HUMBOLDT'S GIFT by Saul Bellow

HUMBOLDT'S GIFT

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KIRKUS REVIEW

As a critic once observed: "The language is the character and the action. To say that Herzog is written in the first person would be like saying that Genesis is written in the first person. The voice is the whole case; it contains everything." Even if, as now, we sometimes stop listening. And even if--to take it a step further--the character is always to a large degree Bellow, while the action (let him describe it) is "cantankerous erroneous silly and delusive objects actions and phenomena." In two words, energized chaos. Humboldt, he of the gift, was a "culture-Jew," poet, trickster, genius with a passionate gift of gab and intellectual grandiloquence. He was also a noble man who had attained prominence in the '40's only later to decline not only in terms of fame but physically. Humboldt, with his gin, pills, and his own innate highs and lows of increasing intensity, was institutionalized in Bellevue toward the end and finally dropped dead, alone, in a seedy hotel. His protege, heir and bloodbrother is Charlie Citrine who tells this so-called story: Citrine who wins a Pulitzer and also knows the "glory and gold" which attend success; Citrine who has been divorcing his wife for a beautiful girl who pussywhips him; Citrine who becomes involved with a second-string underworld godson and all kinds of manipulative shenanigans; Citrine who gyrates all around the world; Citrine who is left the "gift"--an outline for a movie script which will net a great deal of that gold. Throughout of course there are some of Bellow's central concerns: the sense of destiny which is never far from the abyss; that "for self-realization it's necessary to embrace the deformity and absurdity of the inmost being (we know it's there!)" and Humboldt knew better than anyone that it is there; that light--light which is talent or inspiration or gift--receding in the last years when "the dark turned darker" and death becomes an almost daily presence. Bellow writes continually in the recognition of approaching death--both seriously and less so. There's a marvelous piece on our burial malpractices down to "short sheeting" with the legs up. But Humboldt/Citrine/Bellow, however well he talks, talks too much. The novel sprawls in a picaresque fashion without the humor of Herzog or the humanity of that nice Mr. Sammler. Still if one is left with ""a kind of light-in-the-being"" that can overcome the terminal terror, it will represent underachiever Humboldt's great achievement.
Pub Date: Aug. 25th, 1975
ISBN: 0140189440
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1975




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