For many years, the great poet Von Humboldt Fleisher and Charlie Citrine, a young man inflamed with a love for literature, were the best of friends. At the time of his death, however, Humboldt is a failure, and Charlie's life has reached a low point- his career is at a standstill, and he's enmeshed in an acrimonious divorce, infatuated with a highly unsuitable young woman and involved with a neurotic mafioso. And then Humboldt acts from beyond the grave, bestowing upon Charlie an unexpected legacy that may just help him turn his life around.
Charlie Citrine is one of the most fascinating characters to emerge from late 20th century American literature. What I admire so much about this book is its unflagging narrative thrust. Line by line it satisfies the reader on an almost physical level. The humor is laugh out loud. The erudition makes me giddy. Just how is it possible for Bellow to incorporate so much knowledge about literature into the book and not end up with some deadly boring piece of tripe? It's miraculous. Citrine is always talking about his reading (Rudolf Steiner, Santayana, Gide, Aristotle, and so on) which is deftly incorporated so as to reflect upon his own tribulations and those of the other characters. This is quite a rogue's gallery, too, consisting of both the high and the low: mobsters; crooked judges; writers; literary chislers, harridan exes; lawyers; Rubenesque golddiggers, old Russian bath house guys; blue collar guys; virtually all ethnicities and predilections as only a great American city like Chicago can produce. I've read all of Bellow's novels and this I think is his best one. I even prefer it to Augie March, which is saying something. This is also a great novel for those who want to know how to write a great novel. With this text in hand and one's own considerable talent on tap, why, you can't miss. It's all right here in black and white. Read it, please, and let me know what you think.
Titles: Humboldt’ Gift and Herzog
Author: Saul Bellows
This is another of my attempts to acquaint myself with reputedly gifted authors. Saul Bellows enjoys a reputation or being one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists.
Without a doubt “Humboldt’s Gift” is well written and extremely erudite in its scope and content. Charlie Citrine, the main character and narrator tells of his relationship with and love for his patron and mentor Humboldt Fleisher.
Humboldt has earned great acclaim as a poet and literary figure. During his career he has earned frame and fortune. Charlie Citrine, a younger man, is drawn to the former and accepted as an acolyte. In time Humboldt’s appeal wanes at the same time Charlie’s star is in the ascendancy.
Realizing the turn of events makes Humbolt jealous, resentful, and increasingly bitter. In spite of the once closeness between the two men a schism results. Citrine is bedeviled by his success and prosperity. His marriage disintegrates and his vengeful, former spouse, manages to drive him nearly to poverty. All through the book Charlie wrestles with philosophical conjectures. His guru is a man named Steiner, who espouses a theory of “Philosophosphy” ???. Death and the hereafter are constantly on Charlie’s mind. Sex is another constant preoccupation.
After Humboldt’s death it turns out that he has bequeathed to his wife Kathleen and Charlie, something that turned out to be of great significance. Despite the books lengthy “Sturm und Drang” there is closure in the end. It is a long novel.
“Herzog” was written ten years earlier and is a lengthy preview of “Humbolt’s Gift“. Herzog is the main character and is also an intellectual who is cuckolded and spends the entire book agonizing over his fate and life’s vicissitudes. I founded it unsatisfying to wade through after reading Humbolt’s Gift“.
A wonderful surprise. Tried reading Augie March just out of college and couldn't get into it; then got the idea I didn't like Saul Bellow and so never read him. He died recently and reading all the things written about him got me interested.
So it's wonderful. He's a wonderful writer, descriptions, characters. And the main character, Charlie Citrine, with all his flaws, is quite lovable.
So I ordered Herzog.
There is an astonishingly short page on Wikipedia to this book that had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1976 and is cited on that website as having “contributed to Bellow's winning the Nobel Prize in Literature the same year”. Then follow two minor paragraphs devoted to plot and two sentences to its reception. This book is four-hundred and ninety-four pages and probably had me consulting the computer for references as many times. It’s dense. It’s funny. The two main characters suffer from honesty every bit as painful as their introspection is myopic. Or maybe not. Maybe somewhere in that anthroposophical ether that clouds Charlie Citrine like bad weather, despite his flight toward whatever exotic locale he secretes himself, whatever room or hotel or Russian bathhouse stall, stretched on a couch or crushed between dubious characters on a Thunderbird’s bench seat, Seraphim and Cherubim and Exousiai and Archai fist-fighting in the jet streams of his skull, there’s an acceptance of the limitations of the material world and yet a clear-eyed glimpse of a realm beyond. Even Humboldt’s posthumous “gift” is maybe more trouble than it’s worth. As, maybe, is all life. And that’s at least the fourth time I’ve waffled with that adverb.
Chicago may be the bedrock to this sprawling work, and it is populated with some of the tropes synonymous with that city: gangsters, architecture, restaurants, the old country in the New World. But the world of the mind is the real domain here; wedded to the basest of our human natures. And so we have poets in rural New Jersey trying to mow down their wives with Buicks, low-level thugs horning in on copyright lawyers, Chicagoan entrepreneurs hunting for beryllium in Nairobi, huckster journalists making a buck off their own abduction in South America; and none of these events seem grand enough to fill the space left from the conversations with his departed mentor and friend.
Maybe the gift is more than an object, an heirloom, a sealed letter from the past. It could be nothing more than that moment when he learned to live in the middle of the material and spiritual worlds. How fleeting that moment. And yet, the recollection can seem to last forever when stretched out on the couch, away from the clamor and clangor of Chicago, removed from the clash of new toys in old worlds, some far country yet unclaimed since it hasn’t even been marked on a map.
Or Charlie Citrine could just be a selfish prick. But at least he knows it. And he’s got the perfect escape. Like another Appleton native, Harry Houdini, who’d travelled to the biggest cities to break free from handcuffs, straightjackets and milk cans—all self-imposed. Except Citrine didn’t share the magician’s obsession for debunking spiritualists, preferring instead a peaceful absorption.
And, to be fair, I’ve not totally gotten my head around “anthroposophy”. Certainly, enough for the context of the novel. But, just like that hovering hierarchy of angels, it may demand more research and a second read.
“In the enchanting days we had had such marvelous talks, only touched a little by manic depression and paranoia. But now the light became dark and the dark turned darker.”
Fantastic, lyrical, excellent when both comic and tragic, plaintive and descriptive, and there are a few ugly spots which almost spoil the whole thing (the rant about divorce/women) and made me have to stop. Still a very good examination of the role of writing and consumerism in American culture, if you want me to retreat to my usual sterile descriptions.