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A Classic Worthy of the Name
on 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.