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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Classic Worthy of the Name
Around the time Bellow received the Nobel for this novel, he was the subject of my college dissertation. It was to be almost thirty years before I revisited Humboldt's Gift again as my inflight reading on a trip to the US, and when I did the experience was somewhat different.

First I noted the humour. I remembered its being an amusing book, but never as...
Published on 29 Aug 2006 by Steve Keen

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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Typical 1970's American novel
Humboldt's Gift is what I would call a typical 1970's American novel. Not the happiest decade for the USA. I know that's a vague description, but if you've read books such as Something Happened, The Dice Man, Memoirs of the Ford Administration, Lot 49, American Pastoral (written in 1998, but looks back to this time), Looking for Mr Goodbar, etc, you'll recognise familiar...
Published on 4 April 2011 by Lyamshin


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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Classic Worthy of the Name, 29 Aug 2006
By 
Steve Keen "therealus" (Herts, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
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Around the time Bellow received the Nobel for this novel, he was the subject of my college dissertation. It was to be almost thirty years before I revisited Humboldt's Gift again as my inflight reading on a trip to the US, and when I did the experience was somewhat different.

First I noted the humour. I remembered its being an amusing book, but never as hilarious as I found it so many years on. I reflected on whether I had truly understood some of the references, and on how much more I identified with the book having travelled to some of the places mentioned - Texas, Chicago, New York, Madrid. The whole thing was so much less abstract, so I felt more able to immerse myself in the characterisation, without the need to expend energy trying to imagine what these places looked like.

It was the characterisation that really stood out, from the outwardly bullish but inwardly sheepish Charlie Citrine, and his scheming girlfriend Renata and her conspiratorial mother; the minor hoodlum Cantabile and his academic girlfriend Polly; and on to the tragic Humboldt himself, long deceased by the time of the book's opening but a constant, spectral presence throughout. Finally, the roguish Thaxter, Citrine's "business partner", a man who may well have inspired the leadership of Enron.

In addition, some of the vocabulary surprised me. For example, "leveraged". Had I registered the word back in the seventies? I guessed not. It's a word I'd associated with management consultants, financial derivatives and the eighties.

Much of the book is a study in pain, from Citrine's guilt at avoiding the down-and-out, soon-to-die Humboldt on the street in New York, his anguish over his vandalised Mercedes, the wrangles with his ex-wife and his abandonment in Madrid with Renata's son, as she stays in Chicago to marry Citrine's rival in love, Flonzaley the undertaker. However, although it is easy to empathise with the suffering, and the abandonment in particular left me feeling trapped, claustrophobic and betrayed on Citrine's behalf, he himself sustains an air of detachment throughout, even going so far as to observe that he could probably put a stop to Cantabile's nonsense immediately, but just can't be bothered.

Cantabile himself is the low-life's low-life. From the incident where he insists Citrine shares the cubicle with him while he takes a crap, through to his offer of a threesome with Polly, there is plenty to dislike about him.

But still there is the humour - even the abandonment has its comic moments - just in case we should take things too seriously. Thaxter's fascination with Cantabile, for instance, which not only leads to rather more contact with the guttersnipe than Citrine cares for but also ultimately to his arrest as Cantabile presents him as a hitman at a meeting which turns out to be a sting set up by the cops.

As with other Bellow works, the erudition is stupendous, with references to a galaxy of writers, politicians, philosophers and World Historical Figures. Their lives and works are constantly analysed by the inner dialogue continually raging in Citrine's head - it's no surprise to learn Bellow was heavily influenced by Joyce, though to get a better flavour of that read Bellow's earlier novel, Herzog.

However, sad to say that, contrary to other reviews, there is no sinister Master, and no plot in the White House; nor does Dr Who make an appearance at any point in the book.

Humboldt's Gift seems to get by all right without these essentials, nevertheless. As with any classic literature, it has stood the test of time, so although the setting is now a few decades past, the dilemmas and responses of the characters are as relevant now as they were then.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning pyrotechnic of erudition, muscular style, and tragicomic narration, 15 April 2014
By 
Angus Jenkinson "angusjenkinson" (Cambridgeshire, England) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Humboldt's Gift (Paperback)
In one of the 20th-century masterpieces of literary fiction, a puzzled American genius, grizzled and passionate, on the edge of spiritual and erotic revelation, is hounded by old memories, lawyers, a disgruntled wife, financial troubles and manic characters. A charismatic second-rate hoodlum, a zany literary partner and a would-be-wife threaten, cajole and provoke him through his all too human odyssey through spiritual recollection, mindfulness and vision. Throughout, the evocative memories and deeds of his deceased lifelong poet friend, collaborator and rival twist him this way and that. The esoteric philosophy of Rudolf Steiner provides the foundation. This is a stunning pyrotechnic of erudition, muscular style, and tragicomic narration. If you like Shakespeare you will like this. Humboldt is a 20th-century Hamlet, possibly crossed with Goethe’s Faust.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Unashamedly American, 10 Nov 2013
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This review is from: Humboldt's Gift (Kindle Edition)
Pithy, witty and earthy the book sometimes wanders off into philosophical musings that are over intricate. There were also many literary references that to me, but maybe not others, were often obscure. All in all, however, an intriguing Chicago romp.
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5.0 out of 5 stars brilliant, 24 April 2013
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This review is from: Humboldt's Gift (Kindle Edition)
Brilliant and funny, this is only the 2nd book I've read by Bellow,I don't think any writer I have read covers so much history and so many ideas so gently and with such rich mixture of pathos and hope.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Typical 1970's American novel, 4 April 2011
This review is from: Humboldt's Gift (Paperback)
Humboldt's Gift is what I would call a typical 1970's American novel. Not the happiest decade for the USA. I know that's a vague description, but if you've read books such as Something Happened, The Dice Man, Memoirs of the Ford Administration, Lot 49, American Pastoral (written in 1998, but looks back to this time), Looking for Mr Goodbar, etc, you'll recognise familiar themes - essentially, a bunch of bored, wealthy people, drifting aimlessly downstream, grabbing at any 'new' sexual game or a la mode suburban metaphysic that doesn't cost them a moment's pain. The characters are residually Jewish or Christian, but nowhere in H's Gift is there any mention of Synagogue or Church, as these anchors are far too old-fashioned to deserve any consideration.

At least Gatsby's friends didn't indulge in this sort of dreary, Madame Blavatsky-esque nonsense that Bellow continually tries to pass off as high idealism:
"He argued that between the conception of an act and its execution by the will there fell a gap of sleep. It might be brief but it was deep. For one of man's souls was a sleep-soul. In this, human beings resembled the plants, whose whole existence is sleep."

At the end of the novel, after five hundred pages of melancholic introspection and some really snappy screenplay dialogue from Chicago's gangsters, we have a group of people standing around Humboldt's coffin in a cemetary. No one can think of an appropriate prayer, so one confused old fellow decides to sing an aria from Aida instead.

I know this won the Pulitzer and Bellow has the Nobel Prize, but - it's been said before - writers win awards for many reasons, and literary talent isn't the most important. Bellow captured the spirit of the age, puts it in a nice, attractive bottle and makes us think we have a vintage. We don't.
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A note of caution..., 16 July 2008
By 
Brother John (London, England) - See all my reviews
This is a great book, but beware prospective purchasers! I bought this edition specifically because it is advertised as having an introduction by Martin Amis, who is my favourite writer and Saul Bellow's greatest fan, but in fact this edition does not have an introduction of any sort. A little more work by amazon to get their facts right would be nice.
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10 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating, funny and rivetting read., 4 Sep 2000
By A Customer
One of the most enjoyable books I have read. Witty dialogue, great characterisation and a plot that keeps the pages turning. I found Charlie Citrine's philosophising as he wrestled with his: ailing career, ex-wife's litigation, harrassment by a minor mafiosi, disastrous business ventures, gold-digging girlfriend etc, absolutely fascinating. Bellow's imagination and his prose in this book suggest to me an author at the peak of his powers.
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11 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The limitations of the reader experience.., 3 Dec 2000
By A Customer
Bellow at his best and probably most accessible. He demonstrates with ease his sharp humour, usual dazzling use of language, immense learning...It seems to me that almost every sentence of this book is quotable. I have a good mind to try memorise the bloody book. Buy it, read it, reread it.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars bellow near his best, 6 Nov 2010
Very well worth reading if you care at all about Bellow - his style is involved and intricate, but worth the effort, and his plotting may best be described as episodic picaresque - one thing happens after another, they're pretty much all very entertaining in this book, but there's no particularly obvious connection between them all (why introduce a trip to see an ailing brother towards the end? - I don't know, but I did enjoy the episode). The central character is searching for meaning - what is life all about? - we don't find out, but we have much to ponder.

In short, this offers a very good balance between the philosophical Bellow, the Bellow who can write entertaining narrative, and the unique prose style is as rewarding sentence by sentence as ever.

If I feel it's a slightly lesser work than Augie March or Herzog, I think it may be that the narrative shifts here (there's a lot of reverse chronology in the telling of the plot as well as a lot of unexpected twists) seem not to quite add up. The jacket of the library of america edition quotes a critic as saying that in this novel it is as though Bellow is unfolding a sultan's carpet before the reader. It's really good - but only if you like that kind of thing.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A flawed masterpiece, 24 Sep 2010
This review is from: Humboldt's Gift (Paperback)
This is a difficult book to categorize. On the back cover is a quote from the San Francisco Examiner: 'funny, vibrant, ironic, self-mocking and wise' and all of these it certainly is. (It also says there's an introduction by Martin Amis, but this is nowhere to be found). But it is also a rambling and occasionally repetitive meditation on life, the universe and everything, wrapped up in the story of two Jewish-American intellectuals, one (the poet Humboldt) a kind of mentor to the other (writer Charlie Citrine).

Although fictional, the novel is based on the real-life friendship between Bellow (Charlie) and American poet Delmore Schwartz (Humboldt). After Humboldt's death Charlie looks back over their lives, their successes and failings; delving into the relationship between art and the materialistic society of 20th-century America, with a brilliant portrait of gangster-ruled Chicago thrown in.

It takes some getting into, but it is well worth the effort. Although it can be a bit slow-moving at times, it can also be very funny, full of the kind of Jewish humour that Woody Allen excelled at but which isn't always so evident in Bellow's earlier work. It is a masterpiece because there is a lot of really brilliant writing in here, but it is flawed because it hasn't been edited properly; at nearly 500 pages, it's at least a hundred more than the material requires, two-hundred probably.

Another criticism is that most of the characters talk like Charlie; philosophical, reasonable, intelligent. In other words they all sound like Bellow, apart from the sleazy gangster Cantabile who at least talks dirty now and then. Also I don't like the seemingly-random habit of doing without commas in some sentences, but that's a minor point. Still, it's definitely worth reading, if you can spare the time.
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Humboldt's Gift
Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow (Hardcover - 6 Oct 1975)
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