Read Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow Online


The novel, for which Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1976, is a self-described "comic book about death," whose title character is modeled on the self-destructive lyric poet Delmore Schwartz. Charlie Citrine, an intellectual, middle-aged author of award-winning biographies and plays, contemplates two significant figures and philosophies in his life: Von HumboldThe novel, for which Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1976, is a self-described "comic book about death," whose title character is modeled on the self-destructive lyric poet Delmore Schwartz. Charlie Citrine, an intellectual, middle-aged author of award-winning biographies and plays, contemplates two significant figures and philosophies in his life: Von Humboldt Fleisher, a dead poet who had been his mentor, and Rinaldo Cantabile, a very-much-alive minor mafioso who has been the bane of Humboldt's existence. Humboldt had taught Charlie that art is powerful and that one should be true to one's creative spirit. Rinaldo, Charlie's self-appointed financial adviser, has always urged Charlie to use his art to turn a profit. At the novel's end, Charlie has managed to set his own course....

Title : Humboldt's Gift
Author :
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ISBN : 9780140189445
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 487 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Humboldt's Gift Reviews

  • Lisa
    2019-05-19 18:33

    "Wrestling match between Vita Contemplativa and Vita Activa" Let’s be honest! Humboldt’s Gift is exhausting. It is a masterpiece, a brilliant study of a man fighting the world and his inner demons by withdrawing from active participation, but it leaves the reader frequently frustrated with the narrator, Charles Citrine, and his non-response to the problems he causes by contemplating life rather than living it actively. Using a similar idea to the one explored in Dangling Man, it goes further, showing a person who is not forced to passivity due to external circumstances, but one who chooses to be passive because he rejects the mechanisms of modern life.The dramatic conflict is inherent in the choice of character and setting: a man who loves poetry and aesthetic life spends his time in Chicago. That, he recognises himself, is a contradiction, an oxymoron. But he does not break free from the pattern. He rather accepts it as the raw material he has to work with:"Such information about corruption, if you had grown up in Chicago, was easy to accept. It even satisfied a certain need. It harmonized with one's Chicago view of society."Crookedness is an art form, invented in America, the narrator reflects, watching his fellow citizens engage in an epic fight to win the fame and fortune they think they are entitled to. All means are justified, even celebrated:"They listened with joy as he told his tale of unhappiness and persecution. He spilled dirt, spread scandal, and uttered powerful metaphors. What a combination! Fame gossip delusion filth and poetic invention.Even then shrewd Humboldt knew what he was worth in professional New York."Bellow indeed delivers a brilliant study of grown-up men playing gangsters and hurt poets, putting on a very loud and visible show, like three-year-olds howling and showing off their scraped knees. But the narrator refuses to play the game. He gets bored, even thinks of writing a study on the impact of boredom on world history:"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."This boredom that he can’t shake off in the presence of his overactive environment makes him an easy target for more energetic people, celebrating the spirit of money that is a symbol for modern-day America. His ex-wife plays a court game with him that makes "Jarndyce and Jarndyce" in Bleak House look harmless. Perpetuation of the case is her ultimate goal, and Citrine can’t do anything to stop her. His girlfriend wants to marry him, and plays a seduction game, while using up his last financial resources and dumping him when he has lost his money. Nothing he can do but mourn. Passively taking the blow, he hides in a pension to meditate and search for contact with the spiritual world, which is the only one he can control and shape according to his aesthetic needs. His relationship to his brother is equally based on the contrast between active and contemplative interpretation of the world. He is the thinker, the romantic who cherishes family relations without financial or dynastic ideas, whereas his brother is the incorporation of the successful American business man, always needing an immediate purpose, and an adversary to fight in order to release his energies:"This visit of mine, with its intimations of final parting, bothered him. He acknowledged that I had done right to come but he loathed me for it, too. I could see it his way. Why did I come flapping around him with my love, like a death-pest? There was no way for me to win, because if I hadn't come here he'd have held it against me. He needed to be wronged. He luxuriated in anger, and he kept accounts."Not even his poet friend Humboldt responds to Charles Citrine’s need for passive, intellectual friendship. After an act of impulsive brotherhood, including a blank cheque exchange, Humboldt cashes in thousands of dollars from Citrine, whereas he himself puts Humboldt’s cheque in a drawer, from where it disappears at some point. He does nothing about it.Money flows out of his hands incessantly, and he is not capable to negotiate for himself without the support from his overactive part-time friends, thus demonstrating the flaw in his worldview. The most colourful character in this respect is Rinaldo Cantabile, a typical gangster with a (crooked) heart, who strongly reminded me of Mack and the boys in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, even though Cantabile plays a bigger game. In his annoying habit of disturbing Citrine’s contemplations, he is similar to Mack’s insistence on making life better for Doc, thus getting him from bad to worse instead:"You?" I said."Yes", said Rinaldo Cantabile, "[...] You thought I was in jail.""Thought, and wished. And hoped. How did you track me here, and what do you want?""You're sore at me. Okay, I admit that was a bad scene. But I am here to make up for it.""Was that the purpose in coming here? What you can do for me is go away. I'd like that best."What Citrine really wants for himself is a world immersed in literature and poetry. His reaction to everyday annoyances is always accompanied by a comparison to his favourite authors. Frustrated with being stuck with Cantabile in traffic, he transforms the experience into an adaptation of T.S.Eliot:"The Thunderbird, puffing fumes, was beginning to block traffic. Because I had been immersed for much of the day in Humboldt's life, and because Humboldt had in turn been immersed in T.S. Eliot, I thought as he might have done of the violet hour when the human engine waits like a taxi throbbing, waiting. But I cut this out. The moment required my full presence."He has the same impulse when his girlfriend leaves him, but realises that it is of no use to explode in metaphorical language to express and soothe his hurt feelings:"What good would it do me to tell Renata off? Fierce and exquisite speeches, perfect in logic, mature in judgment, deep in wise rage, heavenly in poetry, were all right for Shakespeare but they wouldn't do a damn bit of good for me. The desire for emission still existed but the reception was lacking for my passionate speech."The contemplative life Citrine wishes to lead is not compatible with the reality he faces, and in the end, he needs the help of his friend Humboldt, from beyond the grave, to get out of the massive trouble his detachment from the world has brought. Humboldt, being able to merge the active and contemplative life into a complete experience, messy but rich, takes the active steps required to turn artistic ideas and sketches into real successes. In the end, it gives Citrine the opportunity to clear up his business before retiring to the hermitage of his preference.What is the message of the novel? The frustration of a creative man in an environment of business and over-activity? The search for truth underneath the surface of celebrated crime and crookedness? Or the fundamental right to leave the circus if you find it boring in its showy repetitiveness?I changed my mind several times over the course of the slow reading. I am not sure I have a definite answer yet. I will be retreating to my cave to think.

  • William1
    2019-05-05 22:26

    I'm going to rave a little here. Do forgive me in advance. This is my second reading of this masterpiece. It was shortly after publication of Humboldt's Gift that Bellow won the Nobel Prize. That in itself usually doesn't mean much, mostly the literature awards are given out for political reasons these days, but I think in the case of Bellow Oslo got it right. From the start the storytelling is brilliant and it never flags. Charlie Citrine, a young man filled with a love of literature, writes to his hero poet Von Humboldt Fleisher from his home in Appleton, Wisconsin, and is invited to visit the great man in Greenwich Village. Citrine comes to New York just as Humboldt is hitting his sole crest of popularity because of his book of ballads. Humboldt, however, soon loses it all; drinking and medicating himself in a manner that can only be called suicidal. No wonder he's perpetually blocked now. In the meantime, Charlie Citrine, his protege, writes a hit Broadway play which is made into a hit Hollywood movie. Citrine is swimming in money. And Citrine's success can only be viewed by Humboldt in his madness as a betrayal. Humboldt comes to loathe Citrine whom he accuses of using his life as the basis for the main character of his play Von Trenck. When Citrine wins the Chevalier de Légion d'honneur from the French government, Humboldt hits the ceiling. "Shoveleer!," he writes, "Your name is lesion."Charlie Citrine is one of the most fascinating characters to emerge from late 20th century American literature. What I admire so much about this book is its unflagging narrative thrust. Line by line it satisfies the reader on an almost physical level. The humor is laugh out loud. The erudition makes me giddy. Just how is it possible for Bellow to incorporate so much knowledge about literature into the book and not end up with some deadly boring piece of tripe? It's miraculous. Citrine is always talking about his reading (Rudolf Steiner, Santayana, Gide, Aristotle, and so on) which is deftly incorporated so as to reflect upon his own tribulations and those of the other characters. This is quite a rogue's gallery, too, consisting of both the high and the low: mobsters; crooked judges; writers; literary chislers, harridan exes; lawyers; Rubenesque golddiggers, old Russian bath house guys; blue collar guys; virtually all ethnicities and predilections as only a great American city like Chicago can produce. I've read all of Bellow's novels and this I think is his best one. I even prefer it toThe Adventures of Augie March, which is saying something. This is also a great novel for those who want to know how to write a great novel. With this text in hand and one's own considerable talent on tap, why, you can't miss. It's all right here in black and white. Read it, please, and let me know what you think.

  • Violet wells
    2019-05-19 17:47

    Humboldt is a poet, once revered, eventually ridiculed; Charlie Citrine, the narrator, was his acolyte, friend and enemy. Citrine, of an inferior talent, enjoys much greater commercial success than Humboldt. This anomaly is the foundation for much soul searching about the relationship between the artist and commercial success in America. Humboldt fulfils society’s most cherished expectation of the poet – he goes nuts and dies ignominiously. In other words, he’s too delicate for this world. Something we all feel in our most sensitive moments. Poets do what we’d sometimes like to – over indulge sensibility to the point of cutting themselves off from the outside world - and we perhaps honour them for this as much as we do for their poetry. Bellow here attempts, not very successfully, the Nick/Gatsby divide in this novel – he has a prosaic narrator recounting the larger than life character, Humboldt. But a failing of this novel is that Bellow can never keep his own voice muffled for long and soon the narrator Charlie Citrine and Humboldt become almost the same character. Charlie ends up as eccentrically broken as Humboldt. And the title’s gift is a rather lame and implausible denouement. “There's the most extraordinary, unheard of poetry buried in America, but none of the conventional means known to culture can even begin to extract it...the agony is too deep, the disorder too big for art enterprises undertaken in the old way.” So says Charlie. But this passage is much more applicable to DeLillo’s novels than Bellow’s. I’m not sure I ever really felt Bellow was getting to the heart of this buried poetry. DeLillo is actually much better at finding the poetry in our technological, media circus age because he’s better able to project out beyond himself; DeLillo shows where Bellow tells. Bellow often ends up sounding like the patient on the psychotherapist’s couch, gorgeously eloquent but telling rather than dramatizing. Saul Bellow would rank pretty high as nightmare husband. He likes the sound of his own voice too much. He holds forth brilliantly but there’s a sense he doesn’t listen much. He tends to see others as appendages or anecdotes. Bellow’s novels are always about Saul Bellow, Saul Bellow and his relationship with the world, Saul Bellow and his dysfunctional relationship with women. All the novels I’ve read by him have had the same narrator. There’s a lack of versatility in his voice. The supporting cast of characters are often more like showcases for how brilliantly and wittily Bellow can write than any kind of approximation of real people. His most successful novel was Herzog because he sent up his rampant egotism in a brilliantly witty fashion. Bellow is probably a much better writer than he is novelist. His prose is fantastic; his plots often half-baked and flimsy. This one just scrapes four stars because of the quality of the prose; as a novel I found it essentially inspired and daft in equal measure.

  • Luís C.
    2019-05-12 22:31

    In today's reality, if anybody wishes to taste life in America through the late thirties till the early seventies; the turbulent days and the scintillating nights associated with it; the glint and the glamour, the mirth and murder, affluence and privation going hand in gloves, I would recommend Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow. Told in the first person narrative choice, this mammoth novel is mostly a chronology of the author's reminiscences, some of which are dramatically hectic, painfully poignant and utterly frisky and frolicsome. Surprisingly enough, in all its five hundred and odd pages there is neither any chapter heading nor a sub-title offering a clue to the reader. Considering this to be the Nobel Laureate's finest creation, Humboldt's Gift is immensely entertaining, chock full of alacrity and anecdotes to warm up the coldest of hearts. Also, as a narrator of events, Bellow is convincingly descriptive, going into every detail to stamp into the reader's mind, incidents that look place decades ago in a near cinematic flavour. Fancy the array of characters that has come to play their roles in the book. From an all American avante garde poet who rose to the height of his fame but remained unrecognized by the American hierarchy during his lifetime and had to die a miserable death, alone, penniless and uncared for in a solitary cell (Von Humboldt Fisher) to the crazy Italian from the Al Capone era whose only weapon was Threat in all its criminal assortment (Rinaldo Cantabiles). Then there is Denise, the narrator's estranged wife whose ultimate objective was to wrench out her erring husband's liver and fry it with plenty of onion before savoring the delicacy, may be, with some white anchovy sauce. Take the case of lawyer Forrest Tomcheck who had bully refinements, and was fond of befriending his clients to a superlative degree before cutting them up. As there are no principal characters (as such) in the novel, all the people appearing in its pages augment the central theme individually as well as collectively. Nor did the author spare such personalities like Ike Eisenhower or Harry S. Truman. Mind you, this was not done merely for name-dropping. It had a purpose and that has been well achieved. Also, there is a friend, Pierre Thaxter who is warmly devoted to his extended family consisting of many children by many wives across Europe and the continent or Renata, the lascivious lady friend of narrator Charles Citrine who is perpetually in search of her ?undisclosed? father, siphoning her lover's fortune in pricey inter-continental flights every now and again. SAUL BELLOW In portraying Renata's beauty and her lifestyle, the author has devoted quite a number of paragraphs, always paying glowing tributes to her feminine charms, describing the fine set of tooth revealed during an enchanting smile or the shape of her nape occasionally exposed while knotting her lovely hair. While admitting himself as a nymph-troubled man and a person of frenzied longings chasing a gold digger? Charles Citrine, the narrator, nevertheless admires the girl's feelings for him though occasionally, he felt betrayed and remained depressed for months on end. Describing her on the first date on a wet, gloomy day, she wore a plastic raincoat divided into red, white and black bands with a broad, bent brim hat and a banana fragrant lipstick. In short, she looked irresistible and Citrine took her to a hotel room paid at a Conference Rate (hourly basis), downing martinis. However, when the girl fell sick and intoxicated, Citrine felt it his duty to protect her instead of the usual staff a lecher may make. Besides, he avows one could not make it without love and safely reaches her home. Therein lies the soulful tackling of an otherwise sordid affair by the great novelist.

  • Fabian
    2019-04-29 00:25

    The labyrinthine mental processes of an exceptional man of letters-- challenging, uneven, extremely self conscious & in the end, of course, literary."I have snoozed through many a crisis (while millions died)" laments our Hero. Our overthinking, overcompensating, overwhelming hero. He's a regular Danish prince-- indeed most of his life is seen through a Shakespearean filter that has more to do with complications than tragedy or romance.There are amazing sentences and a wholly exuberant prose in this, a lauded Pulitzer (ironically, or perhaps not, the protagonist has not one but two Pulitzers under his belt... Hmmm...) & Medal of Something (I forgot) winner. What I agree with in all of this is very minimal-- the dude lives in an entirely different stratosphere as you and me. I agree with his thoughts on "the prestige of significant failure"-- beauty in a breakdown and all that. Sure. But the POV is both the plus and minus of the novel. It is very selfish and self involved (Rabbit Angstrom, anyone?). Just superior and entirely involved in gilded but droll experiences. The dead exist only to satisfy our main man, Charlie Citrine, it seems. Ugh-- it's overly long, tedious, etc. For all it's dramatic efforts, I wasn't left impressed.

  • Eric
    2019-05-14 21:22

    Last night I dreamt that Saul Bellow was still alive, and that I met him. (Met him at the Chicago branch of something called the Hitler-Piedmont Bank--I know, I know, it was a dream, so it had to be a little fucked up.) I started to gush, but of all the phrases, characters and scenes of his that I admire, the only thing I praised was his description, in this novel, of Humboldt's mud-bespattered station wagon as looking like "a Flanders staff-car."

  • Ian
    2019-05-01 20:31

    Roman a Clef a Trois“Humboldt’s Gift” is generally recognised to be a roman a clef, in which the titular character is based on the poet Delmore Schwartz, an early friend and mentor of Saul Bellow.However, there are three levels at which the roman a clef operates within the novel itself.Firstly, Von Humboldt Fleisher accuses the narrator, Charlie Citrine, of using his life as the inspiration for his commercially successful play, “Von Trenck” (which was later turned into a film):“I don’t say he actually plagiarised, but he did steal something from me - my personality. He built my personality into his hero.”Then, Humboldt writes a treatment for a movie apparently based on the life and loves of Charlie Citrine. Lastly, the novel as a whole wraps all of this up in a fiction inspired by Von Humboldt/Delmore Schwartz, although Bellow/ Citrine can’t resist the temptation to make the novel primarily his own story (even if there is much self-mockery in the novel).Noble MadnessCitrine, like his mentor, is obsessed by the concept of the author as noble:“Mankind is stunned by the Exuberance and Beauty of certain individuals.”“When I was young I believed that being an intellectual assured me of a higher life."“[Humboldt and I] were rich in abilities, in sexual feeling, rich in mind and invention…highly gifted...”Alfred Kazin would write that Delmore Schwartz had "a feeling for literary honor, for the highest standards, that one can only call noble—he loved the nobility of example presented by the greatest writers of our century, and he wanted in this sense to be noble himself, a light unto the less talented...“So he suffered, unceasingly, because he had often to disappoint himself—because the world turned steadily more irrational and incomprehensible—because the effort of his intellectual will, of his superb intellectual culture, was not always enough to sustain him.... He was the prisoner of his superb intellectual training, a victim of the logic he respected beyond anything else. He was of the generation that does not come easily to concepts of the absurd."Unfortunately, as both novel and biography make clear, Delmore’s nobility came at the cost of a little madness.Robert Lowell wrote a poem in memory of Delmore that contains these lines:"Underseas fellows, nobly mad, We talked away our friends.'Let Joyce and Freud,the Masters of Joy,be our guests here,’you said."Citrine describes Humboldt in the Thirties as “an avant garde writer, the first of a new generation,...handsome, fair, large, serious, witty,...learned...Humboldt had been great - handsome, high-spirited, buoyant, ingenious, electrical, noble...The guy had it all...Humboldt revealed to me new ways of doing things. I was ecstatic. I envied his luck, his talent, and his fame…”In Greenwich Village, Humboldt would talk to Citrine, his protege, about Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, the Moscow trials, Sidney Hook’s “From Hegel to Marx”, Lenin’s “State and Revolution”, the poems of Yeats, Hegel’s “Penomenology”, Marx’ portrait of Louis Bonaparte, Hegel’s World Historical Individual, the interpreter of the Spirit, “the mysterious leader who imposed on Mankind the task of understanding him, etc.”Later, Citrine confides in one of his lovers, “Those were intoxicating books and I was in the thick of beauty and wild about goodness and thought and poetry and love. Wasn’t that mere adolescence?”The Savage Noble“In the late Forties he [Humboldt] started to sink.” Citrine viewed him as a “poet, thinker, problem drinker, pill-taker, man of genius, manic depressive, intricate schemer, success story, he once wrote poems of great wit and beauty, but what had he done lately?” Humboldt had become a savage noble. In contrast, “in the early Fifties I myself became famous. I even made a pile of money. Ah, money, the money! Humboldt held the money against me. [He was a fiery Failure and I was a newborn Success.] "In the last years of his life when he wasn’t too depressed to talk, wasn’t locked up in a loony bin, he went about New York saying bitter things about me and my ‘million dollars’...What kind of writer or intellectual makes that kind of dough - a Keynes?...A genius in economics, a prince in Bloomsbury…”The Commercial StuffWhat confounds both writers is success, particularly financial success. How to achieve it, but more importantly, how to maintain and retain it. And how not to lose your integrity to wealth:“Don’t be taken in by the Broadway glamour and the commercial stuff...”“It filled me with guilt and shame.”“If Scott Fitzgerald had been a Protestant, said Humboldt, Success wouldn’t have damaged him so much.”Humboldt even pickets Citrine’s play, a la the pomo academic Tom LeClair (with his “gang of pals and rooters”), carrying a picket sign saying, “The Author of This Play is a Traitor.”Citrine’s ex-wife, Denise, accuses Citrine of having “delusions about being a marvelous noble person” in contrast to inhabitants of “the moronic inferno”.Cantabile, a small-time Chicago mobster who Citrine thinks of as “one of the mental rabble of the wised-up world”, says of Citrine:“You don’t care about the things that other people knock themselves out over. You have contempt. You’re arrogant, Citrine. You despise us. Us. People of the world...”“What good is all this reading if you can’t use it in the crunch?”“Was this art versus America?”“In ancient times poetry was a force, the poet had real strength in the material world.”“What kind of American would I be if I were innocent about money, I ask you. Why? Because money is freedom, that’s why."“Americans had an empty continent to subdue. You couldn’t expect them to concentrate on philosophy and art as well.”Erotica and EsotericaCitrine reads Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy heavily in an attempt to understand the spirit. His priorities are both erotic and esoteric.“I was by inclination the sort of person who needed microcosmic-macrocosmic ideas, or the belief that everything that takes place in man has world significance.”At the same time, circumstances lure him into the world of business and money-making, even if he believes that all capitalism is self-interest, greed and fraud. Business is about action rather than contemplation, the intellect or the spirit.His business partner, Thaxter, says, “I come to Chicago and find you bang in the middle of things.”Thaxter confirms, “This is life, Charlie, not literature.”Citrine is both practical and impractical in love. He is “a big important clever man going around so eager from woman to woman”:“For women I had this utopian emotional love aura and made them feel I was a cherishing man. Sure, I’d cherish them in the way they all dreamed of being cherished.”Yet his highly passionate romances end in marriage, and inevitably in divorce and expensive litigation that strangles the next romance. And creates the next need for funds."A Certain Intricacy and Elegance of Construction"Humboldt’s movie scenario “gives his opinion of me - foolishness, intricacy, wasted subtlety, a loving heart, some kind of disorganised genius, a certain elegance of construction…"And these same words can be applied to the novel itself. In it, we get Citrine (and therefore Bellow) warts and all, the subject of their own mockery. Towards the end of the novel, he tells Kathleen, Humboldt’s ex- wife, “I was just the worm that spit out the silk thread.”ADDENDUM:"This Eccentric Construction"This is how Bellow described the novel in a letter to a philosopher in 1976:“It is a comical and very American examination of the cares and trials of ‘civilised’ people in a civilised country. These cares are by now plainly ludicrous and one can’t be serious about them. The ultimate absurdity is that it is the spiritual matters, which alone deserve our seriousness, that are held to be absurd. Perhaps it was wrong of me to put this longing for spiritual fruit in a comic setting...But I followed my hunch as a writer, trusting that this eccentric construction would somehow stand steady.”SR vs JRThis is part of the blurb for William Gaddis' "JR", the "buried book" (since acclaimed for its 770 pages of unattributed dialogue) that won the National Book Award in 1976, while "Humboldt's Gift" won the Pulitzer Prize and Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature:"JR is a book of comparable magnitude, substance, and humor [to "The Recognitions"] - a rushing, raucous look at money and its influence, at love and its absence, at success and its failures, in the magnificently orchestrated circus of all its larger - and smaller-than-life characters; a frantic, forlorn comedy about who uses - and misuses - whom."SOUNDTRACK:(view spoiler)[Velvet Underground - "European Son" - "Renée Is Crying" (hide spoiler)]

  • Matt
    2019-05-02 17:20

    I don't know what it is, but Bellow's books just go down easy for me. I can (and have) read them in one or two or five very long sittings, enjoying myself enough to just refuse to take my eyes off the page. There's something about his protagonists- the nervy, learned, spunky, earthy, thoughtful and hyper-attentive 30-40 year old males which seems to resonate with me over and over again. I seriously thought about making a special category on my bookshelves for "old-drunk-wannabe-writer" books (and it IS a genre) but I suppose I'd rather not. Demeaning. I enjoyed this chatty, fluid, easily-digested novel each and every time I picked it up. Bellow on the page (not sure what he'd be like in person, though I suspect it wouldn't be all that different) is an idea companion to read in a place that is somewhat noisy, a little folksy, with a bit of bustle. Local pizza shop at middday, while making phone calls (if you're into that perversity), on the train, that kind of thing.Bellow is effortlessly introspective while being open, grand, educated and beautifully exact in his perceptions. He's essentially a chatty dude from Chi-town who got seduced by Greenwich Village in full swing and never looked back. We are all the better for it.I especially had to pick this one up because it fictionalizes an already rather interesting and larger-than-life figure who I happen to adore already. That man would be Delmore Schwartz, author of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and several books of now-underrated excellent poetry. Schwartz is the eponymous Humboldt and the character is much like the actual man: obsessive, erudite, manic, manipulative, visionary, charismatic, self-destructive, energetic, eloquent, and fucked up beyond belief. All night gin-fuled stream of consciousness captivating monologues (don't twitch; Bellow himseld throws more than a few of these adjectival pockets together without punctuation in a near-Beat stylistic choice which always warms the cockles of my heart) which somehow include Plato, Dostoevsky, Harry Hopkins, Frank Sinatra, Emerson, Whitman, Henry Ford, the politics of Weimar Republic, Eisenhower, Beethoven, Stalin, Lenin, Finnegans Wake, litigation, Houdini, Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot's sex life (!?), the Pentateuch, Yeats's visionary cycle of history, Gibbon, Chevrolet engines, Dante's bird imagery, Marx, Lenin, Mary Pickford, and a possible spot in the (never-to-be) administration of Adlai Stevenson in order to bring out an American cultural renaissance.If lists of names and contexts and events juxtaposed in a steam of association works for you- if you'd buy this guy a beer or twelve- then this is the kind of book you'll dig. If not, well, you're pretty much like about half the people in this story, who seem to take a naieve if honest pleasure in upbraiding the narrator for his sentimental and seemingly stupid attachment to this volcanic freakshow. By the time the book starts, Humboldt is (obviously) a bit of a burnout, a has-been mixed with a never-was who has sufficiently fallen from grace to make the narrator himself have to duck behind a car when he spies his former intimate gnawing on a vendor's pretzel with extra mustard at three p.m. while standing on the sidewalk, seemingly the only food he'll have for the day. But Charlie Citrine, writer of some reknown and fairly large income, just won't let the dream die, dammnit. Not even the fact of his own draining and costly divorce settlement or his own existential mid-life confusion or his spacey, wily, unsatisfying mistress or Humboldt's own massively jumbled legacy and final papers will let him put the matter to rest.All I'll say is that the title obviously has more than a few symbolic levels but is, in fact, entirely literal in a very plot-based way. No big surprise there, and frankly I was getting disappointed because I thought I had called it from about 200 pages away and when a dunderhead like me catches whiffs of plot points it's probably time to knock the thing down a few pegs, aesthetically. But that disappointment, luckily, lifted. There is a gift, certainly, but it's not quite what you think even when it's pretty much what you'd assume. Bellow frames it beautifully, which is to say in a true-to-life way, in that what he is given is ironically separated from what it means and how it plays out in the Rube Goldberg wackiness of reality and chance. It's a weird but fitting denouement to a story that keeps you going in newer and better directions all through its surprising and unexpected bulk and literary heft.If you're thinking of reading it, bump it up a couple notches and you'll be glad you did!

  • David Lentz
    2019-04-27 22:37

    Transcendental. Profound. Scholarly. Challenging. Invigorating. Agile. A literary treasure. Citrine lives and breathes with the perspective of a real writer surging against great existential issues like Walt Whitman's ultimate question. Humboldt is brilliant, pitiful, hilarious and, ultimately, victorious from the grave. The gangster, Cantabile, is Citrine's cosmic foil: the Dionysius of Nietzsche to Citrine's Apollo. This is potentially a life-altering work: it can change your outlook on life and death. Bellow redeems late 20th century American literature with writing so rich it has bestowed upon him a mantle of immortality. He will be long remembered as one of America's most brilliant 20th century writers. This novel confirms Bellow's consistent gift for writing as evidenced by his prolific virtuosity in Herzog, The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson the Rain King. What a masterful literary legacy Bellow has left us! Bag the NY Times Best Seller List and Oprah's mind numbing, witless wonders and read Bellow. Hardly anything this substantive is likely to be created hereafter.

  • Denis
    2019-05-18 22:18

    It's interesting how passionate I get when I dislike a book. Maybe I feel ripped off? My expectations were high and that no doubt plays into it.The setup is interesting and has great potential. A man is on a quest to make sense of his life in a world that's lost its way. The theme: Culture, the arts, advanced learning and thinking, (the only raisons-d'être for man's existence don't you know) are being quashed by modern society and its trappings. From the get-go, there are quotes or mention of zillions of philosphers, musicians, artists and other smarty pants of their ilk. So far so good.But nothing comes of it all. The philosophical meanderings turn into banal, empty rants and we spend our time following the boring life of a pompous rebel without a clue. (Darn, I'm getting nasty, and I can't help it.)The characters are painted in vivid colours, but that's part of the problem. There are no shades to the characters and they all come across as two-dimensional mainstream props. I was disappointed by this, my first Bellow novel, but I will try another, seeing he's such a prodigious writer, and part Canadian, too.

  • Simona
    2019-05-08 17:33

    Un romanzo come "Il dono di Humboldt" è difficile da riassumere perché non ha una vera e propria trama. Necessita di tempo per essere assimilato, capito e vissuto.E' un lungo stream of consciousness, un flusso di coscienza di pensieri, di sensazioni, sentimenti e poesia. E' un lungo e denso monologo interiore, in cui i dialoghi sono brevi o quasi del tutto inesistenti.E' un compendio di rapporti umani, di bellezza, di poesia, di letteratura, quella vera, pura e salvifica. E' l'arte che si fa capolavoro e diventa sublime, è una meraviglia che terminato di leggere vi farà avvertire la "mancanza di qualcosa, all'infinito, ho il cuore gonfio, una smania lacerante".

  • Paul
    2019-05-16 23:44

    This is the first Bellow I have read and I enjoyed the experience. It concerns Charlie Citrine, a chap in his 50s, a writer and intellectual who has an ongoing divorce, an unpredictable girlfriend, an acquaintance in the mob who decides he quite likes Charlie, various bloodsucking lawyers, friends who want money for hare-brained schemes and his relationship with his old mentor (now dead), the poet Von Humboldt Fleischer. It is an erudite book with lots of ideas in play and Bellow has great fun with all sorts of sacred cows. There are lots of comedic moments and some pure slapstick (the fate of Chalie's mercedes).Humboldt's gift from beyond the grave presents an interesting dilemma for Charlie the intellectual, as his girlfriend runs off with an undertaker (steady job, guarenteed income, no shortage of customers). At times this was not an easy read and Bellow plays with some off the wall ideas as well (Steiner et al).Profound and funny; and I really loved Cantabile the gangster and Charlie's astute comments, despite his inertia in the face of Cantabile's ravings.charlie's musings will stay with me for some time.

  • Jason Pettus
    2019-05-12 22:23

    (Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)The CCLaP 100: In which I read for the first time a hundred so-called literary "classics," then write reports on whether or not they deserve the labelEssay #38: Humboldt's Gift (1975), by Saul BellowThe story in a nutshell:In good Postmodernist fashion, Saul Bellow's 1975 Humboldt's Gift is a semi-autobiography of sorts, one concerning a writer named Von Humboldt Fleischer -- modeled on Bellow's actual writer friend Delmore Schwartz, who you can also perhaps think of as a cross between e.e. cummings and Nelson Algren, an irascible but brilliant star of Early Modernist poetry (like cummings) but the communist-friendly product of a salty blue-collar Jewish immigrant family (like Algren) -- and the tumultuous decades-long relationship he has with his onetime protege and now award-winning millionaire Charlie Citrine -- based on Bellow himself, who you can also picture as an amalgam of John Updike, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and all the other academes who eventually became the superstars of post-Vietnam literature, but who actually got their starts in the Modernist '50s precisely by studying under people like Schwartz*.Also in good Postmodernist fashion, then, the actual plot of Humboldt's Gift seems more like a hasty afterthought, with its main point being instead simply to watch the now middle-aged Citrine go through his daily '70s routine in Chicago where he lives (racquetball with politicians, bathhouse steams with fellow intellectuals, petty squabbles in his neighborhood of Hyde Park), while he reminisces about the changing fate over the decades of the recently deceased Humboldt, which quickly becomes a rumination on American history in general -- how in the 1930s, for example, the nation eagerly embraced the experimentation and radical liberalism of Humboldt's work; how they collectively then turned their backs on him in the conservative 1950s, even as Citrine himself became famous for a bitter Broadway comedy that parodied Humboldt's extremism; how by the Kennedy '60s, shiny ethnic progressives like Citrine and his pals had fallen back in favor with the American public, even while burned-out New Dealers like Humboldt were now cynical shadows of their former selves; and how by the '70s when our story takes place, all aspects of the arts were rapidly being overrun by corporate conglomeration and naked commercialism, a world that had no place for someone like Humboldt at all, as best typified by the low-level gangster Rinaldo Cantibile who Citrine accidentally forms a relationship with, and who spends the book constantly pitching various ways that Citrine could turn his recent Pulitzer and old relationship with Humboldt into a literal cash factory. Add a few hundred references to various minor writers and philosophers of the 20th century, and you have Bellow's book in a nutshell.The argument for it being a classic:Well, for starters, his fans say, it was the winner of the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for literature, and this in the same year that he also won the more prestigious Nobel Prize for literature (awarded to writers based on their entire career, not just for a specific book). More importantly, though, Humboldt's Gift is literally a textbook example of what the Postmodernist era was all about (which for the purposes of this essay series is being defined as the thirty years between Woodstock and 9/11), as well as what the intellectuals of that period treasured most in literature -- it is thoughtful, it is self-referential, it is slyly funny, the language is beautiful, and it concentrates much more on exploring character than on obsessively trying to come up with a potboiler storyline, like so many of the cheap genre novels that had mostly defined the industry only one generation previously. Just one of many titles by Bellow that were celebrated bestsellers in their day, his fans argue that this particular one is a perfect example of why he's considered one of the most important writers of the entire 20th century (and one of the most important Jewish writers in all of history), a poster-child for the changing of the guard that happened to literature in general during these years, into something that slowly became much smarter and more based on metaphor than what the industry had seen before.The argument against:Of course, as with many Postmodernist projects, the exact arguments just cited can be completely turned around into criticisms as well, which is exactly what you see among a whole lot of disgruntled readers online -- that books like Humboldt's Gift are actually the worst thing that could've ever happened to literature, an endlessly navel-gazing piece of academic circle-jerk crap in which nothing actually happens, no conclusions about the world are made, and one's opinion doesn't even count unless one is the holder of an MFA. After all, say its critics, this was the exact period of history when novels first stopped being the most dominant form of culture in our society, supplanted quickly in those years by film and television, which to this day still mostly dominate the mainstream arts in terms of influence and popularity; and a big reason for this was because of academes taking over the literary industry in those years, with their smartypants "deconstructionism" and "metafiction" and "it's not funny ha-ha, it's funny makes-you-think!" Humboldt's Gift is a perfect example of this, they argue, an overwritten mess so intensely hailed as a masterpiece by the ivory-tower crowd that most of the general public gave up on the very idea of trying to understand contemporary literature anymore; and as Postmodernism in general starts rapidly falling out of favor in our current post-9/11 "Age of Sincerity" (or whatever you want to call it), so too are we seeing Bellow quickly descend into the barely-remembered obscurity he actually deserves.My verdict:So let me make this clear before anything else, that as an overeducated intellectual, I personally really adored Humboldt's Gift, one of those slow-moving deep character studies that you don't just read but inhabit, particularly enjoying the now-forgotten political issues of Mid-Century Modernism that Bellow reminds us of here (for example, Humboldt's absolute certainty that the US would devolve into a fascist military state after the election of Eisenhower in 1952, a common but unrealized fear among post-war Rooseveltians that is hardly ever discussed in history texts anymore); and as a fellow Chicagoan and Hyde Park habitue I especially loved it, not just for his spot-on descriptions of various local landmarks (Division Street Bath! River North penthouses!), but also his pithy observations about the city and its citizens in general. ("Sensitivity in a mature Chicagoan, if genuine, [is:] a treatable form of pathology.") But that said, this book was also a legitimate chore to get through most of the time, and I found myself with a lot of sympathy for the hundreds of traumatized online haters of this book, and their nightmarish tales of slogging their way through this for sometimes two or three months just to find themselves still only a couple of hundred pages in.It's no secret that I'm one of the people who find a lot to complain about concerning Postmodernism, and I think it's definitely fair to point to this title in particular as a great example of everything both so right and wrong about the period; because even though it really is as intelligent and subtle and quietly charming as its fans claim, it also now serves in hindsight as a bad premonition of things to come, essentially the book that gave a million professors official permission to write whiny little screeds about their miserably boring lives in the sleepy collegetowns where they live, and the ennui-filled affairs they're having with their pretentious 19-year-old students. Humboldt's Gift is sure to be loved by his fellow academes, but many others will find it intolerable, which is why today I fall thoroughly on the 'no' side of the classics equation, and recommend it only to those who are already fans of the Postmodernist masters previously mentioned.Is it a classic? No(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)*Oh, and an interesting piece of trivia that I couldn't find a good place for in the main essay -- turns out that one of Schwartz's most famous students besides Bellow himself was edgy musician Lou Reed, who has dedicated several songs to him over the years.

  • Roberto
    2019-04-25 18:35

    Il tuo successo è sempre il successo del denaroCi ho messo un po' a mettere insieme tutti i pezzi, dopo la lettura di questo romanzo certamente interessante ma tutt'altro che semplice.Tanti personaggi turbinano per seicento pagine nel flusso di pensieri solo in apparenza sconnessi di Charlie Citrine, uomo di lettere e commediografo di successo. Tanti episodi interessanti, tanti aneddoti divertenti, tante trovate geniali, tanti ricordi, moltissime profonde riflessioni. Ma ad una prima impressione mi dava l'idea di un libro senza una portante, senza uno scopo preciso. Mi sono dovuto ricredere.Due sono i protagonisti, Humboldt e Citrine, interconnessi da un'amicizia profonda ma anche conflittuale.Humboldt, poeta inizialmente di successo, è un uomo di genio ma, in quanto tale, incapace di rapportarsi con il mondo, che disprezza.L'interesse del mondo, dice, non sta nella poesia, ma nel potere del denaro, della politica, della tecnologia. Il poeta non è "utile", si limita a scrivere. Non deve recitare una parte, non deve essere simpatico, non deve fare soldi, deve solo saper guardare il mondo sufficientemente da lontano per notare e annotare le cose meritevoli e belle.Mentre le persone "normali" si accontentano, vivono con più tranquillità, si fanno poche domande, guardano la TV, loro, i letterati, i poeti, gli artisti, sono schiavi di un'idea, di un'ossessione. Dell'ossessione di cambiare il mondo, mettendolo in crisi con le loro idee e con la loro visione. Un compito bellissimo, che richiede però la rinuncia a una vita convenzionale.La vanità, il denaro, il successo non sono l'obiettivo, non sono la cosa importante. Lo scopo della vita è evitare le consuetudini, il grigiore, le brutture, le avidità, le cattiverie.Citrine, che nutre una profonda ammirazione per il suo amico Humboldt, conduce una vita assolutamente caotica, piena di fallimenti, di rimpianti, di amanti che non riesce ad amare, di figlie che non riesce a vedere, di soldi che non riesce a gestire. Sembra un'alga, in balia delle onde. In realtà Citrine cerca risposte sul significato del mondo.E le cerca riflettendo in continuazione, le cerca nell'antroposofia, nelle domande sul perché della vita e della morte, cercando le ragioni del fallimento di Humboldt.Troppo concentrato ad essere geniale, non riesce a vivere una vita come tutti gli altri e non c'è quindi da stupirsi che la sua giovane amante, piantandola in asso, gli dica:"Sono una bella donna ancora giovane e, quindi, preferisco pigliare le cose come miliardi di persone le hanno sempre prese nel corso della storia. Si lavora, ci si guadagna il pane, si perde una gamba, si fa all'amore, si mette al mondo un figlio, si campa fino a ottant'anni poi ci si leva dalle scatole, o sennò si finisce impiccati o annegati. Ma non si perdono anni e anni tentando di affrancarsi in qualche modo imbecille dalla condizione umana. Per me, questo è una noia.”Non sono sufficienti i dialoghi esilaranti, il suo sarcasmo fulminante, i duelli velenosi con la ex moglie per coprire la tristezza della sconfitta dell'intellettuale davanti al mondo dell'interesse e del denaro. Meglio essere Charlie Citrine o una persona "normale"? Ciascuno di noi avrà la sua risposta personale... Meglio guardare la partita di baseball e mangiare patatine fritte o pensare e riflettere e rifiutare il successo delle cose banali?Un romanzo difficile ma splendido, intenso e molto profondo, nonostante un po' di prolissità e qualche fastidiosa ripetizione.

  • lorinbocol
    2019-04-29 18:35

    è andata così. stavo lì a trastullarmi incurante di ogni tassonomia delle priorità narrative, indulgendo a prescindibili libri e lasciando la mia frequentazione di bellow ferma a un datato, piacevole ma non risolutivo augie march e a un recente, quello sì fulminante, herzog. finché un bel giorno il dio delle letture con qualche costrutto, titillato da un torneo virtuale tra romanzi ammmericani, ha deciso di fare di me una donna onesta. e scagliando quaggiù una saetta (ZOT!) ha messo in testa a qualcuno l'idea di regalarmi quest'opera sublime e mascalzona, irresistibile con quel suo protagonista charlie citrine, simpatico cialtrone dalla tormentata vita interiore (una sensiblerie che dopo un po' dava sui nervi, come a un certo punto dice, più o meno, l'interessato). ed eccomi al dunque catapultata in un romanzo che fa l'effetto di una pièce teatrale tutta trovate a sorpresa e uscite brillanti, dove dal primo all'ultimo atto ci si lascia rapire con sommo piacere dal velluto della poltrona, dalla conversazione sottilmente padroneggiata e dai suoni del palcoscenico calcato con maestria. e insomma riemergendo solo alla fine - dal libro, dalla pièce e dalla poltrona - si realizza che in quel flusso a tratti soverchiante, e a dispetto del filo di qualche ragionamento smarrito per digressioni (l'antroposofia del vecchio rudolf! la psicopatologia quotidiana di sigmund! la benedetta noia come start up della società contemporanea!) bellow ha disquisito genialmente di molte, moltissime cose. di rapporti umani e letteratura, per cominciare. e poi di ambizione, amicizia, vil denaro, successo, memoria. ma anche cultura di massa ed élitarietà, gloriose sconfitte («i poeti sono amati ma solo perché non sanno stare al mondo») e illusioni sempre sull'uscio di casa, come vuoti a rendere.quindi in definitiva della vita ma anche della morte, che in humboldt è anzi, per bellowiana ammissione, il fraseggio principale. epperò si aggiunga che si ride (parecchio) ad onta del tutto di cui sopra: tant'è che la morte stessa è strumento nello srotolarsi della trama, protagonista nelle riflessioni più serie, e comparsa in trovate come un rivale in amore che per campare fa il becchino. insomma la didascalia finale è che c'è un codice narrativo che scoppietta come i pop corn, in questo romanzo, e ne sono rimasta incantata. applausi a scena aperta per gli attori, e ripetute chiamate alla ribalta per la regia.

  • AC
    2019-04-21 19:35

    There is not much need for me to review this book, as it is well known, and as I already wrote substantial reviews of Herzog and Sammler's. As a young man, when I read this, I adored it (5-stars); this time, I saw also its flaws (4-stars).All the threads of Herzog, Seize the Day, and Sammler come together here in near perfection... 'near'. A picaresque comedy, Charlie Citrine is throroughly modern, and romps through the latter part of the 20th century, trying valiently... like Harry Houdini ( -- Harry comes from Charlie's hometown, in Appleton, Wisconsin)... to get out alive. And, as this is a comedy, he almost succeeds... 'almost'.The slap is sometimes too broad or too slick...And then there is Bellow's obsession here with Rudolph Steiner... WTF...? Are we supposed to take this seriously...? Philip Roth thought it was irony, and in large part the text proves that he is right. And yet Bellow is joking entirely... Well... what can you do. You haven't understood the 20th century...urban, passionate..., living on the edge of the light as it warps at accelerating speed into history... if you haven't read Humboldt.My only reason for reducing this book from five to four stars is that I have just finished... The Dean's December.((Ahh... A fine book. Review to follow...))((Read this book 30++ years ago -- and adored it. Will reread it now, as part of my rereading of Bellow.)

  • Io?
    2019-05-20 00:39

    Un'onda che tutto travolge. Impetuosa, ruggente, una tragica e comica nona sinfonia di Beethoven trascritta in forma di romanzo[stringo con forza questo cordone ombelicale, e ti ringrazio] I voli pindarici di Citrine sono i Miei voli pindarici)i suoi castelli di carta sono i Miei castelli)il suo rimorso per non avere avuto il coraggio di attraversare la strada e incontrare Von Humboldt Fleisher è il Mio rimorso per non aver trovato quel coraggio)Ci parla a tutti noi Bellow, e ci ammalia. I suoi personaggi li scorgo in un quadro di Pollock, sono lì, schegge impazzite, sempre in movimento, e ci gridano, ci implorano di risvegliarci dal nostro torpore. Di porci domande che vadano oltre il pelo dell'acqua di una grigia quotidianità. E ci danno delle risposte. Ma pensate un pò, se adagiati sopra i comodini che si trovano nelle stanze degli hotel di mezzo mondo non trovassimo la Bibbia ma questo Libro? Si, Questo libro! Il Dono di Humboldt Humboldts Vermächtnis Humboldt's Gift O legado de Humboldt 洪堡的礼物 con le copertine cartonate blu gialline verdi scure! Mi sfugge un sorriso. Maliconico.

  • Manray9
    2019-04-21 22:33

    When Charlie Citrine’s, lover Renata said “When you get to the story let me know, I’m not big on philosophy,” she hit the bullseye. I have never before read a more pretentious glob of self-indulgent philosophizing, high-brow name-dropping, and conceited intellectualism. You realize a novel isn’t working when you catch yourself frequently checking how many pages remain. I kept at it only out of respect for Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, as the author of the masterpiece The Adventures of Augie March. I suppose Bellow was simply past his prime and overly-praised. Maybe he just took himself too seriously? Humboldt’s Gift is a novel characterized by sections of wit, humor and charm which serve the plot and characters. Regrettably these sections are interspersed with lengthy digressions into tedious philosophizing, boring intellectual vanity, and narcissism. Did I miss something? Was Bellow tongue in cheek? Am I one of the Philistines against whom Von Humboldt Fleisher and Charlie Citrine grumbled? Charlie’s first lover, Naomi Lutz, said to Charlie “It was always wonderful the way you talked. But off-putting too.” Yes, Naomi, 487 pages of “off-putting.”

  • Marica
    2019-04-26 21:21

    Ogni testa è un tribunaleCharles Citrine è una figura emblematica di un sacco di cose: intellettuale statunitense, ebreo russo di origine (Tzitrin), brav’uomo spolpato dall’ex-moglie, preda degli avvocati, amante appassionato ma superficiale di donna giovane e bella. La lettura del libro mi ha suggerito il detto: “ogni testa è un tribunale” e quella di Citrine soprattutto, perché per tutto il libro ragiona sull’estetica, la filosofia steineriana, sui suoi rapporti con le donne, con la famiglia amici e conoscenti e ripercorre le vicende travagliate del suo amico Humboldt, dibattendo ogni argomento da tutti i punti di vista. La sua aspirazione sarebbe dedicarsi indisturbato al pensiero ma gli eventi lo distolgono fastidiosamente. I personaggi con cui ha a che fare sono rappresentati in modo superbo e sembra di conoscerli, per esempio il gangster Cantabile coi baffi morbidi come pelo di castoro, vestito come un damerino e dotato di moglie laureanda in letteratura; il fratello uomo d’affari che deve essere sottoposto a un’operazione importante ed è attaccato alla vita; la bella e affascinante Renata, col suo senso pratico e la battuta perfetta; la señora, ungherese finta spagnola, madre di Renata, modello della madre intrigante. Penso che Bellow si sia divertito a scriverlo almeno quanto mi sono divertita io a leggerlo. E’ un grande interprete della commedia umana e in questo senso ho pensato spesso al migliore Woody Allen.

  • Bruce
    2019-05-13 22:37

    This novel is divided into sections of uneven length, each section probably best described as a chapter, unnumbered. The narrative is in the first person, told by the writer Charlie Citrine, the erstwhile friend and protégé of Von Humboldt Fleisher, a poet whose greatest fame occurred in the Thirties, after which the friendship shattered as Humboldt’s reputation declined and Charlie’s rose. The syntax, at the beginning, is simple declarative sentences, but it becomes far more florid during long passages of Charlie’s internal monologues, which contain many literary and philosophical allusions. The tone is ironic and the vocabulary and idiom colloquial; Charlie may be a well-known writer, but he is clearly a bit rough around the edges, far from polished. The first destabilizing event occurs seven years before the present, when Charlie, in Chicago, discovers that Humboldt has died in New York and left him a legacy. Yet, instead of revealing what that legacy is, Charlie continues, partly through free indirect discourse, to reveal more of his life’s current complications - his legal entanglements with his ex-wife Denise, his uncertainties about his relationship with his current girlfriend Renata, his involvement with the two-bit hoodlum Rinaldo Candabile, who has cheated Charlie in a card game and, because Charlie has refused to pay up, has demolished Charlie’s beloved Mercedes with a baseball bat. The story is both funny and poignant, complication after complication piling up in the first fifty pages.Bellow continues allowing Citrine to ruminate on all aspects of his existence, most of the narrative being extended interior monologue. Dialogue, when present, captures individual characters uniquely and skillfully. A highly realistic writer, Bellow descriptions are exquisite, his sense of place in Chicago being masterful. Page after page demonstrates Charlie growing as a rounded and complex character, sensitive, morose, articulate, literary, insecure. Rarely a paragraph passes without eliciting a chuckle from the reader, the writing being magnificent. And yet this humor - and the book is funny indeed - cannot conceal a persistent more gently somber thread, Charlie’s obsession with life’s meaning, with his own aging, and his ever-present awareness of death. Hence his preoccupation with, for example, anthroposophy. Many of his understandings, in fact, are not far from the very American phenomenon of Transcendentalism, but his philosophical and spiritual musings are never far from a very present earthiness.It must be said, however, that some of Bellow’s stylistic characteristics are less interesting. His habit of omitting commas, for example: “In the early days the revolution was a work of inspiration. Workers peasants soldiers were in a state of excitement and poetry…Dowdiness shabbiness dullness dull goods boring buildings boring discomfort boring supervision a dull press dull education boring bureaucracy forced labor perpetual police presence penal presence, boring party congresses, et cetera.” This sometimes has a point and is at times intriguing, but too much of it can begin to seem like a literary affectation.As the plot nears its end, one intuits that things are not going to work out as Charlie hopes; it would be inconsistent with the story if they were to do so. What philosophy will he marshal to deal with what must be faced? How will he pick himself up and move on?During the reading of this novel, I sometimes felt as if I were back reading Herzog. The two novels had so many parallels that on occasion it seemed as if Bellow was just rewriting the same story, changing only a few details, and this felt disconcerting. On the other hand, some reviewers have objected to Citrine’s frequent long digressions in the narrative, whereas I found them both charming and interesting; they helped elucidate Citrine’s character and illuminate his emotional state.As the novel moves to its conclusion, the pace and events become frenetic. Finally, the slapstick subsides, and the book ends on a poignant yet positive note. I’m glad I read it.

  • [P]
    2019-05-06 22:40

    I keep getting drawn back to Saul Bellow’s novels like a crazy-ass bee to a barren flower. I must love the disappointment, the confusion, the frustration. I’m a literature masochist. Bellow sees my eagerness, my dog-like enthusiasm, beckons me in closer...and then smacks me on the nose. His novels are never truly satisfying; they almost enrage me. How could a man be so talented, such a great writer, and yet churn out such flawed books? In truth, I don’t know how to review Humbodt’s Gift. It defeats me. Yet to live these days you have to be ok with defeat, I guess, so I am going to give it a go.My mother taught me that if you’re going to say something critical about someone or something you always ought to say something nice first. Well, I am not going to do that. I’m going to jump right in with the things I don’t like about the book, which, I am sure she would agree, is more my style. There is a hell of a lot wrong with Humboldt’s Gift. Fatally wrong. These things kill the book, if your expectation is that it will be a masterpiece [and why shouldn’t that be your expectation, bearing in mind its reputation?] Some of them are predictable Bellovian problems, some of them new, unexpected, flaws. Bellow goes all out here to fuck up his novel; he doesn’t hold back.Typically, it starts well. We are introduced, via Charlie Citrine, the first-person narrator, to Humboldt Fleisher, who appears to be a gargantuan personality, a potentially classic tragicomic character. Yet twenty or thirty pages into the book and you start to realise that he has no depth whatsoever, that Bellow is just listing things in lieu of developing him in a substantial manner. For example:"We were off: we discussed machinery, luxury, command, capitalism, technology, Mannon, Orpheus, and poetry."And:"He moved easily from the tabloids to General Rommel and from Rommel to John Donne and T.S. Eliot/and this rained down on me/the sayings of Einstein and Zsa Zsa Gabor, with references to Polish socialism and the football tactics of George Halas…"Bore off, Saul! This tells us nothing. It feels, in fact, as though the author was simply showing off. And it’s not even good showing off, because anyone can do it:[P] was a great reviewer; a great mind; he would bring in Joyce on the English language, the Cuban missile crisis, Beckett in French, and the movies of Yasujiro Ozu. He’d be off, riffing on Rilke’s stay at Duino castle, Proust’s mother fixation, the Son of Sam serial killer and the Summer of Love.And Bellow doesn’t do this kind of listing once or twice, he does it frequently. As a result, Humboldt is reduced to a kind of Uni reading list, a series of topics or themes. We’re meant to believe that he is an intellectual, someone with an encyclopaedic mind, but it’s a classic case of an author telling us rather than showing us. Bellow’s approach is akin to a poet trying to convince someone he’s great by counting off his influences, rather than by reciting some poems.Of course, Citrine is narrating sometime after the events he is describing. Therefore, that he can only remember topics, rather than content, is understandable, I guess. But, still, you can excuse anything if you try hard enough. I don’t buy that Bellow was trying to make a point about how we remember people, because Citrine’s memory works fine in other parts or passages of the book. Besides, Humboldt is meant to be charismatic and there is no sense of that in the book at all. In fact, it’s pretty much unfathomable as to why Citrine loves or admires the man.Humboldt isn’t the only one lacking substance either. Demmie is little more than a pill-popping hot chick who suffers from night terrors, and Kathleen, Humboldt’s wife, is pretty much a total void. The only characters with any personality are Citrine himself and small-time hood Rinaldo Cantabile. In all fairness, Cantabile is fantastic. He’s the right amount of tough guy and the right amount of sensitive/vulnerable schmo. I enjoyed all his bits very much. As for Citrine, he is mostly charming and endearing. However, the tone of the novel is sometimes too patronising; Bellow, much like the searingly average Javier Marias, appears to believe that he is blowing our minds with his philosophical, cultural, societal musings, but, really, he isn’t at all; there’s no great insights to be found in the book. Indeed, I studied philosophy and English and the narration, at times, reminded me of having to listen to first-year students gabbing on, without any sense of their own pretension or middle-of-the-road opinions, in seminars.As with many novels-of-ideas the plot is pretty thin on the ground. That’s not really a problem for me, if the ideas are top-notch. But, as noted in the previous paragraph, Bellow does not bring a new or even fresh perspective to the issues he tackles in the book. This is not to say, however, that what he does tackle isn’t at all interesting. It is. Humboldt’s Gift is about many things – the changing face of Chicago, money, alienation, ennui – but, at heart, it is a book about art and commercialisation, about how increasingly difficult it is to be an artist, how undervalued they are, etc. Coming from an artist himself, in the broadest sense of the word, there is a chance that one could view Bellow’s concerns as well-to-do, self-interested whining. I can’t argue against that, I’m afraid, but it didn’t really bother me.I said earlier that you can excuse anything if you try hard enough, and that is true of what, for me, was the biggest issue, which are the passages of Anthroposophical guff that turn up intermittently in the text. I know next to nothing about Anthroposophy, other than it is attributed to a Rudolf Steiner, and having read Humboldt’s Gift I am none the wiser. It appears to be some kind of mystical claptrap about soul and the afterlife. Now, if you were being kind you would perhaps want to explain away all the cringy mystical crap as satire. Citrine is a celebrity, a celebrity under pressure and, in need of some form of salvation, is wanting to engage with the big questions in life. From the celebrities around us these days one can see how these people often turn to some weird form of spiritualism for their answers; look at Madonna with Kabbalah, or Tom Cruise with Scientology. So, as a genuine satire, I would be impressed and amused by the Anthroposophy passages. However, that stuff is clearly not satire, because it is well documented that Bellow was, around the time of writing the novel, actually studying, and well-disposed towards, Steiner’s work. Furthermore, he is clearly, to some extent, Citrine, just as Humboldt is his friend Delmore Schwartz. If you draw this conclusion, then the book kind of feels like a joke played, unintentionally, upon himself.So, what, then, did I like about it? Why did I read all 500 pages? It always comes back to the same thing with me and Bellow: on a sentence by sentence basis he is terrific, almost without peer. Yes, there’s a lot of hair-tearing stuff to endure, but I still enjoy myself because at least once on each page he will deliver a paragraph or a line that floors me. Things like:"She’s very pretty but she’s honey from the icebox, if you know what I mean. Cold sweets won’t spread."And this:"Maybe America didn’t need art and inner miracles. It had so many outer ones."Reading Bellow is a kind of archeological exercise for me. One that is, just about, worth it.

  • Jennifer Ochoa
    2019-04-22 21:29

    I mostly loved this novel, but there were spots of tedium here and there. The novel starts out a bit slow-to-read, but as it gets into the action of the plot, the pace picks up. The story takes place over a short span of time, but the narrator Charlie Citrine frequently recollects his past, giving temporal depth to the story. The subject of much of his remembrance is his former mentor, Humboldt Fleisher, now deceased. Their relationship was rocky, ended badly, and Charlie seems to be working through his feelings of guilt (even though Humboldt was a crackpot and largely to blame for their falling out). Charlie also spends a lot of time meditating (literally) on metaphysical ideas, which caused my eyes to glaze over. The best part of the novel for me was the character Cantabile, a mischievous wannabe gangster who drags Citrine around Chicago on ridiculous schemes. He's the antithesis of Charlie and quite hysterical. I loved when that irascible bully showed up on the page. The book is filled with other bullies who take advantage of Charlie in assorted ways, but Cantabile is the most comical. (And that name is straight out of Chaucer or Dickens, isn't it?) The titular "gift" is casually mentioned a couple times early on, but Bellow does not reveal it until much later. "What a plot tease!," I kept thinking. I enjoyed the ending, although I would have liked a final page with a little more punch. I had a professor who started with Bellow in her course on Contemporary American Fiction (with the novella Seize the Day) and said his work focused on the pervasive existential crisis emerging in America post-WWII. This work was published 20 years after Seize the Day, but I found a lot of thematic similarities. The protagonists are both fuck-ups to a certain degree, paralyzed by the expectations of others. They tried "the American dream" and found it unsatisfying enough to drop out (leave the wife and kids and job) and set off an avalanche of problems. Concepts of mortality and death figure heavily. The difference is that I hated the protagonist in StD (maybe overdone?), whereas the protagonist of this novel is more likeable. The lovable fuck-up.Anyway, eventually I'll read something else by Bellow and I'd like to see whether these thematic similarities are common in his work or just coincidence.As a side note, I kept thinking of Fellini's 8 1/2, one of my favorite movies. Lots of similarities there: the famous artist who cannot produce and is being hounded by others, the mistress (so similar in personality), the (ex)wife, obsession with the past (flashbacks). Replace the sex/women in 8 1/2 with money and all you're missing is a Humboldt and a Gift.Another note: I love Bellow's use of a long string of adjectives with no commas between. I don't know why an author's disregard for grammatical conventions gets me so giddy, but I guess that's just the kind of nonconformist I am, haha :P

  • Kelly ...
    2019-05-03 23:42

    I realize that most of the online reviews for this book are raves and so my 2 star review is abberant, however if I am honest that rating is higher than I actually want to give. I am at a loss for reviewing it, but will give it a shot.1. I have been a reader my entire life and have multiple degrees and yet this book made me feel stupid. Mr Bellow wrote this with so many odd mechanisms and intentionally poor grammar. Not using commas throughout the book where words were written in list form drove me over the edge! Also, there were at least 6 words that I had to use my dictionary which is unusual. I love to learn so that is fine but often the word chosen felt much less fluid and elegant than its synonyms. (For example "pellucid" rather than "translucent." It felt like such an ugly word.)2. There were some truly lovely paragraphs that entertained, but they were sandwiched between lengthy, dreary and whiny pages. I found myself flipping pages in hopes that something would jump off the page and yell "read me!"Because I was on Kindle I did highlight a couple passages that in my opinion summarize the entire story.1. This quote at about 3/4 of the way into the book, perfectly described my view of Bellow's prose: "So that screwball friend of yours Von Humboldt is dead. He talked gobbledygook and was worse dressed than you, but I liked him."2. And, for me the important word in this one is "frantic." So often this book felt frantic. Or should I say: Frantic. "... poetry was one of the frantic professions in which success depends on the opinion you hold of yourself. Think well of yourself, and you win. Lose self-esteem, and you're finished."

  • Vit Babenco
    2019-04-18 20:46

    When the idealism and pragmatism collide those are the ideals that get shattered.“In The Ark we were going to publish brilliant things. Where were we to find such brilliancy? We knew it must be there. It was an insult to a civilized nation and to humankind to assume that it was not. Everything possible must be done to restore the credit and authority of art, the seriousness of thought, the integrity of culture, the dignity of style.”It is better to be rich and healthy maintains the pragmatic doctrine but the poor idealists remain true to their highest ideals.

  • Bridge
    2019-05-05 00:33

    I almost gave up on this book because it was so annoying and I found no pleasure or interest whatsoever in any part of it including any of the characters, but I finished it for my brother. I guesss I'm glad I did, so that I can add it to my list and write a review having known that I did read the whole book and didn't miss anything in the last half that would change my opinion of the book. I didn't learn anything and was confused at times. This book was just not for me.

  • Gary
    2019-05-15 19:32

    What a shallow author. He longs for a world that never was and is a wanna be for the ways things aren't. The story is decent enough but the author really wrote the book to muse philosophically on the nature of life and to offer philosophical insights on the nature of mortality and offer a refutation to the Myth of Sisyphus. This is where he fails miserably. A good author should be able to dazzle you with his wit while baffling you with his bullshit. This author (or his characters) are incredibly lacking in the philosophical foundation they are pretending to have. They mention Hegel and his Phenomenology repeatedly but they have certainly never read it nor do they really understand Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Nietzsche, ... or any of the other thinkers gratuitously named dropped through out the story. BTW, Arnold Toynbee is completely forgotten today because his Christian Teleological process to history is stupid, and only pseudo-intellectuals from 1976 would have thought he was worth reading or having him on their shelf.I couldn't help but think of two books while listening to this story. The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, one of the worst books ever written. Both Bloom's and Bellow's books oozed a contempt for the way things are today (at least when they were written) and how things ought to be in their pretend fantasy world which includes a lot of references to great thinkers but never getting beyond things used to be better within their closed to progress minds. Then I had remembered Bellow had written the forward to the book. How appropriate. The other book, "Gravity's Rainbow", a somewhat contemporary book to this one. Pynchon, the author, was able to grasp the fine points of different schools of thought (I never read better explanations for the memory less probability distribution function , and Pynchon is not a mathematician but knew how to weave the threads of the story into a coherent whole like a Persian rug) and make them coherent and tie them together under one rubric something that Bellow just can't bring himself to do, because he really doesn't understand what's behind the thinking within the author's and books he continuously seems to name drop (except for Walt Whitman, he used him correctly). I didn't hate the story. I hated the shallow approach to life's question the author gave. I hated the longing for the way things used to be but never were. I hated the conservative mind set the author embraced. I find it hard to believe that the author for this book was voted rewards of sorts. I can only guess that judges who think that the musing of college freshman who have only read summaries by other people about great writings dazzled them because they never took the time to read the great thinkers themselves.

  • Rayroy
    2019-05-18 23:46

    "...There are two graves left.You wouldn't want to buy mine, would you? I'm not going to lie around. I'm having myself cremated. I need action. I'd rather go into the atmosphere. Look for me in the weather reports.""Moreover I was convinced that there was nothing in the material world to account for the more delicate desires and perceptions of human beings.I met to write a full review but too much time has past to write a good one, this is just a book about an author that fears culture and arts are dead, surrounds himslef with philistines, for academia and the publishing world has failed him, he no longer finds solace in his literay awards, he has issues with his ex-wife. He lives in a gritty side of Chicago in the 1970's, back when cities were dangerous and white flight was in full effect, nowadays many cites are becoming culture hubs, lofts and art studios are poping up along with higher rent as white flight offspring opt to stay in the city after college and live bohemian lives, the trouble is most of them wouldn't know great literature or culture if it bit them on thier tight vintage brand jeaned ass, futhermore they're much too sarcastic to ever be genuine, fuck'm, Bellow never attend for them to read his books anyway, they can have thier shity graphic hipster novels and "On the Road " recycled lit.

  • Greg
    2019-05-11 17:30

    I enjoyed the first half of this book. Then it slowed down. And then it felt like a different story: a few hundred pages of any ol' thing, issues repeatedly discussed by the angst-ridden narrator (the appearance of a diaphragm peaking out of a woman's luggage, for example) and then finally we are treated to the explanation of the title. Tighter editing would have helped, and did we really need lines like, "In my private vocabulary she was a little 'nole me tangerine'"? Lots of intellectual references, and in this case, I just assumed the narrator meant "she" was different in some way. The best thing I liked though was the photograph on the cover of the Penguin paperback, 1996 edition. Yes, that's the narrator, a confident, strong sixtyish man crossing a street to perhaps start over one more time. But when you like the cover better than the novel, well, that's not a good thing. If someone asked me about it, I'd say, "It was just okay," cause it was. But I do think I'll try another Bellow novel.

  • Kristen
    2019-05-08 00:22

    The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can’t perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar system. Miracle and power no longer belong to him. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, "If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn't get through this either . . ."

  • Michael Finocchiaro
    2019-05-02 01:27

    This was a fascinating typical Bellow novel about a self-centered neurotic middle-aged male from Chicago. I felt it was less satisfying than Herzog or Augie March despite moments or brilliance. I know it is considered one of the Great Novels of Bellow amd I enjoyed the characters and their existential questioning of the meanings of life and sex, but I found the narrative less compelling that the aforementioned classics by this spectacular author.