Saul Bellow: Higher-Thought Clown

Since his first novel, Dangling Man (1944), Saul Bellow (b. 1915) has written short stories, articles on literature and culture, a novella, several dramas, and four major novels, two of which—Herzog (1964) and Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970)—garnered the National Book Award for fiction.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet was the first work by Bellow to impress me. Here was a superbly narrated story, a modern novel with an old-time hero whose intellectual and spiritual interests revealed an author with deep insight and consummate artistry. So I then went on to read most of Bellow’s earlier major works. Still, for me, Mr. Sammler’s Planet has remained the peak experience.

Bellow’s fifth major novel is now out: Humboldt’s Gift. Again reviewers are commending it, again a Bellow novel is a best-seller, again Bellow is up for the National Book Award.

But what a disappointment! With Humboldt’s Gift Bellow tries to do two things and fails at both. He continues the highly intellectual interior monologue that was the triumph of Mr. Sammler and he reverts back to the comic chicanery of Henderson the Rain King (1959). That is, he tries to combine high seriousness (here associated with the themes of death, intimations of immortality, the clash of world views and moral values) with slapstick comedy. Only occasionally does this combination work.

Here is one place it does. Seeking his origins, as it were, Charlie Citrine, the central figure of the novel, returns to his birthplace in Wisconsin to see the house where he was born. He knocks, gets no answer, and then goes to the back, climbs on a crate, and peers through a bedroom window. The lady of the house is home, however, and suddenly her husband, who runs a nearby filling ...

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