History: Published in 1975 and won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and contributed to Bellow's winning the Nobel Prize in Literature the same year. throughout much of the book, Bellow analyzes, through the voice of Citrine, his concerns about spirituality, poetry, and success in America.
Plot: Humboldt's Gift begins with a brief review of Charlie's childhood in Chicago, when he first reads The Harlequin Ballads by New York poet Von Humboldt Fleischer. Charlie is so impressed by Humboldt's work that he borrows money from his teenage sweetheart and sets off to Greenwich Village to find and follow his new idol. Humboldt takes the young man under his wing, and they begin a life-long relationship that begins with the excitement of living as Marxists through the first years of the Cold War, decrying the establishment, cursing capitalism, drinking red wine and living the lives of poets and scholars.
Flashing back to the present - that is, Charlie's present in the mid-1970s - the now-middle-aged man awakens in his Chicago apartment to the worst day of his life. His ex-wife is suing him, and the IRS is after him. Also, he has been receiving threatening phone calls from a petty Chicago mobster named Rinaldo Cantabile. When he goes down to street level, he discovers that someone has destroyed his new Mercedes with baseball bats and hammers, and he knows precisely who it is - Rinaldo Cantabile. Rinaldo has been threatening Charlie because he stopped payment on a check written to the mobster to cover a poker debt. Charlie stopped payment when his friend George Swiebel informed him that Rinaldo and his cousin were cheating at the game George hosted. Charlie calls Rinaldo and agrees to settle up, but Rinaldo demands payment in a public forum to satisfy his pride. He takes Charlie through several comedic episodes at various Chicago landmarks, finally accepting payment on a girder of a skyscraper under construction on a windy Chicago night. Rinaldo now declares himself Charlie's friend and haunts him through the next approximately twelve weeks, even following him to Europe.
In the midst of mid-life crisis, Charlie is involved with Renata, a beautiful young woman with a voracious sexual appetite, deep knowledge of sensual delights, a love of expensive things and a longing to become Charlie's wife. Through flashbacks in Charlie's memory, the reader learns that Charlie was married to Denise and fathered two girl children with her. She has already taken much of the wealth he earned with a successful Broadway play that was turned into a movie, but she seems determined to take every thing he owns. After his marriage to Denise, Charlie falls in love with Demmie, who dies with her parents in a plane crash in a South American jungle.
Charlie is obsessed with the nature of death, fully believing that the spirit does not perish when one dies. Throughout Humboldt's Gift, Charlie spends many hours contemplating this and other metaphysical questions. By the conclusion of the novel, Charlie has developed the habit of talking with and reading to the dead. Bellow artfully and humorously weaves this particular anomaly of Charlie's into a well-textured tapestry of a neurotic man growing old in America.
Charlie is also dealing with the sexuality of an aging man, and the trauma and rite of passage associated with growing older. Being dumped in Madrid by his young lover devastates Charlie, but he emerges from the experience with a more mature, more settled attitude toward sexuality. Concurrent with these themes is the ever-present issue of struggle of artists to survive in a capitalist culture, which looks askance at serious writers and other artists as entertaining anomalies and cultural ornaments. While Charlie carries the main story line with his internal emotional and intellectual gymnastics, a host of secondary, minor and cameo characters add depth, breadth and countless witty insights into life in America, as defined in Chicago and New York.
Review: The narrator is Charlie Citrine, and his friend Humboldt has just died in a fleabag New York hotel. Citrine uses his relationship with the doomed poet as a springboard for meditations on the relationship between the artist and society in America, on women, on marriage, on contemporary life, on pretty much anything, in effect, that interests or obsesses his creator, Saul Bellow.
But "Humboldt's Gift" is, too, the story of artistic friendship and rivalry. Citrine, when he first meets Humboldt, is filled with spunk and ambition. He travels from the Midwest to New York to gain access to literature and to try to take the world by the throat; by the time, many years later, that he sits down, or rather, lies down (on a couch) to reconstruct Humboldt's life, Citrine has written a Broadway hit and a host of books. He's dined in the White House and flown in a helicopter with Bobby Kennedy above the gleaming towers of Manhattan. Yet the success for which he yearned, and achieved, has now turned to ashes. He's in disarray. His wife is divorcing him, and he feels himself to be merely a "higher-thought clown." Further reality instruction is arriving in the shape of a low-level Chicago gangster and a poker debt. The gangster's name is Cantabile, and his goons smash up Citrine's pretty Mercedes with baseball bats.
He knows everything he's supposed to know and nothing he needs to know. His meditations on his dead friend help him take stock, and a further jolt arrives in the shape of a bequest in Humboldt's will, the "gift" of the title. Humboldt has bequeathed to Citrine the rights to a crazy screenplay written long ago. Will this prove to be the kind of gift the Greeks brought, or indeed an opportunity for Citrine's renewal? That's the question the novel's plot poses, and Bellow is always a bit more interested in plot than many suppose.
Bellow famously based the Humboldt/Citrine story line on his own relationship with the poet Delmore Schwartz, who died forgotten in the gutter at just about the time that Bellow was achieving worldwide fame. Bellow closely cannibalized his own life, and those who passed through it, a tendency that he repeated throughout his career and one that makes him seem especially modern.
And the key to Bellow's prose is that it does, indeed, live and move so closely in the world. Unlike, say, Martin Amis (a disciple of Bellow's and a wonderful campaigner on Bellow's behalf), whose ornate style creates fictive universes that tend to feel remote and hermetic, Bellow's verbal pyrotechnics spin the reader closer to the reality of stuff. Life bursts from the page.
Opening Line: “The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit.”
Closing Line: “Search me,” I said. “I’m a city boy myself. They must be crocuses.”
Quotes: “I was vain, and I hadn’t reached the age of renunciation. Whatever that is.”
"We lived like bohemians and graduate students in a mood of fun and games. Maybe America didn't need art and inner miracles. It had so many outer ones. The USA was a big operation, very big. The more it, the less we."
Rating: Did not like at all