Chapter 64: “Humboldt’s Gift” by Saul Bellow (1976)

“Boredom is an instrument of social control. Power is the power to impose boredom, to command stasis, to combine this stasis with anguish. The real tedium, deep tedium, is seasoned with terror and with death.”

humboldt's giftIt’s been a while, but I just finished up another one of these Pulitzers—Saul Bellow’s 1976 Humboldt’s Gift. It’s also been a while since I’ve encountered such a bizarre work of fiction on this list.

There are a few interesting things to note about this book.

For one thing, Bellow originally intended for the novel to be a short story. This is a very useful bit of knowledge going into reading the book because it certainly reads that way.

If the book were written as a short story, it’d be a lot easier to follow, it would convey the same message, there wouldn’t be so much fluff, the reader wouldn’t have to follow Bellow down rabbit trails that lead nowhere, and, frankly, it would be a much better story.

Joshua and I were considering compiling a list of the strangest moments in Pulitzer novels. After reading Humboldt’s Gift, I could honestly assemble a pretty healthy list of those moments just using this as my source. There are a lot bits and pieces of conflict and rising action that kinda-sorta connect to one another, but none of them really lead anywhere.

Like when Cantabile, the wannabe Chicago gangster, intimidates and tortures Charlie Citrine in the first quarter of the book by destroying his Mercedes with a crowbar, then making him play poker with his gangster friends and speak to him in a certain way, then making him go to a Turkish bath house with him, then making him stand in a bathroom stall while he poops, then making him walk on an iron beam hundreds of feet above the ground just to throw his money off the side of the building. While all of that does a lot to develop the character of Cantabile, it does very, very little to contribute to the story.

And, sure, that all seems like a lot of action or conflict or whatever you want to call it, but the reason it doesn’t lead anywhere is because Bellow interrupts the real story of his novel for pages upon pages upon pages by pontificating and waxing poetic. For no other reason, that I can tell, than to show how high-minded he is.

Really.

Something that you’d think is really important happens, then Bellow spends a page talking about Kafka’s Diaries, another couple of pages discussing the differences between Mozart’s and Haydn’s arias, then another few paragraphs discussing Grecian philosophy and Roman mythology, and the history of civilization; then he’ll go back to telling the actual story.

It happens so often that you almost forget what the book is about. If this had been a short story, though, it wouldn’t have been an issue.

Then there’s his publishing partner, Thaxter, who gets abducted by terrorists and held for ransom in Argentina. Why? I don’t know—but it was really dramatic for a few pages. But maybe not, because he seems to quickly gloss over the whole matter and forget the whole thing even quicker.

Then there’s his girlfriend Renata duping him into taking her to Europe to meet her estranged biological father, then she abandons him and marries some guy named Flonzaley. Not before dumping her son on Citrine to babysit at his hotel in Spain. Citrine, of course, is FURIOUS—even going so far as to saying that he was going to strangle her or drown her in a toilet. But, this too, he gets over after consoling himself with some more pontificating.

There’s a whole host of events in this novel that just baffled me. And, again, sure these things do quite a bit to develop Citrine’s character and they reveal a lot of things about his personality, but the events, in and of themselves, do little to move the story forward.

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This novel seems to be a meditation or a commentary on the increasing commodification of art and culture or the disappearance of art and culture all together. Bellow is really, really hung up on this throughout the course of the novel; he’s very concerned that artists and poets and writers and thinkers are “selling out”, so to speak—selling their creativity for profit.

But I don’t think there was ever a golden age—a time long time gone—of art and culture, where artists weren’t selling their art.

Classical composers sold their music to kings and queens and God—they sold out to the state and the church and the wealthy; artists like Michelangelo and Da Vinci and Van Gogh were commissioned by people who paid them (again, the church, the state, and the wealthy); authors and poets wrote books and poems to sell.

Bellow, on the other hand, seems to believe that these sorts of creatives just sat around, being creative for the sake of being creative. Bellow is a hopeless romantic for a time and a culture that never was and I find that naive.

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The main thing, though, that held this novel back for me was the constant hyperbolic nonsense and the nonstop waxing poetic. It did nothing for the story, it held the novel back, and it was utterly, utterly pretentious. Distracting, even.

There are a lot of things that Humboldt’s Gift could have been, but I don’t think it was any of those things.

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