Humboldt's Gift

by Saul Bellow

Paper Book, 1996





New York : Penguin Books, 1996.


Charlie Citrine, suffering from steadily worsening troubles with women, career, and life in general, receives unexpected aid and comfort in the form of a belated bequest from his onetime friend and mentor, the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RoseCityReader
What a wonderful, great, big, shaggy dog of a novel! While litigating with his ex-wife, being bullied by a B-team mobster, and fending off the marriage plans of his young "palooka" girlfriend, narrator Charlie Citrine contemplates the life of his recently deceased best friend and meditates on big questions such as the nature of death, man's role in the cosmos, and theories of boredom. With dozens of remarkable supporting characters and side stories, this long book is entertaining throughout. It is not a quick read, but it is worth the time.… (more)
LibraryThing member William345
I'm going to rave a little here. Do forgive me in advance. This is my second reading of this masterpiece. It was shortly after publication of Humboldt's Gift that Bellow won the Nobel Prize. That in itself usually doesn't mean much, mostly the literature awards are given out for political reasons these days, but I think in the case of Bellow Oslo got it right. From the start the storytelling is brilliant and it never flags. Charlie Citrine, a young man filled with a love of literature, writes to his hero poet Von Humboldt Fleisher from his home in Appleton, Wisconsin, and is invited to visit the great man in Greenwich Village. Citrine comes to New York just as Humboldt is hitting his sole crest of popularity because of his book of ballads. Humboldt, however, soon loses it all; drinking and medicating himself in a manner that can only be called suicidal. No wonder he's perpetually blocked now. In the meantime, Charlie Citrine, his protege, writes a hit Broadway play which is made into a hit Hollywood movie. Citrine is swimming in money. And Citrine's success can only be viewed by Humboldt in his madness as a betrayal. Humboldt comes to loathe Citrine whom he accuses of using his life as the basis for the main character of his play Von Trenck. When Citrine wins the Chevalier de Légion d'honneur from the French government, Humboldt hits the ceiling. "Shoveleer!," he writes, "Your name is lesion."

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.
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LibraryThing member marysargent
I wrote this in 2005 after Saul Bellow died.

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.
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LibraryThing member philipjohn
One of the most ambitious novels of 20th century combining philosophical musings with genuine comedy, massive in its sprawl and filled with Bellow's delicious turns-of-phrase.
LibraryThing member Swampslogger
Book Review

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“.
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LibraryThing member miriamparker
I just couldn't finish this. I tried. I liked it in parts. There were some really funny moments. But is it bad that the other day I described myself as more of a Bellow-esque Jewish writer than a Roth-esque one and then it turns out that I can't finish his book? I did read Herzog in college. But I can't remember a think about it. Sigh.… (more)
LibraryThing member dannywon
Very poetic writing style.... spurts of genius. Accurate, vivid portraits of human despair in his protaganist. Though stale here and there. Maybe a little too long.
LibraryThing member tzelman
Wonderful characters, esp. Rinaldo Cantabile and great dialogues. Citrine's monologues get a bit tiresome at times.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
So close to being a 5-star.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Kristelh
The novel tells the story of Charlie Citrine, a successful writer, who is reflecting on his own talents and life after his friend, Humbolt’s death. Citrine is involved with a young mistress who is leading him around by sexual promises, a wanta be gangster, the IRS and his exwife and her lawyers. Even his mistress abandons him. Charlie is alienated in Madrid when he discovered that Humboldt has left a gift. Saul Bellow is really writing about his friend, the poet Delmore Schwartz and the influence Schwartz had in his own life. Bellow writes about America and he especially likes to write about Chicago which he thought better represented America that New York City. This story is about a man of feeling and a deep thinker. Charlie is honorable and not greedy but there is greed all around him and it is destroying him Other themes are sex, capitalism, meaningless intellectualization, feminism and death. Bellow wanted to show the sense of crisis and despair and writes with great prose style and satire.… (more)
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Humboldt's Gift...not going to happen. There is something so ludicrously intellectual and detached in this writing. I get angry and then just quit.
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Bellow gives us his unique perspective on growing up on an East Coast only people with his background can understand.
LibraryThing member oel_3
one of my fave books



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