Saul Bellow – Humboldt’s Gift

Saul Bellow - Humboldt's GiftI feel like it has been forever since I have had the space and time to think properly and settle myself down enough to read fiction. Once I make that space in my life, everything seems to fall back into place. I open the book I have left a bookmark in for sometime, and rejoin the characters where ever they may be in the story just like I left them however long ago. Drew and I were just reflecting last night that I have an uncanny ability to remember stories in progress. I believe I have six of these Pulitzer novels already in process in some form. Grapes of Wrath, I am about 50% of the way through. Conrad Ritcher’s, The Town, I have gotten through at least the first two chapters. Tales of the South Pacific, I have invested into significantly. I have cracked the first couple of chapters of Andersonville. O’Connor’s Edge of Sadness hasn’t drawn me in yet as I have put it down after the first two chapters.

The only one I have actually had to restart after a long delay is Gone With the Wind. For some reason, the first 100 pages cannot stay in my mind and I do not have the heart to fake my way through such a massive work if I cannot hold the characters straight.

Needless to say, I picked up and put down Bellow’s winner several times over the last couple of months, perhaps a year or two. There is a simple explanation for that. Humboldt’s Gift is not a great book. Drew and I were laughing on the phone last night as we reconnected about the project after a long interlude during which Drew got married and I officiated the ceremony. We picked back up where we had left off, insulted and praising, laughing and puzzling over the different aspects of this bizarre journey we seemed to pledge our lives to. The most pressing of the topics was the book at hand, Humboldt’s Gift. We reflected on the overly verbose language, meaningless rabbit holes the narrative follows, and general lack of interest in anything that the main character, Charlie Citrine, has to say. There are so many paragraphs in this novel that could be cut completely as the main character waxes on and on about philosophical nonsense. I know a thing or two about energetic individuals waxing verbosely about things that really don’t matter, I am in seminary. Beyond that, his ideas really are complete nonsense, as in they don’t match up – lead anywhere – or better himself whatsoever which throughout the text he implores us that he is driving at something but it is all too painfully obvious he is not. Finally, the character comes to some abstract realization which allows him to no longer be enthralled with money and is misunderstood by all of those around him except his two final compatriots, old men at a strange funeral service.

In our talk last night, Drew and I went back and forth about Bellow’s tone in the book which Drew believes to be sincere in Bellow’s attitude toward Citrine. I cannot accept this fact, not because I cannot see it is actually the case, but because no one can house within themselves that level of pretension toward grandiosity. That is what I cannot accept, not that Bellow wrote this book to impress the audience with his diction and style, but that he actually believed anything he put in his character’s mouth. Beyond this though, the book is well-written and at very few times actually engaging. I wanted to see how it ended, but when it ended I thought, I could have done without that.

As so many times throughout this project, I closed the book and put it on my ‘Books Completed’ bookshelf and said to my wife, Sam, ‘Now that’s done, and I’m glad it’s over’ to quote Elliot’s Waste Land. Good riddance, and on to the next one with the prayer that it is at least marginally better than this one.


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