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Humboldt's Gift (Penguin Classics) Paperback – October 28, 2008
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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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The story spans several decades, from the 1930s, when young Charlie first meets famed poet Humboldt Fleisher, to the 70s.
It was the first Bellow novel that I ever read, when it was new. Now I revisited it after 40 years and still enjoyed it. It is for sure the most entertaining among those of his books that I know.
Charlie is a talented, but weak and vain man. His purpose in life is making an impression. He even feels the need to apologize to us readers for his choice of Chicago over New York, as city of residence. The place has no culture, but one can't say it is stupid. Just not intellectual.
Humboldt Fleisher had been a famous poet, then a failing poet and a social wreck. He had been Charlie's friend and mentor, then his enemy. When he died he left Charlie a 'gift'. Charlie finds it only years later. Will it turn out to provide the needed booster opportunity?
The novel has structural similarities with Herzog, but has a different, more satirical tone. Charlie is a much more ridiculous character than Herzog. If he is a partial selfie of the author, one must admit that Bellow had a good sense of humor and didn't take himself too seriously.
One of Bellow's main strengths in his big novels (Henderson, Herzog, Humboldt, but not in Augie March) is the ease of his narrative juggling of story threads and time levels. Charlie will tell us what he remembers, jumping from this to that. While waiting in divorce court for his turn, or while sitting in the car of his mob 'friend' on a wild goose chase through Chicago, he will follow his random thoughts. This is all nicely and amusingly woven together. Such ease must be the product of hard work.
As suggested, Charlie Citrine is this high browed intellect who bumbles along throughout…he starts out by leaving Appleton, Wisconsin as a young man in the search of mentoring from his literary and artistic hero, poet Von Humboldt Fleisher. Finding and latching on to him in New Jersey, Humboldt takes an instant liking to the young intellect and, in turn, takes him under his wing. Spouting continual and verbose celestial incantations about art, literature and history, Citrine becomes a sponge and partner, tantalizing Humboldt with a patient ear while also presenting an intelligent challenger.
Soon Citrine is off on his own, publishing books and writing screenplays. He reaches his zenith with a play, “Von Trenck” that becomes widely popular but, for reasons deep inside Humboldt, he’s seen as a traitor suddenly to the arts and intellect by the poet. Never reconnecting, Humboldt deteriorates to a street person in New York where Citrine views him briefly soon before he (Humboldt) dies ignominiously in a flophouse. The guilt Charlie suffers becomes the backbone for the book.
Mixing Citrine’s chaotic present life (a divorce that is breaking him, a very young mistress, a number of entrepreneurial failures involving quaky friends and the constant attention of a Mafioso who Charlie develops a love/hate relationship) with his attempts to find peace, order and this spiritual uplifting, Bellow is masterful at guiding us through the story with amazing literary grace. This work flows from serious cognitive thought into the often very humorous adventures of our guy and his tangential characters, making what could be a very workmanlike and boring book a pleasure to read. The work that the reader puts into this is well worth it...reaching the “gift” provides a very satisfying and happy ending.
At 500 pages, “Humboldt’s Gift” is a definite commitment for the reader…the philosophical discursions may be a tad much for some but the aggregate total of this wonderful book is truly uplifting. I found it both inspiring and informing and any reader, I’m sure, will see why Saul Bellow has been cemented as one of our finest novelists should they undertake it.