Book Review: Saul Bellow's winner of the 1976 Pulitzer Prize, Humboldt's Gift
I off-handedly said to my friend the other day that Bellow’s 1976 Pulitzer winner, Humboldt’s Gift, was really just Bellow writing about himself. What I didn’t know, was that I had Inigo Montoya-ed my way into the Pit of Despair. If you haven’t seen The Princess Bride ignore that last statement, but understand this: Humboldt’s Gift is considered a Roman a Clef work. (Don’t worry, I didn’t know what that meant either until I Wikipediaed it.) Basically that means that Bellow was “literally” writing about himself and other actual people and a reader just needs to have the “key” (the Clef) to make the connections.
Maybe that sounds gimmicky (okay, it totally sounds gimmicky), but I would argue that the novel stands on its own; that is, it easily achieves a life beyond that of its literal basis. And this is sort of doubly good news because since the novel stands on its own, the Roman a Clef thing adds an interesting layer, a sort of frosting to the novel. And sure, I’ll give you that all of this might still seem like it’s mostly for the author, for Bellow himself, than it is for the reader, but you know, someone loses a dear friend in a bout of insanity and that someone is going to need catharsis, closure. And if that person chooses to write a book initially intended to be just a short story that then wins a Pulitzer and leads pretty directly to a Nobel, I mean, we’ve got to be happy for them, right? Maybe suspend our judgement a little?
And if I seem like I’m being a bit snarky let me affirm, I love Saul B. I’ve read a few of his books now and they’ve made me laugh, think, use the dictionary, and you know I’m a sucker for self-deprecating literature and epic mythology. (You didn’t know that? Well, I am.) I mean my favorite books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, a book about how much it stinks to get old, and The Silmarillion, which single-handedly creates a mythological back-story for the Britons. Humboldt’s Gift does both of those things and here’s what I mean. The novel’s main character, Charles Citrine a.k.a. Bellow, continually validates insults to his person, looks askance at his increasing age, and is quite self-critical. Follow that with the great mythologizing force that is Roman a Clef writing. In this mode, a writer takes confusing, nuanced historical circumstances and imposes on them the coherency and dynamism of a narrative. Narrative becomes legend, legend becomes myth (to borrow from Galadriel), and in most cases a god is born. Thus, this myth of Bellow/Citrine and the poet Humboldt’s relationship is now what we will remember; a beautiful created thing with its very own vocabulary and generosity of spirit. Sure, there’s a “clef” if you want to go the literal route, but this story is also an epic poem that opens itself to all who would enter. The reader is given the comfort of not having to take every single happenstance as literal truth. We are, in fact, encouraged by the very narrative cherry-picking of the author to also cherry-pick this new legend and to put upon it our own interpretation, generation after generation. We would do this anyway, (we do it with “factual” memoirs and historical accounts and novels) but Bellow, through his “gimmick,” has removed the ever-present shadow of guilt for us (as well as for himself!) that can come when we knowingly lay our own “stamp” upon incontrovertible facts. We/he can remember what we want to remember, interpret what we want to interpret, and for me that’s what Humboldt’s gift actually is. A poetic generosity that reaches out to you, your children, your children’s children … forever.