“Humboldt’s Gift,” first published in 1975 and just re-issued (Penguin: 512 pp., $16), is both a crazy mess of a novel and an abiding testament to the vital exuberance of Saul Bellow’s genius. “The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit. Humboldt was just what everyone had been waiting for. Out in the Midwest I had certainly been waiting eagerly, I can tell you that,” the book begins.
The narrator is Charlie Citrine, and his friend Humboldt has just died in a fleabag New York hotel. Citrine uses his relationship with the doomed poet as a springboard for meditations on the relationship between the artist and society in America, on women, on marriage, on contemporary life, on pretty much anything, in effect, that interests or obsesses his creator, Saul Bellow.
But “Humboldt’s Gift” is, too, the story of artistic friendship and rivalry. Citrine, when he first meets Humboldt, is filled with spunk and ambition. He travels from the Midwest to New York to gain access to literature and to try to take the world by the throat; by the time, many years later, that he sits down, or rather, lies down (on a couch) to reconstruct Humboldt’s life, Citrine has written a Broadway hit and a host of books. He’s dined in the White House and flown in a helicopter with Bobby Kennedy above the gleaming towers of Manhattan. Yet the success for which he yearned, and achieved, has now turned to ashes. He’s in disarray. His wife is divorcing him, and he feels himself to be merely a “higher-thought clown.” Further reality instruction is arriving in the shape of a low-level Chicago gangster and a poker debt. The gangster’s name is Cantabile, and his goons smash up Citrine’s pretty Mercedes with baseball bats.
“I had bungled the whole money thing,” Citrine writes. “It was highly educational, of course, and education has become the great and universal American recompense. It has even replaced punishment in the federal penitentiaries.” Citrine is thus the typical Bellow hero. Like Moses Herzog in “Herzog” or Tommy Wilhelm in “Seize the Day,” he’s failing to grasp something essential about the way the world works. He knows everything he’s supposed to know and nothing he needs to know. His meditations on his dead friend help him take stock, and a further jolt arrives in the shape of a bequest in Humboldt’s will, the “gift” of the title. Humboldt has bequeathed to Citrine the rights to a crazy screenplay written long ago. Will this prove to be the kind of gift the Greeks brought, or indeed an opportunity for Citrine’s renewal? That’s the question the novel’s plot poses, and Bellow is always a bit more interested in plot than many suppose.
Bellow famously based the Humboldt/Citrine story line on his own relationship with the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died forgotten in the gutter at just about the time that Bellow was achieving worldwide fame. Bellow closely cannibalized his own life, and those who passed through it, a tendency that he repeated throughout his career and one that makes him seem especially modern. Some -- notably his biographer James Atlas -- have taken him to task for this. The critics Brent Staples and A.O. Scott once conducted an online debate in Slate, the theme of which was: Is Saul Bellow a monster? In the years since Bellow’s death in 2005, the appropriateness, or relevance, of this question has receded. Does it really matter whether Bellow was a mean guy or not? What remains is the luminousness of the writing.
And the key to Bellow’s prose is that it does, indeed, live and move so closely in the world. Unlike, say, Martin Amis (a disciple of Bellow’s and a wonderful campaigner on Bellow’s behalf), whose ornate style creates fictive universes that tend to feel remote and hermetic, Bellow’s verbal pyrotechnics spin the reader closer to the reality of stuff. Life bursts from the page. Here’s the moment in “Humboldt’s Gift” when Citrine and the gangster Cantabile first encounter each other after the trouble at the poker table:
“I passed the squirming barber pole, and when I got to the sidewalk, which was as dense as the galaxy with broken glass, a white Thunderbird pulled up in front of the Puerto Rican sausage shop across the street and Ronald Cantabile got out. He sprang out, I should say. I saw that he was in a terrific state. Dressed in a brown raglan coat with a matching hat and wearing tan kid boots, he was tall and good-looking. I had noticed his dark dense mustache at the poker game. It resembled fine fur. But through the crackling elegance of the dress there was a current, a desperate sweep, so that the man came out, so to speak, raging from the neck up. Though he was on the other side of the street, I could see how furiously pale he was.”
The “galaxy” of broken glass on the sidewalk, the adrenaline-pallor of the man “raging from the neck up": These images are sensuous and indelible, and more. They feel true, and, as novelist Jeffrey Eugenides notes in an excellent introduction to this new edition, light up the world -- not just Bellow’s world, but our own. Bellow was a poet of the glorious craziness of American striving and a wonderful nitty-gritty observer of city life in New York and Chicago. He mourned and mocked the decline of the cultural values to which he had aspired. He grew up reading Dostoevsky and watching the Marx Bros., and “Humboldt’s Gift” crackles with one-liners that could have come from nobody else’s pen. Such as: “He was a great entertainer but going insane,” and, “her fig leaf turned out to be a price tag.” Of the mechanic who fixes up his Mercedes, Citrine remarks: “Fritz charged like a brain surgeon.”
Beyond and behind the wit lies Bellow’s spiritual questing. “He did this in a modern, twentieth-century way, tentatively, probingly, with self-humor and a large measure of dubiety, but not outright rejection. He kept the lines open,” writes Eugenides. Bellow talked about prayer as “checking in with universal headquarters.” In a way “Humboldt’s Gift” is like a kaddish that’s run out of control -- gorgeous, funny and sad.
Rayner’s Paperback Writers column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.