Charlie spotted him standing in shambles on a streetcorner, eating a “dusty” pretzel, he turned away. For this he cannot forgive himself.
It is the intensity of his remorse, perhaps, that lets Charlie stage the scenes of their early friendship with such piercing clarity. The memories of Humboldt carry the first part of the book. At the same time, they establish the vibrant inwardness of Charlie in middle age and make plausible his aspirations toward—as the title of his master Rudolph Steiner’s book would have it—“knowledge of the higher worlds and its attainment.”
Charlie’s (and Bellow’s) insistent mysticism, the repeated invocation of Steiner, his teachings and spiritual exercises, confounded critics and reviewers when the book first appeared. The novel was seen to be full of crackpot excess and distended metaphysical passages. I disagree. Plucking from one of these almost at random, I find:
For in spirit, says Steiner, a man can step out of himself and let things speak to him about themselves, to speak about what has meaning not for him alone but also for them. Thus the sun the moon the stars will speak to nonastronomers in spite of their ignorance of science. In fact it’s high time that this happened. Ignorance of science should not keep one imprisoned in the lowest and weariest sector of being, prohibited from entering into independent relations with creation as a whole. The educated speak of the disenchanted (a boring) world. But it is not the world, it is my own head that is disenchanted. The world cannot be disenchanted. (203)
It’s true, some of Charlie’s anthroposophical riffs go on too long, straining the already loosely carpentered structure of the novel. But for whatever reason—and I am no Steinerite—I don’t mind.
That last sentence is somewhat dishonest, or at least misleading. I say “for whatever reason,” making it seem that I am in the dark about my own predilections, as if to say more would be to risk exposure. The truth is that I spend much of my life egging myself closer to the ledge—to some more open recognition of forces beyond what we usually credit in our ordinary day. I torment myself with the possibility that there might indeed be planes of higher meaning, available syntheses. Part of the enormous appeal of this novel for me is that a writer as gifted and intelligent as Bellow shows himself unapologetically interested in this very thing. What a man to have on the team. What a ratification!
This appetite is not new. When I was much younger it pulled me toward Whitman (briefly), or, differently, Lawrence; later there was Rilke. Even so, I remember in my early readings of the novel being impatient, wanting to get past these pages to get to scenes and more sensory passages. But this time I lingered, savoring. For if middle age has taught me about the undertow power of memory, it has also made me very keen to learn how the outer man can in all the situations of life draw on his inwardness, not just in the interest of greater understanding, or for solace, but because I do believe that contact with our deeper intuitions actually repositions us in whatever situation we are in and thus changes the situation—the Heisenberg principle borrowed from scientific experiment and applied to living itself. Changed awareness affects the way things happen.
Obviously there is no way to argue this coherently, certainly no way to prove it, but I will say that of all of the novel’s many features, the most striking for me this time through was the sense Bellow conveyed of experience unfolding with larger thematic inflection. He could only achieve this rare effect because he had created in Charlie Citrine a character deeply attuned to these thematic surges. And indeed, in a sense the whole point of the novel, at one level, is Charlie’s recognition of this movement of meaning and his eventual giving over to it. When he does—when he gives up the Renata struggle in Madrid, and accepts his character, and his responsibility for all that has happened to him, I experienced a great sense of lifting free. Charlie has come through—he has come to terms with the demons of his own character—and if he does not look up at the end to glimpse, as did Dante, the stars, he does make the decision to rebury his old friend Humboldt (literally and figuratively) and on leaving the cemetery pauses to identify a budding crocus under last autumn’s leaves.
I won’t pretend that I have tapped fully the wisdoms of Bellow’s book or brought them into my life, but time has done its steady work and I do feel, more than ever before, that I can recognize how these understandings and intuitions have a place in my life. It’s too early, yet—for me, as indeed for Charlie—to claim with any certainty that there are in fact higher worlds to be entered. None of us may ever know for sure. But I will say that the reading of the novel, the imaginative projection that it asks, filled the days with a thematic resonance that seemed to be my own life—and past—vibrating in direct sympathy with the life on the page. Humboldt’s Gift is my “favorite” book because it keeps renewing itself for me as I get older, outpacing me in a way that makes me speed my step.
Sven Birkerts is the author of six books, most recently My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), and the editor of three others. His numerous awards include a National Book Critics Circle Award for excellence in reviewing and the PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award for the best book of essays. Since 2002 he has edited the journal Agni.
The novel, for which Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1976, is a self-described "comic book about death," whose title character is modeled on the self-destructive lyric poet Delmore Schwartz. Charlie Citrine, an intellectual, middle-aged author of award-winning biographies and plays, contemplates two significant figures and philosophies in his life: Von HumboldThe novel, for which Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1976, is a self-described "comic book about death," whose title character is modeled on the self-destructive lyric poet Delmore Schwartz. Charlie Citrine, an intellectual, middle-aged author of award-winning biographies and plays, contemplates two significant figures and philosophies in his life: Von Humboldt Fleisher, a dead poet who had been his mentor, and Rinaldo Cantabile, a very-much-alive minor mafioso who has been the bane of Humboldt's existence. Humboldt had taught Charlie that art is powerful and that one should be true to one's creative spirit. Rinaldo, Charlie's self-appointed financial adviser, has always urged Charlie to use his art to turn a profit. At the novel's end, Charlie has managed to set his own course....more
Paperback, 487 pages
Published June 1st 1996 by Penguin Classics (first published 1975)
0140189440 (ISBN13: 9780140189445)
Chicago, Illinois (United States)