Review: Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

Today’s Throwback Thursday is a Pulitzer Prize winner, about a writer who receives a helping hand from his long dead mentor when all else is lost: Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow.

Bellow has us follow the life of Charlie Citrine, a literary superstar who has two Pulitzers, a smash Broadway hit under his belt, and is struggling with the idea that he’s lost his artistic integrity. What makes it worse is that his smash Broadway hit is based upon the life of his dead mentor (the Humboldt of the title), who valued artistic integrity above commercial success. When Charlie is on his last legs, all his money dried up, and his final commercial success on the wane, one last gift from Humboldt arrives…

Now, Saul Bellow has been too clever for my liking here – because this whole thing is a thinly disguised novel about the relationship between Bellow himself (Charlie in the book) and Delmore Schwartz (Humboldt). I guess it could be interesting, (the relationship between artistic integrity and commercial success is valid, and a very American subject for a Great American Novel) but I just found it indulgent, a bit too knowing even – I mean, like giving himself two Pulitzers, what’s that all about? Too cute by half.

On top of it all, Bellow uses it to explore some of his own thoughts on spirituality, so you get stuck with passages like this:

“The physical body is an agent of the spirit and its mirror. It is an engine and a reflection of the spirit. It is the spirit’s ingenious memorandum to itself and the spirit sees itself in my body, just as I see my own face in a looking glass. My nerves reflect this. The earth is literally a mirror of thoughts. Objects themselves are embodied thoughts. Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.”

There are whole passages like this – some of them so dense that it’s a struggle to get through. Massive detours that don’t take the novel anywhere.

I just can’t recommend this one. Not even a little bit. It is possibly the most pretentious book I’ve ever read.

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