The Book That Changed My Life; Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow
Cartwright, Justin, New Statesman (1996)
In South Africa as a child and a boy, I read a huge amount. There seems to have been something anthropomorphic about my early reading: animals flew, boys talked to horses and rodents were lovable. A book called Pookie, about a flying rabbit, first persuaded me I could fly, and nearly ended my life as I launched myself off the roof of the garage at the age of five. Then The Water-Babies entered my life and I spent a whole year utterly absorbed in the problem of how to penetrate the wainscot of our house--difficult, as we didn't have any wainscotting at all, and nobody knew what a wainscot was anyway. I loved Ratty and Mole with a reckless lack of discretion, and Swallows and Amazons convinced me that a watery future in England involving sailing about in a dinghy and chatting to voles was my destiny. I imagined myself saying, "I say, do you think I have cut it too fine, Moley?" as I tucked in to egg-and-cress sandwiches.
Just about the time it dawned on me that I might be able to make a career out of writing, I discovered Saul Bellow--first Humboldt's Gift and then Herzog. I had long before discovered John Updike, whom I revered, but there was something about Humboldt's Gift-the sheer ecstatic pleasure of the writing, the intensity of the imagery, the entrancing ability to combine high comedy with deeply serious intellectual ideas, the astonishing talent for describing faces, the warm affection for Chicago characters--which excited me almost beyond endurance.
I thought that Bellow was the most exciting writer I had ever encountered, and to a degree I still think so. To tell the truth, I did not for some time fully understand the plot of Humboldt's Gift, but it didn't matter, as I revelled in the bravura of the writing. Charlie Citrine's account of his meeting with the hoodlum Rinaldo Cantabile, his troubles with lawyers and women, his love of his gross brother Ulick, his stay in Madrid, his descriptions of Chicago ("bits of snow fell from the grey invisibility that lay upon the skyscrapers" and the "limp silk fresh lilac drowning water") are both razor sharp and invariably undercut by some human irony. Bellow is entranced by what it is to be human: nobody describes faces and bodies as he does. …