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Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Humboldt's Gift (1975) by Saul Bellow

Image result for young saul bellow
Did Saul Bellow ever look young?
Book Review
Humboldt's Gift (1975)
 by Saul Bellow

    Humboldt's Gift is the last of Bellow's seven titles on the first 1001 Books list from 2006.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1976, and was a component of Bellow being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975.  It is fictionalized roman a clef about Bellow(Charles Citrine in the book) and his mentor, famous poet-intellectual Delmore Schwartz(Von Humboldt Fleischer.)  Although written in the first person with Citrine as narrator, Humboldt's Gift skips back and forward through time.  It covers, in no specific order, Citrine's present as a washed-up though wealthy writer and public intellectual, beset on all sides by difficulties financial and emotional, Citrine's past, including the development of his relationship with Von Humboldt Fleischer and the experiences of Fleischer, focusing mostly on his descent into madness and penury.

  It is an intoxicating mix.  No wonder it was received with such adulation, and coming at the end of a string of critically and financially successful novels.  Humboldt's Gift has mostly been analyzed as a commentary on the tug of war between art and commerce, but in my reading I thought he had alot of say about celebrity culture, nascent in 1975, but fully established today.   Citrine, in the book, is a wealthy intellectual who is surviving on past achievements.  His obsession with sexual gratification and status symbols mirrors the obsessions of the last half century of celebrity culture.

  Like the films of the Coen brothers,   also functions as an off-the-cuff history lesson about the intellectual culture of the United States between the Great Depression and the early 1970's.  Humboldt/Schwartz is a classic forgotten intellectual hero, and most of the novel dealing directly with his experience focuses on the impact of an artist who has outlived his usefulness to the larger culture. 

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