This is my review of Humboldt’s Gift (Penguin Modern Classics) by Saul Bellow.
A prize-winning author whose creative life is stagnant while his personal life is in a mess, Charlie Citrine is haunted by memories of his former friend and mentor, the brilliant but manic poet Humboldt Fleischer. Humboldt is based on the real-life poet Delmore Schwartz, a one-time colleague of Saul Bellow, to whom Charlie himself bears quite a strong resemblance.
The rambling plot which switches back and forth in Charlie’s mind is mainly a framework for Saul Bellow’s astonishing prose, a mind-blowing stream of consciousness, with punctuation (minus commas between adjectives, an interesting technique). This is leavened by many very funny descriptions and dialogues, which may atone for any irritation over yet another novel by a writer about writers, and for Bellow’s casual cultural references which require everyone who is not an American with an encyclopaedic general knowledge to either break the rhythm of reading to look them up, or remain in ignorance.
The humour also serves as an antidote to Citrine’s philosophical musings about the state of the soul, the existence of an after-life and the decline of American society by the 1970s into consumerism and banality. Citrine’s monologues, which tend to be made more digestible for the reader by frequent mocking or teasing interruptions, generally from female lovers past and present, suggest that his ideas are underdeveloped, even confused. Yet this may be intentional, since Bellow himself seems to have changed his opinions substantially over his long life spent reflecting on the meaning of life.
You may regret that Bellow dissipated his extraordinary verbal talent on such a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, weak, lecherous man as Citrine, although he is redeemed by a self-deprecating sense of humour and a rather appealing ability to understand the viewpoint of those fleecing and manipulating him, and to find a sense of proportion when things get tough. Bellow might of course argue that Citrine is merely a parody of himself, a man whose flaws did not prevent him from producing brilliant prose. So, despite its verbosity, repetition, sometimes woolly thinking, and damp squib conclusion, this original, remarkable work with its stunning descriptions of places, notably Chicago, and people, its wit, interesting ideas, insights and ultimately entertaining plot is worth reading – although you have to take the novel slowly to get the most out of it.