1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
A flawed masterpiece,
This review is from: Humboldt's Gift (Penguin Modern Classics) (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.