Humboldt is a poet, once revered, eventually ridiculed; Charlie Citrine, the narrator, was his acolyte, friend and enemy. Citrine, of an inferior talent, enjoys much greater commercial success than Humboldt. This anomaly is the foundation for much soul searching about the relationship between the artist and commercial success in America.
Humboldt fulfils society’s most cherished expectation of the poet – he goes nuts and dies ignominiously. In other words, he’s too delicate for this world. Something we all feel in our most sensitive moments. Poets do what we’d sometimes like to – over indulge sensibility to the point of cutting themselves off from the outside world – and we perhaps honour them for that as much as we do for their poetry. Bellow here attempts, not very successfully, the Nick/Gatsby divide in this novel – he has a prosaic narrator recounting the larger than life character, Humboldt. But a failing of this novel is that Bellow can never keep his own voice muffled for long and soon the narrator Charlie Citrine and Humboldt become almost the same character. Charlie ends up as eccentrically broken as Humboldt. And the title’s gift is a rather lame and implausible denouement.
“There’s the most extraordinary, unheard of poetry buried in America, but none of the conventional means known to culture can even begin to extract it…the agony is too deep, the disorder too big for art enterprises undertaken in the old way.” So says Charlie. But this passage is much more applicable to DeLillo’s novels than Bellow’s. I’m not sure I ever really felt Bellow was getting to the heart of this buried poetry. DeLillo is actually much better at finding the poetry in our technological, media circus age because he’s better able to project out beyond himself; DeLillo shows where Bellow tells. Bellow often ends up sounding like the patient on the psychotherapist’s couch, gorgeously eloquent but telling rather than dramatizing.
Saul Bellow would rank pretty high as nightmare husband. He likes the sound of his own voice too much. He holds forth brilliantly but there’s a sense he doesn’t listen much. He tends to see others as appendages or anecdotes. Bellow’s novels are always about Saul Bellow, Saul Bellow and his relationship with the world, Saul Bellow and his dysfunctional relationship with women. All the novels I’ve read by him have had the same narrator. There’s a lack of versatility in his voice. The supporting cast of characters are often more like showcases for how brilliantly and wittily Bellow can write than any kind of approximation of real people. His most successful novel was Herzog because he sent up his rampant egotism in a brilliantly witty fashion. Bellow is probably a much better writer than he is novelist. His prose is fantastic; his plots often half-baked and flimsy. This one just scrapes four stars because of the quality of the prose; as a novel I found it essentially inspired and daft in equal measure.