October 31, 2014

Book: Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 4:51 pm

Looks like I will never understand satire by the great writers in English. The author himself describes this book as a “comic book about death” and of course it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1976. But to me, it reads like an artsy film-club-movie-experience in a book. Yawn.images

What is the story? Humbodt, a writer, is jealous of the success of his protege Charlie Citrine and tries to badmouth him constantly. He dies a mad man but strangely, leaves some money to Charlie in his will! Humboldt had a friendship with Adlai Stevenson as he claimed, and therefore should Adlai win the presidency, he will have influence in the government! US will then be utopia.

The story wanders a lot.

Charlie was married to the gorgeous Denise but was always fighting and so, after the divorce he married(?) Renata.

He befriends hoodlums and refuses to pay in cards, and for his pains, has his Mercedes smashed badly with a baseball bat. How boring! He goes to pay the hoodlum but gets humiliated, forced to watch him take a dump.

The book is all about Humbolt and how he lived. Nothing happens. More about Humboldt going slowly mad when Adlai lost to Ike Eisenhower.  He conspires to get a chair in Princeton but that falls through as well.

Kathleen leaves him, unable to take his paranoia, but he goes raving mad, attacking a young scholar who he suspects, without proof, is hiding Kathleen.

Cantabile now thinks he is the bosom buddy of Charlie and offers up pretty Polly to share.

Charlie’s  women: First love dies in a plane crash; Denise, the pretty and intellectual wife sues him for all he got; he meets Renata as a mutual friend of a friend in jury duty. He gets arrested due to his association with Cantabile and the stupidity of his friend Thaxter who takes everything he can monetarily from Citrine.

The descriptions are very good and Citrine’s musings are brilliant to read. It does not add to the story but many times but you go along for the ride, for once not caring what it has to do with the story. His musings are unconventional but interesting. Humbolt has left the outline of a plot as a ‘gift’ to Citrine during his brief lucid period before his death. When Charlie learns that the same story has also been given to Kathleen, he is amused. He next visits his businessman brother who is having an open heart surgery.

His musings can come off as ramblings, and they do annoy sometimes, and his belief in clairvoyance and other duff stuff also can irritate, coming in the middle of other interesting thoughts. This gets to be a bit too much as the book progresses.

In a nice irony, the hero Charlie is an author who had won two Pulitzer prizes!

It then  gets positively weird! Listen to this: when you sit and try to talk to dead people, you can! And the questions you ask are actually from them and the answers they give are actually from you. In spite of the ‘comedy’ quip from the author, this seems to be a serious passage.

Why have I not been harsher in this criticism? Am I impressed because the author is Saul Bellow? Not really. I give it a milder critique because his other musings are very interesting and intelligent. That still does not take away from the from the fact that some parts of the book are very weird and downright nonsensical.

Charlie comes across as a soft squeeze and a pushover but then that perhaps this is what was intended to be his character.

He loses all his money due to all his friends’ duplicities but a gangster stands by him! A mad caper written by him with Humboldt makes it big in the movie business and Cantabile helps him sue and recover money but he treats the only guy who helps him like shit.

The ending has a nice ring to it, but is abrupt.

In summary, parts of the book are interesting, even though they may have nothing to do with the main plot, but it is heavy lifting to read. Nonsensical, irritating, and sometimes downright absurd.

Let us say 4/10

  • – Krishna

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