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 station, appears behind him. Charlie explains who he is, asks for the neighbors by name, calms the man down, and saves himself a punch in the nose as a Peeping Tom.

Charlie reflects:

I could not say “I am standing on this crate among these lilacs trying to solve the riddle of man, and not to see your wife in her panties.” Which was indeed what I saw. Birth is sorrow (a sorrow that may be cancelled by intercession) but in the room where my birth took place I beheld with sorrow of my own a fat old woman in underpants. With great presence of mind she pretended not to see my face at the screen but slowly left the room and phoned her husband. He ran from the gas pumps and nabbed me, laying oily hands on my exquisite gray suit—I was at the peak of my elegant period. But I was able to explain that I was in Appleton to prepare an article on Harry Houdini … and I experienced a sudden desire to look into the room where I was born.
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“So what you got was an eyeful of my Missus.”
He didn’t take this hard. I think he understood. These matters of the spirit are widely and instantly grasped. Except of course by people who are in heavily fortified positions, mental opponents trained to resist what everyone is born knowing [Viking, 1975, pp. 90–91].

Such humor, resulting as it does from the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime, is fine in short pieces, but Bellow tries to sustain this tone throughout nearly five hundred pages. Rather too soon the sublimity begins to blend with the ridiculousness until one can’t tell whether Bellow expects us to ooh and ah or to double over with laughter.

The frustration is that Bellow’s hero knows what the tough and serious questions are: “The death question … [is] the question of questions.” He knows what one should do with these questions: “Either I conceded the finality of death and refused to have any further intimations condemned by childish sentimentality and hankering, or I conducted a proper investigation.” And Charlie Citrine has “incessant hints of immortality,” reminiscent of Mr. Sammler’s “God adumbrations in the many daily forms” or Peter Berger’s “signals of transcendence.”

He knows that these intimations are challenged by the prevailing naturalistic world view:

The existence of a soul is beyond proof under the ruling premises, but people go on behaving as though they had souls, nevertheless … and they have impulses and desires that nothing in this world, none of our present premises, can account for [p. 479].

But a reader can’t take Charlie’s seriousness seriously because he can’t take Charlie seriously. While his metaphysical meanderings are replete with touches from every era of Western philosophy and literature, Charlie himself clowns his way through life. He has had a string of relationships with women, mostly younger (often much younger) than he. When he is still in divorce court he is courting Renata, a well-endowed divorcee who is out for his money. His many friends include Pierre Thaxter, a parasite fellow writer; Rinaldo Cantabile, a would-be Chicago syndicate hoodlum; and George Swiebel, a successful contractor. And Charlie is blown about among them, moving when they push.

Moreover, he is troubled by the legacy left by his friend Von Humboldt Fleisher, a Dylan Thomas-like dissipated poet from whom Charlie has learned the ways of the decadent literary world. What story line there is traces Charlie’s attempt to discover what the legacy is and then to cope with it.

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Charlie certainly rejects the prevailing naturalistic world view of contemporary culture. But instead of taking serious things seriously, he pursues truth in the anthroposophy of Rudolph Steiner. Intrigued but not satisfied by Steiner, Charlie looks nowhere else—neither back to his own Jewish heritage nor around to the Christian tradition.

In this novel, Saul Bellow, unlike Charlie’s friend Thaxter, shuns the “major statement” he might have made with a work touching on so many significant issues. Instead Bellow lets Charlie Citrine, his “higher-thought clown,” wander ever more deeply into “crank theories” and what Charlie himself sees as “quaint metaphysical opinions.”

Of course, a novel need not make a major statement, but this one plays around the edges of the urge to do so, and that leaves me unsatisfied.

Bellow ends Humboldt’s Gift on a horrible death-resurrection cliche, thumbing his nose at the reader who is looking for any deep penetration of reality. So I end this review on a horrible reviewer’s cliche, waiting with anticipation for the appearance of Bellow’s sixth major novel.


James W. Sire is editor of InterVarsity Press and author of the newly released book “The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog” (IVP).

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