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Saul Bellow: Humboldt’s Gift

The question that Bellow poses in this novel is the same question he posed in previous novels, particularly the immediate predecessor of this one, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, can a man of culture, an intellectual function as such in this crass world in which we live? Von Humboldt Fleisher was a gifted poet – he is based on Delmore Schwartz and, to some extent, John Berryman – who had gone downhill. He had started well and had intended to bring culture and beauty to Chicago and the USA. As far as he was concerned, it started to go downhill with the election of Eisenhower and then continued with booze, modernism, pills and the other ills of the 1960s and beyond. Humboldt’s story is told by Charlie Citrine, a playwright, who is facing his own problems with the crass world outside the world of culture, including a nasty piece of work who wants the money Citrine owes him and smashes Citrine’s car up with baseball bats when he doesn’t get it and, of course, an ex-wife and current lover, the former wanting money, the latter a wedding ring. Citrine does, of course, come through, like a good Bellow hero, even if it is a crocus that shows him the way. But, sadly, Bellow is starting to look a bit stale in this book.

Publishing history

First published 1975 by Viking