107 of 115 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2005
I picked up "Seize The Day" when, one afternoon, I realized I'd never read anything by Saul Bellow. Throughout high school and college, none of his books had ever been assigned to me, and though I knew his name, it never resonated with me the way the names Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, or Steinbeck had. After reading "Seize the Day," I am rather angry at my high school teachers and college professors--and myself!--for keeping me from this author for so long.
"Seize The Day" tells the story of one day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, a middle-aged failed actor who now lives in the same New York hotel as his father. Tommy is separated from his wife, and rarely sees his children; furthermore, he has been unemployed for several months, and faces losing the last of his money in an ill-conceived stock market venture. It is with all of this in mind that Tommy finally comes to a day of realization and reckoning, when he realizes his isolation and his failure.
The theme of man's isolation is strong throughout the book, yet it is not what struck me most about Tommy's situation. I read "Seize The Day" immediately after finishing "The Fountainhead," and perhaps that skewed my focus a bit. What I found most interesting about Tommy is his inability to judge himself. He is aware of his failures, but cannot take the final step and truly confront them; he must ask those around him, particularly his father, both for a kind word and for a way to understand himself. I have to wonder if Tommy's isolation would be less of a burden if he weren't also isolated from himself--a thought which struck me to the core.
If you are like me, and have read dozens of American classics without touching a Saul Bellow book, read "Seize The Day" as soon as possible. Bellow's style of writing and his way of getting inside of Tommy's mind is recognizably American, yet incredibly distinctive; I would venture that you can't fully understand American literature until you've read Saul Bellow.
60 of 69 people found the following review helpful
"Seize the day, put no trust in the morrow" is what Horace wrote at the end of his first book of Odes a couple of thousand years ago. And ever since, youth has been urged to make hay while the sun shines since the bird of time is on the wing--to toss in a couple more homilies. But what Saul Bellow has in mind here is entirely ironic since his sad protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm Adler has never seized the day at all, much to his unfeeling father's disgust.
This then is a tale of failure (one of Bellow's recurring themes) and the shame and self-loathing that failure may bring; and yet there is a sense, or at least a hint--not of redemption of course--but of acceptance and understanding at the end of this short existential novel by the Nobel Prize winner.
The way that Bellow's drowning, existential man experiences the funeral as this novel ends is the way we should all experience a funeral, that is, with the certain knowledge that the man lying dead in the coffin is, or will be, us.
And we should cry copious tears and a great shudder should seize us and we should sob as before God with the full realization that our day too will come, and sooner than we think--which is what big, blond-haired, handsome Jewish "Wilkie" Adler does. And in that realization we know that he has seen the truth and we along with him. An existential truth of course.
The structure of the novel, like James Joyce's Ulysses, begins and ends in the same day. Through flashbacks from Adler's nagging consciousness, the failures and disappointments of his life are recalled. When he was just a young man he foolishly thought because of his good looks and the assurance of a bogus talent scout that he might become a Hollywood star; and so he spurned college and instead went to the boulevard of broken dreams as it runs toward Santa Monica.
And so began the failure and dissolution of his life. As Bellow tells it, Wilhelm has slipped and fallen into something like a watery abyss. He can't catch his breath. He is drowning. He reaches out to his father, who turns away from him. He reaches out to Dr. Tamkin, the mysterious stranger, the clever fox of a man who swindles him and then disappears into the crowd of the great metropolis. He reaches out to his wife, who will also not extend a helping hand. Meanwhile, the waters about him have grown, and he is lost.
We are all lost, more or less, except those who delude themselves, who have their various schemes and delusions to distract them, is what Bellow seems to be saying. Those of us who have not seized the day, a day that is fleeting and subtle, indefinite and hard to grasp, become so much water-logged driftwood.
With resemblances to Albert Camus' The Stranger and Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, Bellow's Wilhelm is the essence of the anti-hero, literature's dominate strain of the mid-twentieth century. Such men have no firm or deep beliefs. They exist for the day, like butterflies, tossed about by circumstance all the while wondering why, but without any ability to rise above their predicament, a predicament that is so ordinary, so banal, so patently unheroic to be that of Everyman.
And what is the answer? For Bellow and Camus and Miller, the answer is the finality of death. A man lives, goes about craving--"I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want"--and for what and because of what? Like the tentmaker, Omar Khayyam, we wander willy-nilly without a clue, and then become so much dust in the wind.
For life IS a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying in the end, nothing. All our labors are like those of Sisyphus pushing the stone up the hill only to watch it roll back down again.
We cannot help but feel in reading this novel both a sense of empathy for the man who has failed, but at the same time, we might feel like his father and want to give him a kick and say, "Wilkie, get a grip on yourself. Quit making the same mistakes over and over again."
But we know that for Wilhelm it is already too late. He cannot change his nature anymore than the leopard can change its spots. We sense the great hand of fate upon him, and we shudder. For in some respects--different respects of course--we could be him. And we straighten up our frame, we return to our duties and responsibilities, to our work and the rhythms of our lives secure in the knowledge that we are stronger that Wilhelm, that although the waves may toss us about, we will not sink. At least not yet.
In reading this for the first time now half a century after it was written, I am struck with how different the zeitgeist is today. We have wildly successful heroes and larger-than-life murderous villains, and nowhere is there the existential man.
This short work is a splendid representative of one of my favorite genres, the short, sharply focused American novel from the early or middle 20th century. Other--widely differing--examples are John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra, Nathanael West's Miss Lonely Hearts, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, John Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, to name a few.
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2004
This is a powerful page-turner which in my view should be read once through to fully experience its sweeping crescendo and then again at a more deliberate pace to appreciate the beatifully descriptive langauge and symbolism of the text. Bellow writes with a detached sympathy for his unfortunate hero, Tommy Wilhelm, who finds himself on the brink of financial ruin and spiritual collapse. I think this is an important story about alienation in our modern commercial society and renewal through acquaintance with the true bared self within us that we are taught to neglect and long to return to. In just over a hundred pages, Saul Bellow manages to bring the ominously swelling pressures of his tragic hero's surroundings and inner monologue to a swirling climax, compassionately cleansing Tommy in an emotional acceptance of himself in the turbulent end. All the while, Bellow meticulously develops a suffocating world in which with Tommy we can't help but feel the merciless chaos surrounding him and amidst it all sympathize with the poignant alienation of a reflective mind. Very interesting read and highly recommended as a primer to Bellow's oeuvre.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 9, 2001
Middle-aged Wilhelm las lost his sense of direction. He cannot find the means to support his wife and kids, who he recently walked out on, and is looking for pity and help from everyone that he can.
The premise may not sound that interesting but Bellow does an incredible job of showing how suppressing emotions come back to haunt us. Throughout this book, Wilhelm has several life-changing interactions with the other characters, and comes out a totally different person. These interactions are gracefully executed by Bellow, showing an amazing grasp of differing psyches and how they interact with others.
I don't want to give anything away, but Wilhelm's final confrontations with Tamkin and his father are absolutely amazing. If your interest can be held by an intensely personal journey (as opposed to a plot driven thriller), then this book may be for you. Once you've finished the book, just compare the opening paragraphs with the closing ones and you should get a hint of what you just gained. Doing so may even convince you to give it another go.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2003
"Seize the Day" is a sad little novel about a man, lost in the wilderness of his life, whose struggle "toward the consummation of his heart's ultimate need" can succeed only when he surrenders his composure to his deepest emotions, that secret place in all of us from which we beckon our tears. The one day in which the entire novel takes place completely encapsulates his past, present, and future into the portrait of a man mired in his environment.
The man is 44-year-old Tommy Wilhelm who, like some of Bellow's other fictional protagonists Augie March, Eugene Henderson, and Moses Herzog, is a little piece of the chaos of twentieth-century urban America distilled into a single confused character. Wilhelm is a native New Yorker (although it's obvious his author is not), a failed actor, and an unemployed former sales executive. He is separated from his wife, who is always selfishly demanding from him money that he doesn't have, and his two sons. His only financial support now is from his father, a successful physician who is annoyed by his son's lack of discipline but nevertheless brags about his past accomplishments to anyone who will listen.
Wilhelm has a friend named Dr. Tamkin who professes to be a psychologist, has many various interests but dubious talents, and persuades him to invest his last dollar in lard commodities. Tamkin, a world traveler, has told Wilhelm that he "had attended some of the Egyptian royal family as a psychiatrist," a statement that evokes an image of the biblical Joseph prophesying for the Pharaoh seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine; but Tamkin's optimistic expectation for lard is all profit, no loss. His philosophy is that the future is not worth the worry; live for the "here-and-now": seize the day. He is undoubtedly a charlatan, but in Wilhelm's eyes he means well.
One of the novel's themes is atonement, which is signified by the reference to Yom Kippur. Wilhelm is not very religious and has not planned to attend a synagogue, but he recognizes the importance of saying Yiskor for his dead mother; his sincere but idle threat to the unknown hoodlums who vandalized the bench next to her grave will not suffice to honor her memory. Ironically, the place where he ultimately atones is the funeral of a man who is evidently not Jewish (open casket, presence of flowers) -- and he weeps with the knowledge that death is all we achieve from life. Seize the day, indeed.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 1998
Tommy Wilhelm might be construed as an echo of Willy Loman, Arthur Miller's delusional salesman in "Death of a Salesman." Yet he stands powerfully and foolishly on his own as a man caught between the culture of his fathers and a trashy American movie culture that hints of crime, triviality, and indifference. In the rendering of this time and place that Wilhelm can never quite find his niche in, the book rings true even today, four decades after its publication. Tommy's presence in the novel is both physical (I could sense his high blood pressure in his conversations with his father and with the con-man Dr. Tamkin) and spiritual. His attempt to redeem his own failed past in a single day, and the lies he tells himself to get through the "con," are pathetic, believable, and the stuff of a moral tale I recommend highly. The book reads pleasurably and fast the first time, yet it rewards second and third readings.
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 2006
I am a Bellow fan, read all of his novels, and wrote an Amazon guide: "A Guide to Reading Bellow."
The present book is not bad, but it is more of a novella, not one of his 300 page novels, and if you are interested in Bellow, there are many better books. If I had to recommend just one, it would be "Herzog." Some of these novels have a warmth and charm, and have a certain tongue in cheek approach in describing the trials and tribulations of the narrator. The humour is mixed in with the meaning of our short lives, and the future of our souls. Bellow thought that the development of realism was the major event of modern literature. That includes how we view subjects such as sex, life and death, etc. Having said that, there is not much humour in the present novel - and in some ways it is a step back for Bellow towards his first novel "Dangling Man." The final scene has some elements - and it is a little more intense - than the award winning novel "Mr. Sammler's Planet" also by Bellow, but the present book is barely 100 pages. The book comes with a brief biography of Bellow that increases the page count to 144.
In case you are new to Bellow, his novels reflect his life, his writings, and his five marriages during his five active decades of writing. He hit his peak as a writer around the time of "Augie March" in 1953 and continued through to the Pulitzer novel "Humbolt's Gift" in 1973. He wrote from the early 1940s through to 2000. His novels are written in a narrative form, and the main character is a Jewish male - usually a writer but not always - and he is living in either in New York or Chicago. Bellow wrote approximately 13 novels and a number of other works.
Bellow's style progressed over the five decades. The early novels "Dangling Man" and "The Victim" were written in the 1940s, 20 years before his peak. Some compare his style in "Dangling Man" with Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground." Changes in tempo and lightness could be seen in his second book "The Victim" in 1947. This carries on in his next book "The Adventures of Augie March" - his breakthrough book in 1953 that won a National Book Prize. The present books follows "Augie March."
That brings us to the present book whch is really one of his shorter novels. In fact, it is more of a novella similar to "The Actual" or the short story "What Kind of Day Did You Have?" from the collection "Him With Foot In Mouth and Other Stories." The book is not a great example of Bellow's work and it is not the first or even the tenth Bellow novel that I would recommend. Simply put, he has too many other better books, especially starting with "Augie March" and going forward to "More Die of Heartbreak" or even his final novel "Ravelstein." Yes, the writing is excellent, the story is interesting, but most Bellow fans will feel short changed.
Bellow has three National book prizes for "Herzog," "Mr.Sammler's Planet," and "The Adventures of Augie March," plus a Pulitzer Prize for or "Humbolt's Gift." I would strongly recommend those reads. "Henderson The Rain King" is excellent for a change of pace.
If you want to buy this novella, and some think it is among his best writing, it is available bundled with other short stories: ASIN: B0006AUNKQ
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2011
A day in the life of a loser.
Considering that the day holds the life history of the last 25 years, this 1955 novella is rather action packed. Bellow obviously needed a breath of fresh air after the endless (and to me disappointing) Augie March. So he went for the often satisfactory novella form rather than the shapelessness of his fat novel.
The loser is Wilky Adler, a fair-haired hippopotamus in his own words, now in his mid 40s and a total failure. He even lost his name: during a failed attempt at a Hollywood career he changed it to become Tommy Wilhelm. By that time he had already become a failed son: a college drop-out, the first in a family of academic distinction. On the day of the action, Tommy lives in the same hotel in Manhattan as his nearly 80 y old father, a retired medical doctor and widower. TW has moved out from his wife and two kids, because of a younger woman, and he has also lost his job as a sales executive. He hardly knows how to pay for family support. His girl friend insists that he gets a divorce before continuing their relationship. He has given his last few hundred dollars to a con man for market speculation. His well-to-do father refuses to help him out with money.
As the song says: if it wasn't for bad luck, he wouldn't have no luck at all.
The narration is appealing in the sense that the dreariness has an aspect of hilarious humor. We follow TW from his hotel room down to the lobby, where he buys a newspaper and chats with the kiosk operator, to the breakfast room, where he meets with his father and another hotel guest. Then he meets his `business partner', the man who dragged him into `investing in lard'. The man claims to be a psychotherapist, and he talks freely about the most colorful case histories. It seems quite obvious that he is an impostor, but his stories are tasty. He is the one who advises TW to' seize the day!' With hindsight, that can only be seen as blackest humor.
We learn all about TW's life and habits from his own thoughts and recollections as well as from the dialogues and from the other people's silent observations on him.
Bellow is the all-knowing third person narrator, who assembles inner monologues from different people. We learn through their eyes that Tommy is untidy, even dirty. He is notoriously unable to follow his better instincts. He will decide not to do something and then he does it anyway. He needs uppers to get through his days. A mess of a man. He is to blame for everything bad that happened to him, because of his inability to be responsible.
It ends in a total dead-end: his investment is wiped out. He has nothing left. He needs to sell his junk heap of a car to pay his hotel bill. His day ends at a funeral of a stranger, where he sheds bitter tears for himself.
Tommy was played by Robin Williams in a 2003 film, which I have not watched, and I don't quite know why I would want to. There is nothing appealing about the man. The novella needed to be as short as it is, because otherwise nobody could stay with it long enough. Is it a masterpiece as most reviewers seem to say? I am not sure. After finishing it, I wonder if the humor that is in the dialogues and the observations about the man is not of a toxic kind.
22 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2005
This is a good book to read in one sitting after you've had a horrible day and you are seeking to feel good about yourself. The story is about a forty something year-old Tommy Wilhem who looses his job and refuses to take any responsibility for his misfortunes. He is a loser by our society standards. He moves into a hotel, expects his father the notorious Dr. Adler to pay his rent while he gambles his money, pays no attention to his physical appearance, and indulges on alcohol and pills. Neither son nor father can sympathize for each other. Tommy blames his father for not supporting him, and father is disappointed that his son didn't follow the notion of the "American Dream", by choosing a lucrative career path such as that of becoming a doctor, and instead chose an untraditional route that of becoming and actor. However, Dr. Adler is a stubborn man that believes that his son should own up to his mistakes and get a job, but at the same time he lies to his friends at the hotel about how well his son Tommy is doing business wise. There is a an intriguing element of illusion and reality in this work as Dr. Adler gives himself a false sense of relief my masking the truth that he himself as a father is not a failure, and neither is his son.
27 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 2000
This book is a lovely piece of painful truth. As I go through each of Bellow's novels one thing that stands out progressively is the assured confidence that grows and grows each time we cross through similar terrain. This is not to say that he repeats himself--certainly not as the on-going philosophy matures through both personal life experience and a further understanding of human nature. Seize the day is, as usual, extremely well-written but with this short novel I believe that Bellow began crossing into that phase of maturity that makes an author ever-lasting and forces his vision upon the world at large. It is no wonder that when Bellow won his Nobel Prize twenty years after the publication of this book that it was singled out for special notice. Basically your middle-class everyman is portrayed (with, of course, the particularities related to Bellow himself to give the human reactions more sincerity) at one of those mid-life boiling points when the decisions made will effect everything that comes later. You read along with a similar urgancy, rooting yet never hoping, aware that many of Tommy Wilhem's mistakes are similar to your own and breathlessly hoping to find an answer to your own questions.
Four books into Mr. Bellow's career I am now convinced that all the high-handed praise is, for once, truly justified. This guy is one of the true American wonders, one of the gods of our literature.