To get away from my murder books The Ring and the Book and Crime and Punishment I interposed the sportive Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow. It’s fun but is it great art? There are fine comic scenes in it usually with a touch of menace as the embattled hero Charles Citrine whose life has a lot of loose ends and unresolved issues attempts to bring order and light into a universe in which Ahriman has the upper hand. From anthropohagy to Anthroposophy might be the postcolon title of the book if that particular authorial affectation was going in 1975. It’s a fleshly book , an incarnate, local book. Chicago is presented as the American city releasing ‘foul and pestilential exhalations’ and full of cheerfully crass philistines who pity the intellectual Citrine who thinks that knowledge is an adequate adaptation. As with all Bellow protagonists he presents himself as emotionally labile who feels too much for his own good, put upon and a victim of his good emigrant heart. He suspects that Renata his lover who is 30 years younger than him is after the literary loot from his Broadway play and movie, not to mention the Pulitzers. His ex-wife and her cannibal lawyers see every compromise he makes as weakness. One hundred thousand dollars alimony a year for ever and aye is the prospect that opens up. In case that he should think of hiking to another jurisdiction the judge wants a bond of 200,000. If that wasn’t enough he has run foul of Cantabile, a volatile hoodlum and wannabe wiseguy. Bellow hauls in a net of incident full and overflowing. But who is Humboldt or von Humboldt Fleischer to give him his full name. We know that Bellow here is drawing on his old chum and rival Delmore Schwartz. How true it is to their real relationship I don’t know but what strikes me as a guilty truth is the chance sighting of Humboldt some days before his death by Citrine who hides from him.
Poor Humboldt didn't impose his cycles for very long. He never became the radiant center of his age. Depression fastened on him for good. The periods of mania and poetry ended. Three decades after Harlequin Ballads made him famous he died of a heart attack in a flophouse in the West Forties, one of those midtown branches of the Bowery. On that night I happened to be in New York. I was there on Business—i.e., up to no good. None of my Business was any good. Estranged from everybody, he was living in a place called the Hascombe. I went later to have a look at it. Welfare lodged old people there. He died on a rotten hot night. Even at the Plaza I was uncomfortable. Carbon monoxide was thick. Throbbing air conditioners dripped on you in the street, A bad night. And on the 727 jet, as I was flying back to Chicago next morning, I opened the Times and found Humboldt's obituary.
I knew that Humboldt would soon die because I had seen him on the street two months before and he had death all over him. He didn't see me. He was gray stout sick dusty, he had bought a pretzel stick and was eating it. His lunch. Concealed by a parked car, I watched. I didn't approach him, I felt it was impossible. For once my Business in the East was legitimate and I was not chasing some broad but preparing a magazine article. And just that morning I had been flying over New York in a procession of Coast Guard helicopters with Senators Javits and Robert Kennedy. Then I had attended a political luncheon in Central Park at the Tavern on the Green, where all the celebrities became ecstatic at the sight of one another. I was, as they say, "in great shape" myself. If I don't look well, I look busted. But I knew that I looked well. Besides, there was money in my pockets and I had been window-shopping on Madison Avenue. If any Cardin or Hermes necktie pleased me I could buy it without aski
ng the price. My belly was flat, I wore boxer shorts of combed Sea Island cotton at eight bucks a pair. I had joined an athletic club in Chicago and with elderly effort kept myself in shape. I played a swift hard game of paddle ball, a form of squash. So how could I talk to Humboldt? It was too much. While I was in the helicopter whopping over Manhattan, viewing New York as if I were passing in a glass-bottomed boat over a tropical reef, Humboldt was probably groping among his bottles for a drop of juice to mix with his morning gin.
This betrayal is the moral centre of the book, the sun around which everything else falls, the gravity that bends the space of the novel. It’s almost, well, groovey, to be distracted by the picaresqe priapism of the novel, by Renata the succubus and her witchy mother and the Chicago characters who are corporeally and psychologically larger than life but we take a sober turn when Charlie begins to talk to his death which is what he does though he disguises it as an anthroposophist excursion. Sometime before Charlie begins to put a little distance between the fuzzy warmth of his foibles and his truth , we begin to get a little tired of the cap ‘n bells and the bladder whacking. You’ve danced the hornpipe long enough in
These were light, weightless red shoes from Harrods, a little short in the toe, but admired by the black shoeshine man at the Downtown Club for their weightlessness and style.
Sumptuary catelogues abound in this book, cashmere socks, wouldn’t they tickle, and linings, many hued, spat out by mulberry eating worms. We are told that if you have a funny foot you need a funny shoe, hand lasted naturally.
How does Citrine end up in Spain trying to communicate with death? You’d need to read it. There are no cliches in it, Bellow refused ‘author’ as a verb, the side bars on esoteric topics are to the point but that’s my foot. Go on read it but of course you have already. What did you think, gentile reader (sorry) is it now in the land of the period craze?