Top critical review
Mid-century Misery Lit
18 January 2013
Seize the Day, a short novel by Saul Bellow first published in 1956, describes twenty four hours in the life of Tommy Wilhelm. Wilhelm is, as the author puts it, 'nearly at the end of his rope'. His hopes of making a living as an actor in Hollywood have been disappointed, and he has left a sales job in New York. Meanwhile, his wife, from whom he is separated, is pressing him for money to support their two kids.
Will his father, an eminent doctor, offer any support? Will his wife moderate her financial demands? And should he have trusted Dr. Tamkin, who has persuaded him to invest his life savings in a scheme involving lard and rye?
Bellow's novel has received the highest laurels from the literati. The critic John Carey considered including it on his list of the twentieth century's most enjoyable books; James Wood said it is one of the great works of the century; for V.S. Pritchett it is a 'small gray masterpiece'.
You can see why it has inspired such superlatives. The language of the book is very unusual: a strange, poetic style which evokes the busyness and bustle but also the loneliness of a great city. And Dr. Tamkin, the dubious psychologist with equally dubious investment schemes, is a fine creation.
Yet somehow it wasn't for me. The message Bellow conveys is that life is a series of unfortunate events followed by death. Expect no sympathy. Trust no one. All true enough, and good advice no doubt, but the gloom is oppressive. You long for some warmth, colour and comedy.