Book Review: Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

Humboldt's Gift (Penguin Classics): Bellow, Saul, Eugenides ...

Born into a Hungarian Jewish immigrant family, Von Humboldt Fleischer had the romantic temperament of a poet. Many things were sacred in his eyes, and he dreamed of transforming the world with art. But his success did not last long, and he was vilified by some unscrupulous writers. By the end of the 1940s his romanticism was out of date and the era of fanaticism and poetry was over. Art could not transform society, so he tried to get involved in politics, but his bad luck was so bad that he was sent to an insane asylum. Although he was released from the hospital, he soon died in a New York tavern and was buried in a funeral mound. Charles Citrine was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. After his rise to fame, he went to New York to follow the great poet where Humboldt helped him to become a university lecturer and to write a historical play based on him.

While Humboldt was very poor, Citrine’s play was a hit on Broadway. Fame was followed by money and beauty and he lived a life of luxury. The temptation of material broke his worship of the authority of art and his pursuit of serious thoughts, which made him lose his creative inspiration. At the same time, he could not get rid of the intellectual disposition. His life is full of material and spiritual contradictions, both want to enrich the human soul, but also want fame and wealth. His soul was lost in uncertainty and anguish. After years of spendthrift, divorceable wives, dissolute mistresses, lawyers, and social gangsters trying to cash in on him, he went broke and ended up in a cheap boarding house in Spain. Just when he was at his wit’s end, he was presented with Humboldt’s bequest — two script outlines, one of which has been made into a movie and has become a worldwide sensation. Humboldt’s gift not only saved his life and future, but also gave him a deeper understanding of Humboldt’s pain and madness along with the fate of intellectuals.

“Humboldt’s Gift” is a genre painting of contemporary American society. No street, no building, no car, no dress, and no hairdo is imaginary. Even fictional characters are based on real people living in the real world. “Humboldt’s Gift” is a panorama of American society on a grand scale. From hooligans to senators, from the White House to chicken joints, from mystics to mafia-controlled booty shops, poets, scholars, cultural crooks, big money gamblers, judges, lawyers, psychiatrists, and moneymakers, the list goes on and on.

-Coreen C.

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