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Humboldt's Gift (Penguin Classics) Paperback – October 28, 2008

4.1 out of 5 stars 78 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Novel by Saul Bellow, published in 1975. The novel, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, is a self-described "comic book about death," whose title character is modeled on the self-destructive lyric poet Delmore Schwartz. Charlie Citrine, an intellectual, middle-aged author of award-winning biographies and plays, contemplates two significant figures and philosophies in his life: Von Humboldt Fleisher, a dead poet who had been his mentor, and Rinaldo Cantabile, a very-much-alive minor mafioso who has been the bane of Humboldt's existence. Humboldt had taught Charlie that art is powerful and that one should be true to one's creative spirit. Rinaldo, Charlie's self-appointed financial adviser, has always urged Charlie to use his art to turn a profit. At the novel's end, Charlie has managed to set his own course. -- The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Saul Bellow was praised for his vision, his ear for detail, his humor, and the masterful artistry of his prose. Born of Russian Jewish parents in Lachine, Quebec in 1915, he was raised in Chicago. He received his Bachelor's degree from Northwestern University in 1937, with honors in sociology and anthropology, and did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin. During the Second World War he served in the Merchant Marines.

His first two novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947) are penetrating, Kafka-like psychological studies. In 1948 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent two years in Paris and traveling in Europe, where he began his picaresque novel The Adventures of Augie March, which went on to win the National Book Award for fiction in 1954. His later books of fiction include Seize the Day (1956); Henderson the Rain King (1959); Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968); Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970); Humboldt's Gift (1975), which won the Pulitzer Prize; The Dean's December (1982); More Die of Heartbreak (1987); Theft (1988); The Bellarosa Connection (1989);The Actual (1996); Ravelstein (2000); and, most recently, Collected Stories(2001). Bellow has also produced a prolific amount of non-fiction, collected in To Jerusalem and Back, a personal and literary record of his sojourn in Israel during several months in 1975, and It All Adds Up, a collection of memoirs and essays.

Bellow's many awards include the International Literary Prize for Herzog, for which he became the first American to receive the prize; the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, the highest literary distinction awarded by France to non-citizens; the B'nai B'rith Jewish Heritage Award for "excellence in Jewish Literature"; and America's Democratic Legacy Award of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the first time this award has been made to a literary personage. In 1976 Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature "for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work."

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Revised edition (October 28, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143105477
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143105473
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.8 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #104,196 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
As in Bellow's "Herzog" and "Seize the Day," the protagonist of "Humboldt's Gift" is a highly educated late-middle-aged man who's made a minor mess of his life but weathers the storm with any resources of which he can avail himself. Charlie Citrine, an Appleton, Wisconsin, native transplanted to Chicago, is an author and a briefly successful playwright who spends the novel reminiscing about his longtime friendship with the late poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, an eccentric genius and self-diagnosed manic depressive, and describing the people and events in his life that somehow seem to shape themselves around his relationship with Humboldt.
Humboldt once had a goal to raise the esteem of the poet's role in American society. In 1952 he believed an Adlai Stevenson presidency would allow the involvement of more intellectuals in government; when this hope crumbled, he sought and won an ephemeral poetry chair at Princeton, where he and Citrine concocted a strangely Sophoclean movie treatment about a doomed Arctic expedition and a man who became a cannibal. This was not the last of their show business aspirations; Citrine's play, "Von Trenck," based loosely on Humboldt's life and therefore vexatious to Humboldt, was a hit on the theater circuit and was made into a movie.
Citrine's dubious fortune attracts all kinds of problems with love and money. His ex-wife Denise is straining him over an uncomfortable divorce settlement; his new girlfriend, a much younger woman named Renata, takes advantage of him and leaves him stranded in Madrid to babysit her son. A simple poker night results in an undesirable association with a small-time gangster named Rinaldo Cantabile from which he can't seem to extricate himself.
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Format: Paperback
I think this is Bellow's materwork. An author who has always searched for evidence of the human soul in contemporary society, the questions Bellow raised in each of the novels leading to this point (Herzog particularly), finally find a resolution in this book, his last novel before winning the Nobel Prize.
This is a story of Charlie Citrine, a sucessful author who finds himself struggling for meaning while confronting the ghosts of memory, particularly in the relationship with his friend, mentor; and, at many points, antagonist, Von Humboldt Fletcher. Curiously, the novel is thrown into action and suspense through Citrine's dealings with a minor gangster, Cantible. The relationship, though, turns out to be one that brings Citrine back to the "here and now." Just as he is on the brink of being lost in transcendental wanderings, Citrine is snapped back to his resposibility by Cantible.
And, from such an unlikely source, the novel begins its reach towards resolution: to be fully human, Citrine must be spiritual but remain part of the world. Meaning and true spirituality come through compassion, empathy, caring. Once Citrine and the reader discover this, the novel reaches a resolution that marked the end of an era in many of Bellow's themes. This novel is simply a must for anyone who has enjoyed any of Bellow's earlier works, as well as for anyone who, like Chalie Citrine, struggle to find a place for the soul, the human spirit, in a world that seems to have forgotten such a thing may exist.
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Format: Paperback
I have a hard time understanding what there is not to like about this novel. The only thing that I can think of is that it is a book very uncontemporary in its style, but I find this to be one of its greatest strengths. I find that so many contemporary fiction writers have been overwhelmed by the presence of movies and TV that they are no longer able to write novels, but instead are forced to create what amounts to screenplays without stage directions.
Humboldt's Gift is not this. It takes the time to revel in the sheer joy of words. The characters are developed in depth. Bellow prevents them from becoming interchangeable, and this is as it should be, for people are not interchangeable. Bellow is obsessed with bringing every nuance and quirk of his characters to your doorstep. You could probably even pick them out on the street. What's more, Bellow has succeeded in bridging the amorphous world of high-minded ideas and the tangible world of reality with a prose style that is conversational and wise. You are learning something about what it means to be alive here. You are learning something about the breadth of the human condition. You are learning something about what it means to be American and what that means given the backdrop of the rest of history. If you would find such a journey tedious, don't bother reading this book. If you are anxious to take such a trip, take this book with you as a map.
Some of Bellow's books -- Sammler's Planet and Henderson the Rain King, in parts -- can be overly pendantic and essay-ish. But not this one. This one is a masterpiece of English literature. You are missing an American experience -- love it or leave -- if you are not reading this book.
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Transcendental. Profound. Scholarly. Challenging. Invigorating. Agile. A literary treasure. Citrine lives and breathes with the perspective of a real writer surging against great existential issues like Walt Whitman's ultimate question. Humboldt is brilliant, pitiful, hilarious and, ultimately, victorious from the grave. The gangster, Cantabile, is Citrine's cosmic foil: the Dionysius of Nietzsche to Citrine's Apollo. This is potentially a life-altering work: it can change your outlook on life and death. Bellow redeems late 20th century American literature with writing so rich it has bestowed upon him a mantle of immortality. He will be long remembered as one of America's most brilliant 20th century writers. This novel confirms Bellow's consistent gift for writing as evidenced by his prolific virtuosity in Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King. What a masterful literary legacy Bellow has left us! Bag the NY Times Best Seller List and Oprah's mind numbing, witless wonders and read Bellow. Hardly anything this substantive is likely to be created hereafter.
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