Humboldt’s Gift: A look at a life

Humboldt’s Gift is a ramble through the mind of Charlie Citrine, pejoratively described by friends and relatives as “an intellectual.”

Saul Bellow invites readers to tag along as Charlie revisits his past and explores his options for the future if a gift from an old friend allows him to be more than “a formidable mass of credentials.”

All text cover of Humboldt's Gift
Will the rest of Charlie’s life all sunshine like the novel’s cover?

Charlie came east in 1952 to see Literature being made.

In New York, he met Von Humboldt Fleisher, a poet living on the fame of having published a book of highly acclaimed ballads at age 22.

Due in no small part to Humboldt, Charlie became a writer. But unlike Humboldt, Charlie made a fortune doing it.

When the novel opens, Humboldt has just died penniless.

Middle aged now, Charlie has a good life, aside from lawsuits by his ex-wife, trouble with the IRS, an expensive mistress, death threats by a mobster, and an inability to write.

He says he keeps “being overcome by the material, like a miner by gas fumes.”

As death loomed, Humboldt left Charlie a legacy.

Can it put Charlie’s life to rights?

You may wish you knew only half as many of Charlie’s thoughts as Bellow records for readers, but you won’t escape the odd feeling that you’ve known Charlie.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
Viking Press, 1975. 487 p.
1975 bestseller #10. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Disenchanted Shows Nothing Destroys Like Success

Shep Stearns  is thrilled when studio mogul Victor Milgrim pairs him with his hero to turn Shep’s movie concept into a Hollywood blockbuster.

Pulitzer-winning novelist Manley Halliday hasn’t produced a book in years. He is over his eyebrows in debt, diabetic, and hanging on to sobriety by his fingernails.

Shep doesn’t know any of that. To him, Manley is the epitome of youthful success, an embodiment of the beautiful life Shep wants for himself.

Unwittingly, Shep provides an audience for Manley’s recollections of his life as a  ’20s celebrity and gives him enough booze to ruin both their screenwriting careers.

Manley is a fictional amalgum of the big name writers of the 1920s when the cult of celebrity —idolizing the famous for being famous — began. Budd Schulberg’s allusions to writers, actors, politicians who were household words in the years between the great wars make The Disenchanted feel more like creative nonfiction than novel.

The novel suggests dozens of reasons why promising writers don’t fulfill their promise, but concludes “there is never a simple reason for not writing a book or not writing your best.”

Schulberg’s plot is packed with Hollywoodish implausabilities, but Schulberg’s depictions of the would-be writer and the has-been writer make the book can’t-put-down reading.

The Disenchanted
by Budd Schulberg
Random House, 1950
Viking Compass Edition, 1975, with new introduction by the author
388 pages
1950 bestseller #10
My grade B+
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni