Badass Sentences in Saul Bellow's "Humboldt's Gift"

Saul Bellow at the 1990 Miami Book Fair International
A friend from work last summer recommended that I read Saul Bellow, citing his humor and intelligence. It took me a year, but I got around to reading Humboldt's Gift (1973) and found that Bellow is both incredibly funny and deeply, humanistically conscious of the world. 

Charles Citrine, an aging, divorced intellectual, writer, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and playwright, struggles over the course of the novel to make sense of his relationship with a meteorically successful and idealistic poet, Von Humboldt Fleisher, who dies destitute and estranged from Citrine. In the meantime, Citrine has plenty of other business to attend to: the vampiric divorce proceedings working against him, an intrusion by a inexperienced gangster-buffoon named Ron Cantabile, and a budding relationship with Renata, a much younger lady who he is continually on the fence about marrying. 

A great deal of the novel is spent in Citrine's mind—past memories and introspective musings about the sometimes strange and absurd things that happen to him in the course of his everyday life. Citrine is extremely well-read and has brilliant recall for quotes and historical minutiae; he's also into the writings of Rudolf Steiner, who founded a philosophy called anthroposophy about the existence of a spiritual world. Citrine is a wandering brain trying to find his place in a world that's never quite comfortable. He off-handedly remarks:
“The soul is supposed to be sealed by oblivion before its return to earthly life. Was it possible that my oblivion might be slightly defective?”
Bellow isn't particularly flashy, but he can really put together a sentence. He does the Citrine-like hyper-educated wandering brain very well; in describing a chance meeting in a steam room, he writes:
“Where men are as nude as the troglodytes of Stone Age Adriatic caverns and sit together dripping and red, like sunset in a mist, and, as in this case, one has a full brown sparkling beard, and eyes are meeting eyes through streaming sweat and vapor, strange things are apt to be spoken” 
There's a mysticism to the writing—a kind of intellectual floatiness or a separation from the gritty details of the everyday—but, at the same time, Citrine is always grounded in reality by his interactions. One particular incident involving a prelude to a proposition occurs in a hotel room where Citrine humorously realizes a very particular limitation of his:
“Against the wall was a sofa bed covered in green chenille. As soon as I saw this object I knew it would defeat me. I was sure I would never be able to get it open. Once anticipated this challenge would not leave my head. I had to meet it at once. The trapezoid foam-rubber bolsters weighed nothing. I pushed them away and pulled off the fitted spread. The sheets under it were perfectly clean. Then I knelt and groped under the sofa frame for a lever. Renata watched silent as my face grew tight and reddened. I crouched and pulled, furious with manufacturers who made such junk, and with the management for taking money from afternoon conferees and crucifying them in spirit”  
At times, Bellow seems so comfortable playing with the child-like playfulness of Citrine's consciousness that he comes up with things that probably wouldn't fly in any creative writing workshop, but which are perfect in the novel's context:
“Endless conveyor belts of sickness or litigation poured clients and patients into these midtown offices like dreary Long Island potatoes. These dull spuds crushed psychoanalysts’ hearts with boring character problems. Then suddenly Humboldt arrived. Oh, Humboldt! He was no potato. He was a papaya a citron a passion fruit” 
And at other times, Bellow really gets to some of the problems that can be generically categorized as belonging to the "modern condition," but which, in Bellow's hands, are as exciting as they were the first time you got into some existential or philosophical-type writing. At one point, Citrine riffs on dictators and autocrats—Hitler and Stalin are his prime examples—and imagines what it would have been like to attend their awfully protracted and terror-filled dinner parties. He concludes:
“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”
So true. All writers are master observers, but Bellow in particular is especially good at getting a description right: the thug-buffoon Cantabile is described as " one of those proud sensitive fellows who give so much trouble because they are passionate about internal matters of very slight interest to any sensible person," which is somebody that everybody has come across. Check out this opening to a chapter:
  “Cops have their own way of ringing a doorbell. They ring like brutes”
I'll likely end up reading more of Bellow in the future; for now, it's time to check out Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan!


  1. There are feet that have done a lot worse than his, on a lot of women's in summer sandals you notice how the little toes have been bent under by years of pointy high heeled shoes, and the big toes pushed over so the joint sticks out like a broken bone; thank God since he is a man that has never happened to him. Nor to Cindy Murkett either, come to think of it; toes side by side like candies in a box.


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