1915 - Born Lachine, Canada
1976 - Nobel Prize
2005 - Dies Brookline, Massachusetts
Long ago I read several of Bellow’s novels but not Humboldt’s Gift. I recently had my initial encounter with America’s Orpheus, Delmore Schwartz. Schwartz was a fast living substance abusing writer who seemingly fits the role of a poet driven to an early, at fifty fat where he was once gorgeous, death from a heart attack in a flea bag hotel in New York City. I learned that Saul Bellow had written a novel dealing with the relationship of a commercially and intellectually sucessful writer, making huge money from a Broadway play and movie rights, to a character totally modeled on Schwartz. Most of the action occurs in the writer’s home town, Chicago.
In Chicago, imagine Robert Frost’s poem, we meet gangsters, real and pretend, lofty intellectuals, dangerously seductive women, greedy lawyers representing ex-wifes, and all sorts of big City characters. To me book felt dated, especially in the conversations in which everybody tries to sound Chicago back streets tough. What I did like most were all The literary references relating to The Reading Life of the characters, especially Humboldt who is the Schwartz figure. This is very much a rooted in Chicago in the 1970s novel.
The treatment of women seemed really dated. We get to know about The breast sizes and shapes of all The many women. Women are nurse maids, muses, more or less whores (hey we are in Chicago), gold diggers, etc but not valued in terms of their relationship to men. All that matters is their looks and willgness to have sex. The narrator, Charles Citrine, has lots of adventures, lots of women, Too much money and Too little.
Prior to reading this I felt sad to have completed Our Sppons Come From Woolworth by Barbara Comyns. I was relieved when I at last finished Humboldt’s Gift. It was interesting to see The usage of the Schwartz figure but overall I was disappointed. I can see lots of energy and talent went into The book. Maybe it was just not a book for me anymore as it might have been once. My opinion is a minority one.