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Humbolts Gift
by Saul Bellow

Photo SAUL BELLOW, winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature "for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work" was born in Quebec to Russian-Jewish partents. Reared in Chicago, and educated at the University of Chicago and Northwestern, Bellow is one of America's most distinguished postwar novelists. His first two books, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947) established him as a disciplined intellect, influenced by Flaubert. But in his next novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), which won the National Book Award, Bellow emerged as a vital, eccentric stylist and a rebel against the Anglo-Saxon hold on American literature. Through the next three decades, he published inportant, provocative novels, in particular: Herzog (1964), depicting the inner life of a Jewish intellectual driven to insanity by his wife's adultery; Dr. Sammler's Planet (1969), a fictive critique on modern society; and Humboldt's Gift (1976 Pulitzer Prize), featuring a cunning, comic character beset by a crisis of the self.
 
Synopsis: An old friend acts from the grave to give a gentle but resilient middle-aged intellectual an opportunity for triumph over all that makes his life seem staid and superfluous.
 

 Topic: 
     HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (1 of 12), Read 28 times 
 Conf: 
     CONSTANT READER 
 From: 
     Tonya Presley (tpresley@swbell.net) 
 Date: 
     Thursday, July 15, 1999 11:21 PM 


Sherry asked for a hand opening this one, so I really hoped to see that someone
had already jumped out here with something. Unfortunately, all I can really say is
that I like what I've read so far, which (even more unfortunately) is just about 45
pages. So, has anyone finished this?

Tonya

 
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (2 of 12), Read 28 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Jim Heath (ddrapes@teleport.com) Date: Thursday, July 15, 1999 11:27 PM "I had a lively time in the juror's hall going over my boredom notes. I saw that I had stayed away from the problems of definition. Good for me." -- Charlie Citrine Humboldt's Gift turns out to be a very funny book about an intellectual trying to reconcile his concern with art, literature, and anthroposophy (a real word, much to my surprise) with his divorce settlement, his statuesque young girlfriend, and his involvement with a small time gangster. Kent will probably kill me for this, but the book reminded me a little of Huckleberry Finn . Charlie Citrine is a half naive, middle aged man drifting along a river of outrageous characters -- editors of literary journals who live beyond their means while awaiting checks that are always about to clear a foreign bank, gangsters whose girlfriends are doing doctorates in English literature, and one unforgettable mausoleum salesman. I've had just enough contact with professional artists to think that some of these characters aren't entirely fanciful. It will be interesting to see how Bellow holds up for everyone else.
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (3 of 12), Read 27 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Mary Anne Papale (fdlx59b@prodigy.com) Date: Friday, July 16, 1999 07:36 AM Parts of Humboldt's Gift reminded me of the intellectual version of Portnoy's Complaint. The main character is prodded and bullied by so many people, but he is stuck in his own cerebral rut. Yes, Jim, he does remind me of some folks I know. The original review in the NY Times was fairly negative about HG. One of the comments made was that the main character is a dull person. This is true in so many ways. The characters around Citrine have so much more personality than he does, and that factor is part of the story. There's a certain sparkle in each: Denise, the perfect nasty ex-wife; the voluptuous Renata; the conniving Senora; Rinaldo, the hood; Kathleen, Humboldt's former wife; and even the late Humboldt himself. They all shine compared to Citrine. While reading HG, there were parts I loved, and parts I couldn't wait to finish because of the sheer boredom. These latter included many of Citrine's introspective moments. I felt so impatient with him, a reaction that was mirrored in many of his acquaintances. SPOILER*********************************** When you finally get to the gift, it seems so unimportant. So now I'm wondering if the title is meant to be a metaphor for something else. MAP
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (4 of 12), Read 22 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Dale Short (dshort5005@aol.com) Date: Friday, July 16, 1999 01:18 PM MAP & All: I'm only about a hundred pages into Humboldt's Gift, but I'm blown away by Bellow's sheer energy and panache. He calls Humboldt "the Mozart of conversation," but I'd say the author's in the running for that title too. True, some of the digressions get on my nerves, but I think the ones that work more than make up for them. And such great one-liners, coming out of nowhere: "For a modern poet to be Christian was impossible. To be pagan also. And that only left you-know-what..." In the small-world department, this week I ran across a short story I published many moons ago. The first line of it is, "All day I have been killing wasps with Humboldt's Gift." Which I've actually done, the heft of the volume being just right. A shame I'm just now getting around to reading it. >>Dale in Ala.
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (5 of 12), Read 24 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: R Bavetta (rbav@prodigy.com) Date: Friday, July 16, 1999 01:26 PM Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (5 of 5), Read 1 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: R Bavetta (rbav@prodigy.com) Date: Friday, July 16, 1999 01:24 PM I'm about halfway through. This is the kind of book you have to settle in with, like a bubble bath, and just go with the flow. Not exactly a page-turner in terms of action. Right now, I'm mulling over exactly who is the central character, Humboldt or Citrine. (Citrine is a transparent, yellow semiprecious stone. Is there any significance in that, do you think?) Humboldt reminds me of Gully Jimson of Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth. Also of certain of the Abstract Expressionist painters. I've been meaning to do a web search to see if he's modeled after any person in particular. Ruth Books are cheaper than wallpaper Books are cheaper than wallpaper
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (6 of 12), Read 24 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Dale Short (dshort5005@aol.com) Date: Friday, July 16, 1999 01:47 PM I just did a Web search on Bellow and found out a lot I didn't know--including the fact that he's a native of Quebec (his parents having emigrated from Russia) and is apparently still alive and thriving at age 84. Last year he published a novella (112 pages) titled The Actual, which got great reviews. Subject is "the comedy and tragedy of first love." Here are some quotes from Bellow I ran across: "With a novelist, like a surgeon, you have to get a feeling that you've fallen into good hands--someone from whom you can accept the anesthetic with confidence." "Any artist should be grateful for a naive grace which puts him beyond the need to reason elaborately." "A novel is balanced between a few true impressions and a multitude of false ones that make up most of what we call life." "A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep." "Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door." >>Dale in Ala.
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (7 of 12), Read 25 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: David Moody (davidmoody@prodigy.net) Date: Friday, July 16, 1999 02:47 PM I'm about halfway through Humboldt's Gift as well, planning to finish it over the weekend. The book was a Pulitzer winner, ironic considering Humboldt's comments on the prize early in the book! David
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (8 of 12), Read 27 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Dale Short (dshort5005@aol.com) Date: Friday, July 16, 1999 02:54 PM David: 1976 must have been quite a year for Bellow. He got the Pulitzer for Humboldt's Gift and the Nobel for his lifetime body of work. >>Dale in Ala.
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (9 of 12), Read 18 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Ann Davey (davey@tconl.com) Date: Friday, July 16, 1999 07:10 PM David, I thought about you when I read Humboldt's nasty comments about the Pulitizer: The Pulitzer is for the birds--for the pullets. It's just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates. You become a walking Pulitzer ad, so even when you croak the first words of the obituary are 'Pulitzer prizewinner passes." According to the book jacket, Bellow also won the National Book Award three times. Do you think you should switch to the National Book Award winners? I just started this one last night, but so far I really like Bellow's style. Ann
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (10 of 12), Read 19 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: R Bavetta (rbav@prodigy.com) Date: Friday, July 16, 1999 08:16 PM Okay I did a little research on the net and here's what I found: "Through the character of Von Humboldt Fleisher, Bellow excavates the scarred relationship he shared with the brilliant but self-defeating Delmore Schwartz, his New York literary parent. Delmore's literary success, though short-lived, and his hallowed place at the 'round-table'of the New York-Jewish intellectuals, paved the way for Bellow's triumphs, and all those who would join him in victory laps for American-Jewish literature, including Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Herbert Gold, Leslie Fiedler, Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, to name a salient few." Delmore Schwartz is a familiar name to me, but I don't have much in the mental file cabinet to go with it. A cursory net search turned up little but the fact that there is a Delmore Schwartz Award in poetry. As for my comparison of Humboldt to Gully Jimson, I think the resemblance is that they are both larger than life, and seem to find no difficulty in walking all over others. Humboldt lacks Jimson's joie de vivre, though, which makes him a much less likeable character. Ruth, celebrating a new personal high of 25 "misspelled" words. Books are cheaper than wallpaper
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (11 of 12), Read 8 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Jim Heath (ddrapes@teleport.com) Date: Saturday, July 17, 1999 08:06 AM Citrine's digressions into anthroposophy and modes of perception do slow things down a bit, but I think they are part of the overall joke. This fellow has a gangster about ready to throw him off a building, and he begins to consider the Jungian implications of the fear of heights. Since Bellow has an obvious fondness for learning, the joke poses the deeper question of what all this higher learning has to do with the common problems of life like love, money, and tolerating your relatives. Learning is supposed to have everything to do with these problems, yet it seems a little silly when you insert it in context. BTW, has anyone ever heard of Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy outside the context of this book? My dictionary says that Bellow is not making this up. -- Jim
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (12 of 12), Read 7 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Barbara Moors (ncsh82b@prodigy.com) Date: Saturday, July 17, 1999 08:09 AM Jim, There's a private school in Ann Arbor named after Rudolph Steiner which is supposed to be based on his educational philosophies. And, that's all I know about him. Barb Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (13 of 13), Read 21 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: David Moody (davidmoody@prodigy.net) Date: Saturday, July 17, 1999 04:16 PM I've cataloged quite a few books by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), mostly having to do with a educational movement known as the Waldorf Schools. However, I didn't take the time to examine the books or theories in detail. David, who never gets to have any fun at work
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (14 of 35), Read 48 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Mary Anne Papale (fdlx59b@prodigy.com) Date: Monday, July 19, 1999 03:31 PM I've found an interesting article in the Nov. 25, 1975 NYT, an interview with Bellow. He says ďCitrine represents my sense of the comic absurdity of American urban life. He is attached to people as a poet would be, but he also perceives the nonsense of the courts and lawyers, the absurdity of ambition and the hilarity of sexual mores. ďIn fact, the whole novel is intended to hold up a mirror to our urban society and to show its noise, its uncertitudes, its sense of crisis and despair, its standardization of pleasures. And the city is a universal for almost everyone in America.Ē He goes on to say that HG is about the artist's view of American Society. Also of note is the title at U of Chicago that Bellow had on the library book flap, something like Professor of Social Thought, if I recall. MAP
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (15 of 35), Read 46 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Jane Niemeier (jniemeie@hotmail.com) Date: Monday, July 19, 1999 08:29 PM Hi all, I am enjoying this book, but I find that I can't read more than 20 or 30 pages a day. In other words, it is not a page turner for me, but it is very interesting. I will post more when I have finished (in three or four days). Jane who is reading SINGLE & SINGLE also
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (16 of 35), Read 49 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Jim Heath (ddrapes@teleport.com) Date: Tuesday, July 20, 1999 11:04 PM I finished the book Sunday. Very funny conclusion. Unable to identify the spring flowers in the cemetery, Citrine hazards a guess that they might be crocuses. Nothing like a really bad pun to finish things off.
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (17 of 35), Read 42 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Beatrice Soila (bpsoila@aol.com) Date: Thursday, July 22, 1999 06:06 PM I've been reading on and off for two weeks and have only made it to page 220. And now the thread's left the new messages! I love the jazzy style but at the pace I'm reading I can't keep track of the plot. Bea
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (18 of 35), Read 45 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: R Bavetta (rbav@prodigy.com) Date: Thursday, July 22, 1999 09:34 PM What plot? Ruth, closing in on the final quarter Books are cheaper than wallpaper
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (19 of 35), Read 43 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: David Moody (davidmoody@prodigy.net) Date: Friday, July 23, 1999 06:37 AM I'm sure there'll be a plot in there somewhere, Ruth. I have the feeling that a scene in a cemetery is coming... David, also nearing the final quarter and planning a big push this weekend or bust!
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (20 of 35), Read 43 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Jim Heath (ddrapes@teleport.com) Date: Friday, July 23, 1999 08:44 AM I think of the book being plotted somewhat like a Seinfeld episode. There are a half a dozen strands -- the divorce, the gangster, the mistress, the magazine, and the gift from Humboldt, and, oh yes, the study of anthroposophy that start coming together in all kinds of quirky ways.
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (21 of 35), Read 43 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Jane Niemeier (jniemeie@hotmail.com) Date: Friday, July 23, 1999 10:08 PM I finished the book a couple of days ago and enjoyed it for the most part. Many sections that dealt with Charlie's philosophy just left me scratching my head, saying, "Just WHAT is he talking about?" The plot (if you skipped the philosophy) was quite funny. Charlie seemed like a very pleasant guy who would accept any criticism that was handed to him. I remember that he often said, "He/She was right about that". I think that Jim mentioned that this novel has a great ending. I loved the way that Charlie finally stood up to Cantabile. Jane
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (22 of 35), Read 46 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: R Bavetta (rbav@prodigy.com) Date: Saturday, July 24, 1999 12:56 AM Anthropowhatsophy gives me hives. Ruth Books are cheaper than wallpaper
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (23 of 35), Read 40 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Jim Heath (ddrapes@teleport.com) Date: Saturday, July 24, 1999 09:56 AM One notion that runs through this book is that an artist has to be disassociated from everyday life to to achieve any sort of artistic understanding. Citrine, for example, says that Kathleen took care of everyday matters for Humboldt so that he could be where he had to be as a poet. Certainly this idea has a long tradition behind it going back at least to the Delphic Oracles. Being a contradictory soul, I keep wanting to take the opposite view. You can't really understand life if you're not involved in it. Citrine's a better writer than Humboldt because Citrine worries about paying his bills. Any thoughts?
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (24 of 35), Read 43 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Dale Short (dshort5005@aol.com) Date: Saturday, July 24, 1999 10:05 AM Jim: This question, I'm of two minds about. I don't think that an ivory tower existence generally leads to good art of any type... BUT, I saw an article once about the high percentage of outstanding writers who had suffered some type of isolating medical condition--serious accident, tuberculosis, etc.--during late childhood or adolescence. Apparently being out of the fray for a while and doing a lot of introspection gave them a perspective they otherwise wouldn't have had. I guess the same can be true if the isolating circumstance is somebody with a big bankroll, so long as the off-time is brief and judicious.{G} >>Dale in Ala., who hasn't found the big bankroll yet but did have a very, very sickly childhood
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (25 of 35), Read 47 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: R Bavetta (rbav@prodigy.com) Date: Saturday, July 24, 1999 11:38 AM I polished off the last pages this morning before getting out of bed. I loved the description of the sound of the concrete vault grating like the lid on a sugar bowl. That little detail brought home the finality of death better than almost anything I've read. Too bad I had to wade through umpty-ump pages of that silly ass, Citrine, dithering about everything, never acting, only reacting in order to get to it. Methinks our friend Charlie needed a swift kick in the pants. Ruth Books are cheaper than wallpaper
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (26 of 35), Read 34 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Beatrice Soila (bpsoila@aol.com) Date: Sunday, July 25, 1999 11:18 AM I did it! I made myself finish this deeply irritating book! Page 429 is where I had to restrain myself from throwing it violently against the wall: Renata speaking: "... if you're a man this time, you'll be reincarnated as a woman, and ... the ether body (not that I'm sure what an ether body is: it's the vital part that makes the body live isn't it?) is always of the other sex. ..." Everybody is HG sounds exactly the same and they all sound like Saul Bellow, unfortunately. Citrine's big ambition was to write a series of essays entitled "Great Bores of the Modern World." Now that might have some potential. I must admit there were a few good yucks scattered through all the philosophy disguised as dialogue. Bea, feeling peevish in Virginia
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (27 of 35), Read 36 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: R Bavetta (rbav@prodigy.com) Date: Sunday, July 25, 1999 01:06 PM I agree, Beatrice. Citrine was a pain, and by extension, so is Bellow, who has, BTW, written Citrine's boring book for him. Iíve been mulling over a question in my mind. Iíve just finished with two books that have parallels, Humboldtís Gift and Independence Day. Both concern a middle-aged man at a mid-life crisis point, another woman in his life, and endless mulling on things and situations. I loved ID. I had no patience for HG. What made the difference? One difference is that I listened to ID on tape, where one canít skim or skip the long passages with no action that seem to have little reference to the plot. Since one canít skip, one is forced to give these passages the attention they deserve, to sink into the details. I must admit I skimmed a lot of HG. But beyond that, I think the difference is that HG tied all this dithering on Citrineís part to various philosophical ideas, including the silly anthroposophy. Citrineís fussing was all about ideas generated outside of himself. Bascombe, in ID, operated on the level of the personal and the immediate. I find that Iím much more drawn, in fiction and poetry, to the personal detail. I donít want the writer doing my work for me. Give me the detail, and give it to me well enough that it will take me to where I should go, and make me the richer for having discovered it for myself. Ruth Books are cheaper than wallpaper
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (28 of 35), Read 36 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Beatrice Soila (bpsoila@aol.com) Date: Sunday, July 25, 1999 04:57 PM Ruth - I feel the same way. When I read a novel, I don't want the author intruding to give me a message. I want the author to create a world and get out of the way. I'll probably get the message. However, in the case of HG, I didn't even get a clear understanding of what athroposophy is (not that I care). Bea
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (29 of 35), Read 33 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Jim Heath (ddrapes@teleport.com) Date: Monday, July 26, 1999 12:23 AM Bea & Ruth, sorry you didn't like the book. I guess that I have to plead guilty to recommending it. Worse yet, I really enjoyed the book. There was something about Citrine trying to connect higher literary criticism with the problems of gambling debts and divorce settlements that just caught my imagination. As for the charge that all of Bellow's characters sound the same, it seemed to be that both Renata and Cantabile were quite distinctive. Once again, I suppose tastes just vary.
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (30 of 35), Read 31 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: R Bavetta (rbav@prodigy.com) Date: Monday, July 26, 1999 02:05 AM Don't apologize, Jim. Chacun on son goute. (sp Jane?). Anyway, it's more Bellows fault than yours. Ruth Books are cheaper than wallpaper
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (31 of 35), Read 30 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Mary Anne Papale (fdlx59b@prodigy.com) Date: Monday, July 26, 1999 08:35 AM I don't think the issue is that the characters are all the same, but rather that they react to Citrine in the same way. They each try, try, try to talk, threaten, sue, etc. some sense into him, to no avail. His women all give up because to stay with him is too difficult. At the end of the book he finally gets a backbone, but did it really have to take that long? I loved Cantabile, in that he provided the most comedy for the book. MAP
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (32 of 35), Read 26 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Anne Wilfong (annewilfong@worldnet.att.net) Date: Monday, July 26, 1999 03:09 PM For those of you who persevered and actually finished this book, I applaud you! I threw in the towel after a mere 100 pages, wondering why I held on so long. I had thought may try again one day, but now it's doubtful. There are simply too many other books out there calling my name. Anne, currently reading "The River Why" by David James Duncan
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (33 of 35), Read 28 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Beatrice Soila (bpsoila@aol.com) Date: Monday, July 26, 1999 06:05 PM Jim - I'm glad you recommended the book and glad I read it. Bellow is an important writer and I had never got around to reading him. Maybe if I hadn't identified the irritating Citrine with Bellow early on I would have had a better experience. If I had wanted to I could also have pointed out the many places where Bellow made me laugh out loud. Still, I think Ill sit out the next Bellow. Bea
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (34 of 35), Read 24 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Mary Anne Papale (fdlx59b@prodigy.com) Date: Tuesday, July 27, 1999 04:25 PM Jim, Bea, et. al. I love a good discussion, particularly when it revolves around books. HG is a good example. I agree that I needed to read Bellow, and I'm glad he challenged my complacency as a reader. I'm also glad there is a variety of authors on my TBR list. MAP
Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (35 of 35), Read 28 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: R Bavetta (rbav@prodigy.com) Date: Tuesday, July 27, 1999 05:07 PM Agree. I did manage to finish HG, which counts for something. And Bellow's considered an important writer. It pays to investigate. Ruth Books are cheaper than wallpaper Topic: HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow (36 of 36), Read 20 times Conf: CONSTANT READER From: Jane Niemeier (jniemeie@hotmail.com) Date: Saturday, July 31, 1999 09:01 PM Jim, Steve W. once e-mailed me to say, "Never apologize!" And I think that he is right when it comes to books. You nominated this book and we voted for it, so we read it. I liked it even though I didn't understand everything that he was talking about. I don't think that I was supposed to. We were perhaps made to feel that we are like Renata in that we tune Charlie out after awhile. Jane who has been absent for a week (I will explain on the Salon.)

 
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