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Humboldt’s Gift

Saul Bellow

New York: Penguin Modern Classics, 2007
 $14.95. 487 pp. ISBN 978-0-141-18876-8

Aristie Trendel
Robert Schuman Unive

Saul Bellow’s Pulitzer-prized-novel, Humboldt’s Gift was first published in 1975 and a year later by Penguin Books, who have also re-issued it in the Penguin Classics series, thus confirming its membership in the Western Canon.

          Humboldt’s Gift is an ambitious, complex novel which has attracted great critical attention proving its narrator’s provocative statement that ‘the ideas of the last few centuries are used up’ wrong [250]. The novel heavily relies on ideas interwoven with the storyteller’s perception of sensuous reality. The storyteller is Charlie Citrine, a man of ‘frenzied longings’ [190], with an ‘emotional account […] always overdrawn’ [298], a typical, thriving-on-chaos Bellow hero, who in the early seventies and for a few intense months looks back in pain. Citrine is a highly successful man of letters, a cultural historian, a biographer and an author of a hit Broadway play. His life is all in a tangle. His young companion, who has his replacement ready, presses him with marriage claims, while a vindictive former wife and a host of lawyers are eager to impoverish him; publishers, who advanced him money for books it seems he will never write, become his debtors and a fanciful gangster, Citrine has socialized with, harasses him. The only way out seems to be not the essay on boredom he attempts to write but musing and soul-searching prompted by the re-examination of his former friendship with Humboldt von Fleisher, a famous New York poet and dazzling orator, now dead and ill-buried.

           Citrine’s romance with Humboldt came to an end when the latter, impoverished and paranoiac turned against his former protégé and blood-brother tying to harm him. While Humboldt’s career was peaking out, Citrine’s was rocketing up. Mutual betrayal and abandon sealed the destruction of their friendship when, in a New York street, Citrine passively eye-witnessed his friend’s abjection and imminent death.

          However, the bond between the two men, who seem to be each other’s double, mirror image and secret sharer, survives and is restored to life in Citrine’s narrative whose motor is the impaired friendship and Humboldt’s premature loss. Just like Humboldt, Citrine is about to lose everything. The loose episodic plotting the ‘plot of attrition’, as Ruth Rosenberg calls it, (1) is unified by Citrine’s link to his most ‘significant dead’ [9]. Humboldt is certainly one of those who die of heartbreak, and the epitome of the poet’s position in America. Von Humboldt Fleisher acts out the agony of the poet in American society which transforms its artists into carnival figures. Humboldt’s famous book is precisely called Harlequin Ballads. Citrine announces his view of Humboldt as the artist-scapegoat and expands throughout his narrative, ‘instead of being a poet he was merely the figure of a poet. He was enacting “The Agony of the American Artist” And it was not Humboldt, it was the USA that was making its point: “Fellow Americans, listen. If you abandon materialism and the normal pursuits of life you wind up at Bellevue like this poor kook”.’ [156]

       In his pursuit of power and glory the poet turned into a schemer. Literary politics got the better of him His fine talent in search of truth and beauty, whose culture dream was to transform America into a new Athens, wasted, his taste for Plato vanished. While Citrine’s romance with Humboldt’s is rebuilt, his romance with America is demolished. He loses his own play to Broadway success, ‘It belonged to goggled Harold Lampton for whom I obligingly wrote new dialogue in the dressing rooms’. [152]; yet he fights ‘to prevent the leprosy of souls’ [136] and does not shrink from exploring ‘the glassy depths of life’. [3]

         It is death that hovers over Citrine’s inner and urban landscape. The latter is varied and colourful, New York and Chicago, the former tormented and reflective. Citrine is obsessed by the fear of death yet his name?Charlie in Hebrew is Chaim or life; Citrine, in Hebrew citron, is a former popular Jewish symbol on coins, synagogues and graves?points to the duality of life and death and the antidote seems to be the Mind with capital M; ‘we are not natural but supernatural beings’, [347] says Humboldt in his farewell letter to his friend and Citrine keeps making the same point. In line with Jewish tradition that stresses the importance of teaching, as George Steiner points out in Lessons of the Masters, Bellow explores the master-pupil relationship as a model of love beyond the grave. It is after his death that Humboldt reaches out to his former pupil and saves him not only from financial disaster and ruin, thanks to the retrieval of an old play that they had written together and a commercially promising film treatment, but from the death of heart. Humboldt offers that ‘non-capitalistic’ love [323] that Citrine claims from his lady friend, the sumptuous young Renata, who finally dumps him for a better deal.

           In its exploration of master-pupil phenomenon, Humboldt’s Gift anticipates Ravelstein (2000), which also builds on such a relationship, yet in a less dramatic way and with a less mystical background. The narrative overflows with empathy, ‘I understood what emotions had torn at Humboldt’s heart when they grabbed him and tied him up and raced him to Bellevue’ [232], and reaches a cathartic pitch at the end of the novel, ‘Ah, Humboldt, how sorry I am. Humboldt, Humboldt?and this is what becomes of us’. [486]. Both alive and dead Humboldt determines Citrine’s relations with artistic America and with the inner being that strives to ‘rise above the accidental, the phenomenal, the wastefully and randomly human and be fit to enter higher worlds’ [291]. Humboldt’s Gift seems to be Bellow’s most mystical novel. His need to communicate with the dead is mediated by the anthroposophic doctrines and ideas of Rudolf Steiner for whom the American writer did not hide his admiration. Although Citrine modestly considers himself ‘a beginner, in theosophical Kindergarten’ [356], his lofty meditations that process Steiner’s thought help him transcend his misgivings about his ‘cannibalistic’ tendencies, ‘Strictly speaking, I was no killer. But I did incorporate other people into myself and consume them. When they died I passionately mourned. But wasn’t it a fact that I added strength to mine? Didn’t I have an eye in the days of their vigor and glory?’ [288]. Citrine’s play, Von Trenck is precisely based on Humboldt’s personality. But Corcoran, Humboldt’s character in the movie scenario he offers Citrine, is based on his successful friend who survives him.

           It is worth noting that just like Ravelstein who was modelled after Alan Bloom, Humboldt von Fleisher is a fictional accurate portrait of Delmore Schwartz, as noted by many critics and Schwartz’s biographer James Atlas. Citrine’s doubts about such practice echo some critics’ objections to Bellow’s fictional revival of his close friends. Whether an act of irreverence or tribute to the dead, Bellow’s imaginative powers that transformed those American intellectuals of note into dazzling characters certainly bestow upon them an additional form of eternity and, as it appears in Humboldt’s Gift, this appropriation of the dead harbors the hope of eternal renewal. The novel ends in spring, when Humboldt is given a proper reburial, with the first flower bred out of the dead land, and Citrine on the verge of leaving America for Switzerland.

          Bellow’s ambition in this novel seems to be not ‘the great poem of death’ [376] that Charlie Citrine claims to safeguard democracy echoing Whitman, but great prose of death to save America from moral lethargy and sempiternal paralysis.


 .(1) Rosenberg, Ruth. ‘Three Jewish Narrative Strategies in Humboldt’s Gift’, MELUS, Vol. 4, Winter 1979, pp. 59-66 (63).



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