by Canadian-American author Saul Bellow is a 1975 novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was a factor in his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. The story is told from the point of view
of Charlie Citrine, a successful writer. The narrative covers American life from the 1930s to the 1970s. Charlie thinks about his childhood in Chicago, as well as his time living in Greenwich Village in New York, and working with Von Humboldt Fleischer, who was a mentor to him. In the present timeframe, Humboldt has already died.
The narrative opens with Charlie in his youth in Chicago, reading Humboldt’s book, The Harlequin Ballads
. The book moves him to the point of being inspired enough to borrow money from a friend and head to Greenwich Village to find him. Humboldt becomes a mentor to Charlie and they begin a long lasting relationship. They experience the dawning of the Cold War and become Marxists. They get involved with the anti-establishment movement and oppose capitalism. They embrace the Bohemian lifestyle.
In the present timeframe, the middle of the 1970s, Charlie is in middle age. He wakes up one morning in his apartment in Chicago to what becomes one of the worst days possible. He finds out that this former wife is suing him and that the Internal Revenue Service is on his trail. He is receiving threatening telephone calls from a mobster named Rinaldo Cantabile. When he leaves his building, he sees that his new Mercedes has been damaged by hammers and baseball bats, and he immediately knows that Cantabile was responsible. Charlie is being pursued by Rinaldo because he stopped payment on a check that he had given the gangster in order to pay a gambling debt. It was when Charlie’s friend George Swiebel told him that Rinaldo and his cousin were cheating when they beat Charlie at George’s poker game that Charlie stopped payment on the check. Charlie tells Rinaldo that he is willing to settle the debt, but as a matter of pride, the mobster asks for the payment to be made in public. He leads Charlie on a journey around various places in Chicago. He ultimately accepts the payment on a beam of a skyscraper that is under construction. Rindado decides at this point that Charlie is his friend and he then spends several months following him around, including going to Europe.
As he deals with a midlife crisis, Charlie has a relationship with Renata, a beautiful young woman who has expensive tastes and an insatiable desire for sex. Renata, along with everything else, wants to marry Charlie. In Charlie’s memory, flashbacks show that he once had a wife named Denise and they had two daughters. Charlie had made a good deal of money when he wrote a successful Broadway play which also became a movie. Denise has already acquired a good deal of Charlie’s money but now is apparently out to take everything from him. Following his relationship with Denise, Charlie falls for a woman named Demmie. She dies in a plane crash in South America with her parents.
Pondering death becomes an obsession for Charlie. He thinks that the human spirit does not die with the person. Charlie spends much of his time thinking about this and some of the other universal questions of life. He develops a habit that involves talking to the dead and reading to them. Charlie in essence is painted as a neurotic man who is growing old. Old age is also something that Charlie grapples with, including its implications with respect to his sexuality. He has a young lover who breaks up with him in Madrid. As heartbreaking as this is for Charlie, he also finds a more mature perspective towards sexuality from the experience. He also finds himself trying to cope with the problem of being an artist trying to survive in a capitalist society.The Los Angeles Times
called Humboldt’s Gift
, “both a crazy mess of a novel and an abiding testament to the vital exuberance of Saul Bellow's genius…The narrator is Charlie Citrine, and his friend Humboldt has just died in a fleabag New York hotel. Citrine uses his relationship with the doomed poet as a springboard for meditations on the relationship between the artist and society in America, on women, on marriage, on contemporary life, on pretty much anything, in effect, that interests or obsesses his creator, Saul Bellow. But Humboldt's Gift
is, too, the story of artistic friendship and rivalry. Citrine, when he first meets Humboldt, is filled with spunk and ambition. He travels from the Midwest to New York to gain access to literature and to try to take the world by the throat; by the time, many years later, that he sits down, or rather, lies down (on a couch) to reconstruct Humboldt's life, Citrine has written a Broadway hit and a host of books…Beyond and behind the wit lies Bellow's spiritual questing...In a way Humboldt's Gift
is like a kaddish that's run out of control-gorgeous, funny and sad.”