I first found this modern-day classic in my father’s collection some thirty years ago, which meant that he bought it right around the time it was published. Looking back at it now, and after having read the book, as usual, many times over, I am surprised that he had actually read it. May be I am underestimating him in my colossal and unwarranted arrogance, but I just cannot see how he could have followed the book. Even after having lived in the USA for half a dozen years, and read more philosophy than is good for me, I cannot keep up with the cultural references and the pace of Charlie Citrine’s mind through its intellectual twists and turns. Did my father actually read it? I wish I could ask him.
Perhaps that is the point of this book, as it is with most classics — the irreversibility and finality of death. Or may be it is my jaundiced vision painting everything yellow. But Bellow does rage against this finality of death (just like most religions do); he comically postulates that it is our metaphysical denial that hides the immortal souls watching over us. Perhaps he is right; it certainly is comforting to believe it.
There is always an element of parternality in every mentor-protégé relationship. (Forgive me, I know it is a sexist view — why not maternality?) But I probably started this post with the memories of my father because of this perceived element in the Von Humboldt Fleischer – Charlie Citrine relationship, complete with the associated feelings of guilt and remorse on the choices that had to be made.
As a book, Humboldt’s Gift is a veritable tour de force. It is a blinding blitz of erudition and wisdom, coming at you at a pace and intensity that is hard to stand up to. It talks about the painted veil, Maya, the many colored glasses staining the white radiance of eternity, and Hegel’s phenomenology as though they are like coffee and cheerios. To me, this dazzling display of intellectual fireworks is unsettling. I get a glimpse of the enormity of what is left to know, and the paucity of time left to learn it, and I worry. It is the ultimate Catch-22 — by the time you figure it all out, it is time to go, and the knowledge is useless. Perhaps knowledge has always been useless in that sense, but it is still a lot of fun to figure things out.
The book is a commentary on American materialism and the futility of idealism in our modern times. It is also about the small things where a heart finds fulfillment. Here is the setting of the story in a nutshell. Charlie Citrine, a protégé to Von Humboldt Fleischer, makes it big in his literary career. Fleischer himself, full of grandiose schemes for a cultural renaissance in America, dies a failure. Charlie’s success comes at its usual price. In an ugly divorce, his vulturous ex-wife, Denise, tries to milk him for every penny he’s worth. His mercenary mistress and a woman-and-a-half, Renata, targets his riches from other angles. Then there is the boisterous Cantabile who is ultimately harmless, and the affable and classy Thaxter who is much more damaging. The rest of the story follows some predictable, and some surprising twists. Storylines are something I stay away from in my reviews, for I don’t want to be posting spoilers.
I am sure there is a name for this style of narration that jumps back and forth in time with no regard to chronology. I first noticed it in Catch-22 and recently in Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things. It always fills me with a kind of awe because the writer has the whole story in mind, and is revealing aspects of it at will. It is like showing different projections of a complex object. This style is particularly suited for Humboldt’s Gift, because it is a complex object like a huge diamond, and the different projections show brilliant flashes of insights. Staining the white radiance of eternity, of course.
To say that Humboldt’s Gift is a masterpiece is like saying that sugar is sweet. It goes without saying. I will read this book many more times in the future because of its educational values (and because I love the reader in my audiobook edition). I would not necessarily recommend the book to others though. I think it takes a peculiar mind, one that finds sanity only in insane gibberish, and sees unreality in all the painted veils of reality, to appreciate this book.
In short, you have to be a bit cuckoo to like it. But, by the same convoluted logic, this negative recommendation is perhaps the strongest endorsement of all. So here goes… Don’t read it. I forbid it!