Humboldt’s Gift: A look at a life

Humboldt’s Gift is a ramble through the mind of Charlie Citrine, pejoratively described by friends and relatives as “an intellectual.”

Saul Bellow invites readers to tag along as Charlie revisits his past and explores his options for the future if a gift from an old friend allows him to be more than “a formidable mass of credentials.”

All text cover of Humboldt's Gift
Will the rest of Charlie’s life all sunshine like the novel’s cover?

Charlie came east in 1952 to see Literature being made.

In New York, he met Von Humboldt Fleisher, a poet living on the fame of having published a book of highly acclaimed ballads at age 22.

Due in no small part to Humboldt, Charlie became a writer. But unlike Humboldt, Charlie made a fortune doing it.

When the novel opens, Humboldt has just died penniless.

Middle aged now, Charlie has a good life, aside from lawsuits by his ex-wife, trouble with the IRS, an expensive mistress, death threats by a mobster, and an inability to write.

He says he keeps “being overcome by the material, like a miner by gas fumes.”

As death loomed, Humboldt left Charlie a legacy.

Can it put Charlie’s life to rights?

You may wish you knew only half as many of Charlie’s thoughts as Bellow records for readers, but you won’t escape the odd feeling that you’ve known Charlie.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
Viking Press, 1975. 487 p.
1975 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Herzog Seeks, Misses, Key to Life

Dust jacket of Herzog shows shadowy black figure on blue backgroundSaul Bellow’s Herzog is the sort of novel about which critics utter phrases like “certain to be talked about.”

I’ll say the novel contains some clever sentences. (I particularly liked, “He was a piece of human capital badly invested.”) But  it takes more than a few good sentences to make a novel.

Having a plot is always useful.

Bellow seems to have missed the boat there.

The story, such as it is, concerns Moses E. Herzog, 47, a man with two ex-wives, two children, and a trail of fondly remembered sex partners.

Herzog may not be crazy, but he is definitely a guy with issues.

Most of the book is Herzog’s letters to friends, family, colleagues, strangers, each attempting to set the record straight. He writes others were wrong, he was right.

Herzog reminds me of Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s  nineteenth century novel Middlemarch. Casaubon wants to find the key to all mythologies; Herzog wants to find the key to all of life. If Casaubon had written a personal memoir, it would have sounded a lot like Herzog’s scribbling, although to give Herzog his due, he does have a sense of irony which Casaubon entirely lacks.

Herzog finally writes himself into exhaustion and winds up back in the same neglected house where the story began.

 Herzog
by Saul Bellow
New York: Viking Press
1964 bestseller #3
341 pages
My grade C

 © 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni