A Review of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift

A Review of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift

 Humboldt’s Gift has its picaresque side and the selection of types and traumas may be looked at as modern translations of Huck’s own troubles and concerns. The honesty of the writer is a fierce and purging power that gives his book conviction and durability. It will be read and – more importantly – reread when many more superficially compelling books are forgotten.
Reviewed by Bob Williams

Humboldt’s Gift
by Saul Bellow
The Viking Press 1975

Are you looking for The Great American Novel? Go to Huckleberry Finn and take a left. This will more or less bring you to Humboldt’s Gift. It’s long, sprawling and (deceptively) undisciplined but it has a continuously applied edge that is lacking in all but the greatest works of fiction.

The chief figures – Von Humboldt Fleishman and Charles Citrine – are based on Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow although there was not the large age difference suggested by the fictionalized account in Humboldt’s Gift. There was in fact only a two year difference in the ages of Schwartz and Bellow. Charlie is a saint. He likes and trusts everybody. He has had a number of lovers: Naomi, Dimmie, Denise, Sylvie and Renata, but his only mistakes were to marry Denise and not to marry Renata who runs off to be married to an undertaker. In terms of narrative strategy the book gathers impetus logically rather that sequentially. Only after essential events have been recalled at random does the book begin to cover events in temporal order. Chapters have neither titles nor numbers, which made me feel at first that I was travelling on a road where the signposts were all blank. The nature of Humboldt’s gift is not clear until we have read most of the book and then we discover that the use of the word gift is not ironical after all. It is a real and practical gift, a bequest of value to his friend Charlie Citrine and to Uncle Waldemar, Humboldt’s only surviving family member.

Charlie is in a sad condition but he has friends to help him out. At a poker game arranged by such a friend he gets drunk and talks too much. A crook, Rinaldo Cantabile, cheats him at cards and stores away enough of Charlie’s drunken conversation to weasel his way into Charlie’s life. This leads to vandalism inflicted on Charlie’s Mercedes and a scene on the girders of an unfinished skyscraper that recalls Satan’s temptation of Christ. From now until the end of the book Cantabile is ingrained in Charlie’s life. His lawyer, another childhood friend, has provided him with a clever divorce attorney in the struggle with Charlie’s ex-wife Denise. She is insatiable and the judge is on her side. Both she and the judge are determined to ruin Charlie and his own attorney is perfectly willing to let that happen. He is about to leave for Europe with Renata and to all appearances this trip represents escape from all his troubles. On the way he stops at Coney Island to visit with Uncle Waldemar, the last of Von Humboldt Fleishman’s family. Uncle Waldemar gives Fleishman’s bequest to Charlie. This turns out to be a movie scenario of a superficially impractical sort.

In Madrid he learns that the Chicago judge has decided to crush him by requiring that he post a bond that will impoverish him. For the first time in years he faces poverty. Renata leaves him. He finds that his friend Pierre Thaxter has lied to him about the publisher paying his expenses and he moves into a cheap pension with Renata’s son. She has left her lover to baby sit while she honeymoons with her husband. Into this black situation Cantabile thrusts himself. The movie scenario that Humboldt and Charlie wrote for fun has become a successful motion picture. Humboldt’s bequest will prove that the finished and very popular movie was a plagiarism. Charlie settles out of court with a handsome result and he splits this with Uncle Waldemar. In the final scene he, Uncle Waldemar and their friend Menasha attend the reburial of Humboldt and Humboldt’s mother in the section of a cemetery known as the Jewish Valhalla.

Such a brief survey may help to understand what Bellow was after in writing this book but it fails to convey the flavor of the work itself. It is soaked in Shakespeare and Humboldt and Charlie help themselves with both hands to applications of Shakespeare to situations that they face. And it is not only Shakespeare of whom they exact tribute. “He [Humboldt] said that history was a nightmare during which he was trying to get a good night’s rest.” Readers of Joyce will recognize this. There are telling observations of the same quality throughout the book. Here is an observation on Humboldt that many have made of Delmore Schwartz, his real life counterpart: “He was simply the Mozart of conversation.” The author’s own observations are similarly sharp. Of an impoverished New Jersey landscape he remarks: “The very bushes might have been on welfare.” And “Some women wept as softly as a watering can in the garden.” But Charlie is not only good and loyal, he is also honest. He tries to make sense of life in the largest sense that he can manage. This leads him to anthroposophy, a view of existence that tries to tie everything together in one mystical bundle. Charlie has doubts about it but, as his material well being dissolves in Madrid, he finds consolation and enlightenment in mysticism. It proves to be a sound bulwark against the attacks of stupidity and malice. If Charlie is too unbelievably the saint, it is no different from the self-acceptance of a Huckleberry Finn. And the likeness, hinted at in the beginning of this review, is more than passing.

Humboldt’s Gift has its picaresque side and the selection of types and traumas may be looked at as modern translations of Huck’s own troubles and concerns. The honesty of the writer is a fierce and purging power that gives his book conviction and durability. It will be read and – more importantly – reread when many more superficially compelling books are forgotten.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at:
http://fracman.home.mchsi.com/

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