Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Humboldt's Gift

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Humboldt's Gift

Article excerpt

Whenever someone asks me to name my favorite novel, I find myself putting on a ridiculous but revealing little performance, pretending to a natural consternation-after all, who can narrow a lifetime's evolving preferences down to a single title?-but in fact using the consternation as a cover for the real calculation, which is whether I have the interest or energy to explain my choice. For in fact I do have a favorite novel-Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow-but I know it to be an eccentric work, one that a number of reputable critics had problems with when it was published, and that many intelligent readers I know have shaken their heads over. How much easier to cite Middlemarch, or Portrait of a Lady, or Ulysses, or To the Lighthouse, all works that I admire without reservation. But the question was favorite novel, which I take to mean the novel that I visit most often in my thoughts, that I know most intimately down to the cell-structure of its cadences, that fills me with the greatest covetousness and inspires me to emulation. Most simply: When I think of Humboldt's Gift I immediately want to write.

They say that love is blind, but I don't buy it. Love is often well aware of the flaws of the beloved-but love is love because it overrules the fault-finding impulse altogether in the name of ... In the name of some flow of higher sympathy that feels like an end in itself. I love Humboldt's Gift-much as anyone can be said to love a book-and my love is unperturbed by all that my judging intellect whispers as I read-that it is structurally lopsided, overwrought in its Rudolph Steiner-inspired meditations, improbable in its deus ex machina resolutions. I grant that there are problems and shortcomings, but they do not ruffle my devotion at all. And this fascinates me.

I remember my first reading of Humboldt's Gift with an almost exaggerated vividness, though I can't recall how the book itself came into my possession. I mention this because I know that my copy was a new hardcover-cover price a round $10-and because this was a period in my life when I was routinely counting the change spread out on the dresser top. I would never have paid full price in a bookstore. Was it a birthday gift? That makes sense, because my birthday is in late September, and I read the novel first in October of 1975 in a single great gulp. And this I remember because it was the most desperate season in my life so far and for a long time after I credited Bellow with helping to save me from a descent into utter hopelessness.

That story is outwardly simple enough. The previous August I had ended a relationship with the woman I had believed was the love of my life. I had left our life in Maine and returned broke and empty-handed to my old haunts in Ann Arbor, where I had gone to college a few years before. I had been back for some weeks, and whatever plan I had for rebuilding my life was not working. Though I had a small room I rented and a job in a bookstore, these were not support enough. I would wake up each day wondering how I would make it through to the next. The sadness was overwhelming. I had no one except my sister to confide in, and nothing at all to hold against my thoughts of "never again." One afternoon I snapped. I made the impulsive (and ultimately foolish) decision to borrow money from a friend and fly to Boston the next morning. There I would board the first bus north. I had no idea of what I might do, or even of what I was after; but once I'd decided there was no other choice. There was only the rest of the day and the night to get through.

In my room, a shabby attic box high up among the tree tops-it felt that way-I paced and kneaded my hands, Raskolnikov in every sense but the criminal. I was beside myself, twitching in my skin. I had no idea how I would pass the time. And then-I can't remember why-from among the handful of books I had stacked up on my dresser, I took down Humboldt's Gift and, miracle of miracles, read. …

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