Saul Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, the year after Humboldt’s Gift was published [London: Secker & Warburg, 1975] and the two events are certainly connected. However, among many tall American novelists of the 20th century, Bellow was already a towering giant, at least as high as William Faulkner. Our UK novelist of standing, Martin Amis is a great admirer of Bellow whom he described in a 2003 interview as “The greatest American author ever, in my view”.
While Bellow could be said to have written from within his own background and experience as a the Canadian born child of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, his enormous accumulation of reading, learning and out and out living gave him more to draw on than many others. Having read his books before reading up on their author, it is easy for me to recognise how Bellow’s interests and enthusiasms are peppered through his books. Students of his work have had no difficulty in finding real-life sources for many of his characters and it is not unfair to say that most of his narrators are that witty, bawdy, self-deprecating, philosophical and compassionate person he seems to have been.
From the age of eight, Chicago became his base and his home for much of his life; finding it more genuinely American than, say, New York and it is the centre and focus of Humboldt’s Gift. The narrator is Charles Citrine, a financially successful non-fiction writer who also happened to write the book for a Broadway musical and then the screenplay for its film version and became very wealthy, only to be steadily picked clean by others. As a young Fuller Brush salesman (a totemic American job) Citrine had decided to travel from the Mid-West to New York to meet his idol, the modern poet Von Humboldt Fleischer. This grew into a lifelong relationship that did not even end when the volcanically tempered Humboldt died in a flop house. The narrative is hung on Citrine’s recollections and his interactions with a series of increasingly self-centred characters into whose orbit he is drawn or who, like a meteorite, crash into him with disastrous consequences. Most of them are con men of varying degrees of subtlety. My favourite has to be Rinaldo Cantabile, the bustling Chicago gangster who cannot accept No as any kind of answer but you have to admire the smug academic egomaniac Thaxter who runs off with shedloads of Citrine’s money, again and again.
As a counterpoint to the present time action and the pattern of recollection, Citrine’s interest in and growing enthusiasm for anthroposophy runs through the book and could make it harder for some readers who are into post-modern novellas rather than post-Dickensian baggy monsters but if you are up for it the reward is the steady stream of insights and of jokes. Humboldt does leave his admirer a gift and it is worth reading the book to find out what it is.