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4.1 out of 5 stars
24
Humboldt's Gift (Penguin Modern Classics)
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on 3 August 2016
At the risk of being labelled a Philistine, I dislike this book intensely. There is too much that seats it in an America of a certain time and, more narrowly a certain type of urban life. For that reason it can never to be considered a classic: much of it is unintelligible unless you too are of a similar time and place. Other than to demonstrate an author's superior intellect and education the recourse to untranslated French phrases and obscure literary references is pointless. To me it shows that the author is more interested in massaging his own ego than in communicating with his readers. I did not know there was a Nobel prize for pretentious twaddle.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 29 August 2006
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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VINE VOICEon 15 April 2014
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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on 15 June 2014
This novel won a Pulitzer prize and contributed to Saul Bellow winning the Nobel Prize for literature many years ago. The novel charts the artistic relationship between Charlie Citrine, an economically successful writer, and his mentor Von Humboldt Fleisher - an alcoholic, mentally ill poet with aspirations to cultural and spiritual greatness. Von Humbolt is dead and Citrine is reflecting back on Von Humbolt’s aspirations. Meanwhile Citrine is being pestered and advised by a petty gangster called Cantabile and is also having to deal with his girlfriend and his ex-wife. Apparently Citrine represents Saul Bellow to some degree and Von Humbolt, again to some degree, represents Delmore Schwartz who, to me at least, is famous for having been a mentor of Lou Reed.

I read this novel because of a quotation from it that prefaces an excellent book by Stan Cohen and Laurie Taylor called “Escape Attempts: The Theory and Practice of Resistance to Everyday Life”. This is a quotation:

“For me the self-conscious ego is the seat of boredom. This increasing, swelling, domineering, painful self-consciousness is the only rival of the political and social powers that run my life (business, technological-bureaucratic powers, the state). You have a great organised movement of life, and you have a single self, independently conscious, proud of its detachment and its absolute immunity, its stability and its power to remain unaffected by anything whatsoever-by the sufferings of others or by society or by politics or by external chaos. In a way it doesn’t give a damn. It’s asked to give a damn, and we often urge it to give a damn but the curse of none caring lies upon this painfully free consciousness. It is free from attachment to beliefs and two other souls. Cosmologies, ethical systems? It can run through them by the dozens. For to be fully conscious of oneself as an individual is also to be separated from all else. This is Hamlet’s kingdom of infinite space in a nutshell, of ‘words, words, words,’ of ‘Denmark’s a prison’.

This appears in about the middle of the novel in a very amusing section in which Citrine considers writing a history of boredom noting amongst other things that power is the power to bore other people (I always think of Fidel Castro infamously giving three-hour political lectures). As such I think at the core of this novel is a really important statement about the vacuity of Western culture and thought-it’s abstract waffling disconnection from life. There is a great moment, for example, when Citrine realises that for all his understanding of the motives desires and so on of characters in literature he cannot divine or understand his young daughter’s states of mind over the purchase of the bicycle for her birthday that he thinks she is not yet ready for. Likewise I could wax lyrical about the motives and foibles of the character King Lear but often remain in the dark when it comes to understanding the less complex people standing next to me or for that matter understanding myself. There is something of Pascal’s observations that we ‘understand the starry heaven’s above but not ourselves’ about all this.

I think these are important culturally insighful themes but I find it hard to recommend this book because the way that these ideas are conveyed is by writing a very lengthy book in which the central character is shown to be endlessly running through ideas and ‘words, words, words’ to no particular avail. This makes for quite tedious reading on which I found it difficult to concentrate which was not helped by also never once feeling any particular sympathy for any of the characters. That said - this is us. In much of literature people are driven and animated by narratives/ideas whereas in ‘real-life’ most of us just flounder about in them pompously pontificating to no noticeably discernible effect. Maybe it’s just us that I find it difficult to have any particular sympathy for.

Difficult and tedious reading that skilfully demonstrates powerful ideas with which to clutter our minds…
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 August 2015
A prize-winning author whose creative life is stagnant while his personal life is in a mess, Charlie Citrine is haunted by memories of his former friend and mentor, the brilliant but manic poet Humboldt Fleischer. Humboldt is based on the real-life poet Delmore Schwartz, a one-time colleague of Saul Bellow, to whom Charlie himself bears quite a strong resemblance.

The rambling plot which switches back and forth in Charlie’s mind is mainly a framework for Saul Bellow’s astonishing prose, a mind-blowing stream of consciousness, with punctuation (minus commas between adjectives, an interesting technique). This is leavened by many very funny descriptions and dialogues, which may atone for any irritation over yet another novel by a writer about writers, and for Bellow’s casual cultural references which require everyone who is not an American with an encyclopaedic general knowledge to either break the rhythm of reading to look them up, or remain in ignorance.

The humour also serves as an antidote to Citrine’s philosophical musings about the state of the soul, the existence of an after-life and the decline of American society by the 1970s into consumerism and banality. Citrine’s monologues, which tend to be made more digestible for the reader by frequent mocking or teasing interruptions, generally from female lovers past and present, suggest that his ideas are underdeveloped, even confused. Yet this may be intentional, since Bellow himself seems to have changed his opinions substantially over his long life spent reflecting on the meaning of life.

You may regret that Bellow dissipated his extraordinary verbal talent on such a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, weak, lecherous man as Citrine, although he is redeemed by a self-deprecating sense of humour and a rather appealing ability to understand the viewpoint of those fleecing and manipulating him, and to find a sense of proportion when things get tough. Bellow might of course argue that Citrine is merely a parody of himself, a man whose flaws did not prevent him from producing brilliant prose. So, despite its verbosity, repetition, sometimes woolly thinking, and damp squib conclusion, this original, remarkable work with its stunning descriptions of places, notably Chicago, and people, its wit, interesting ideas, insights and ultimately entertaining plot is worth reading – although you have to take the novel slowly to get the most out of it.
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on 24 April 2013
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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 April 2009
Humboldt's Gift is a novel that becomes bogged down in its own intellectual pretensions. When the plot is actually moving, it's reasonably entertaining and well written. Unfortunately it frequently jars to a halt with lengthy ramblings about philosophy and other weighty matters.

The central character and narrator is Charlie Citrine, a middle aged successful writer, whom I found intensely annoying. His endless wittering about his problems - all of which were of his own making - left me with no sympathy whatsoever. As far as I could see he was rich and successful, but was determined to destroy everything he had that was good. I didn't care about any of the characters in the novel and therefore had low interest in the plot and how it turned out.

At over 450 pages it's a long story, yet one in which little happens. Two thirds could easily have been cut out without any detriment, and would have made it less of an onerous task to wade through.

For readers who like novels which focus on exploration of the meaning of life, it will certainly be a hit, as Bellow does write really nicely. But if, like me, you find endless introspection dull and irritating, then I wouldn't recommend reading this. And I would be surprised if anyone warms to the character of Citrine.
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on 4 April 2011
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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on 24 September 2010
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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on 15 August 2010
I enjoyed this work on so many levels that perhaps it seems churlish to cavil at its occasional longueurs; Bellow's language is supple, energetic and beautifully vivid and the reader is artfully carried along the currents of the prevailing Zeitgeists as Charlie Citrine attempts to come to terms with Humboldt's 'legacy'. What exactly this legacy is does not become clear until quite late in the book and I particularly liked the way the fraught relationship between the two men ran the gamut from hero-worship (on Citrine's part) through professional rivalry, outright enmity all the way back to a weary acceptance and even a kind of retrospective affection. Particularly poignant was Citrine's last glimpse of his old hero: a shambling, shuffling wreck, nibbling on a pretzel in the street. (Humboldt actually dies putting out his rubbish.) How are the mighty fallen and Humboldt the great poet, a passionate but deluded man, ends up not as you would expect in a Byronic blaze of glory, but as a shabby, half-insane nonentity.

Will the same happen to Citrine? Women seem to be his downfall, as does a freewheeling love of the picaresque, the larger-than-life (hence his fatal weakness for such dubious characters as the small-time hoodlum Rinaldo Cantabile and hopelessly unreliable Pierre Thaxter.) When not being menaced by Cantabile, let down by Thaxter and eaten alive by the divorce lawyers feeding off his acrimonious split with his second wife Denise, Citrine shows that if there's nothing worse than an old fool it is an old fool in love. From the moment we meet the buxom Renata and her shrivelled crone of a mother, the self-styled 'Senora' (actually more Hungarian than Spanish), we can see Citrine is going to be taken for a ride that would make Space Mountain look like a slip in a sandbox. And so it proves. Although Citrine has many endearing qualities, throughout much of this novel I was hoping Cantabile would reappear and, like Robert De Niro in 'The Untouchables', whack him over the head with a baseball bat for being so stupid with women.

Which leads me to Citrine's less endearing qualities - namely, his infuriating habit of expounding on his 'anthroposophy' (in Greek it means 'human wisdom', in reality exactly the opposite). The level of this is flailingly sophomoric - Philosophy 101 - and I had a hard time wondering whether Bellow was sending Citrine up, or whether Bellow's Citrine really bought into these drooling fatuities, or whether just Bellow himself subscribed to them. At any rate they make for tedious reading. Whenever Bellow describes action (Cantabile's trashing of Charlie's Mercedes, the scenes with the divorce lawyers, Citrine's being dumped by Renata in Madrid) the writing zings into life: whenever he analyses and philosophises the writing becomes as flaccid as Hugh Hefner fumbling for his Viagra jar. Some tolerance is required on the reader's part but in the end the journey is well worth these lapses.

Penguin, whose editorial team could do with a reshuffle, advertise an Introduction 'by Martin Amis'. There isn't one.
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