It was love at first sight.
Okay, that’s not Saul Bellow. That’s the first line from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. But it’s how I felt about Humboldt’s Gift when I read its first paragraph many years ago, and which I reproduce in full here:
“The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit. Humboldt was just what everyone had been waiting for. Out in the midwest I had certainly been waiting eagerly, I can tell you that. An avant-garde writer, the first of a new generation, he was handsome, fair, large, serious, witty, he was learned. The guy had it all. All the papers reviewed his book. His picture appeared in Time without insult and in Newsweek with praise. I read Harlequin Ballads enthusiastically. I was a student at the University of Wisconsin and thought about nothing but literature day and night. Humboldt revealed to me new ways of doing things. I was ecstatic. I envied his luck, his talent, and his fame, and I went east in May to have a look at him - perhaps to get next to him. The Greyhound bus, taking the Scranton route, made the trip in about fifty hours. That didn’t matter. The bus windows were open. I had never seen real mountains before. Trees were budding. It was like Beethoven’s Pastorale. I felt showered by the green, within. Manhattan was fine, too. I took a room for three bucks a week and found a job selling Fuller Brushes door to door. And I was wildly excited about everything. Having written Humboldt a long fan letter, I was invited to Greenwich Village to discuss literature and ideas. He lived on Bedford Street, near Chumley’s. First he gave me black coffee, and then poured gin in the same cup. “Well, you’re a nice-looking enough fellow, Charlie,” he said to me. “Aren’t you a bit sly, maybe? I think you’re headed for early baldness. And such large emotional handsome eyes. But you certainly do love literature and that’s the main thing. You have sensibility,” he said. He was a pioneer in the use of this word. Sensibility later made it big. Humboldt was very kind. He introduced me to people in the Village and got me books to review. I always loved him.”
That’s so good, without being prototypically “show-offy.” Think of the amount of information that goes by in that one paragraph. In some authors’ hands, that’s three chapters! The college student loving literature, going to class, reading this Humboldt guy, being jealous and admiring, deciding to move to Manhattan, the bus trip, settling in an apartment, finding a door-to-door job, meeting his idol, being taken under his idol’s wing. Bellow dispenses with it. He tells you so much without making it obvious. One paragraph, and what do you know about these people? Not everything, surely, but a lot! Humboldt is heroic but also pretty pompous, commenting on another man’s early baldness the first time he meets him. Charlie is “wildly excited about everything,” a description that pretty much suits all youth. And think of what we learn about Charlie through his authorial voice! “Sensibility later made it big.” That’s hilarious!
Bellow is one of the greatest writers who ever lived. In preparation for my interview with Chris Walsh — who knew Bellow in his later years, who was his amanuensis in those years — I pulled down all my copies of Bellow’s books off my shelves, found the dog-eared pages. Here are some things he wrote that I think are kind of objectively wonderful:
From The Adventures Of Augie March:
“I thought if I knew more my problem would be simplified, and maybe I should complete my formal education. But since I’ve been working for Robey I have reached the conclusion that I couldn’t utilize even ten per cent of what I already knew. I’ll give you an example. I read about King Arthur’s Round Table when I was a kid, but what am I ever going to do about it? My heart was touched by sacrifice and pure attempts, so what should I do? Or take the Gospels. How are you supposed to put them to use? Why, they’re not utilizable! And then you go and pile on top of that more advice and information. Anything that just adds information that you can’t use is plain dangerous. Anyway, there’s too much of everything of this kind, that’s come home to me, too much history and culture to keep track of, too many details, too much news, too much example, too much influence, too many guys who tell you to be as they are, and all this hugeness, abundance, turbulence, Niagara Falls torrent. Which who is supposed to interpret? Me? I haven’t got that much head to master it all. I get carried away. It doesn’t give my feelings enough of a chance if I have to store up and become like an encyclopedia. Why, just as a question of time spent in getting prepared for life, look! a man could spend forty, fifty, sixty years like that inside the walls of his own being. And all high conversation would take place within those walls. And all achievement would stay within those walls. And all glamour, too. And even hate, monstrousness, enviousness, murder, would be inside them. This would be only a terrible, hideous dream about existing. It’s better to dig ditches and hit other guys with your shovel than die in the walls.”
From Herzog, to prove he could do poetry:
“From the hospital roof hung icicles like the teeth of fish, clear drops burning at their tips. Beside his bed, the goyische lady sat in her long skirts and button shoes. The hatpin projected from the back of her hat like a trolley rod.”
From Henderson The Rain King, to prove he’s funny:
“But privately when things got very bad I often looked into books to see whether I could find some helpful words, and one day I read, "The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required." This impressed me so deeply that I went around saying it to myself. But then I forgot which book it was.”
From Ravelstein, to get at sexual attraction and lamentation:
"In heat like this she preferred to go naked in her room. When I wanted to recall how she was, naked, I found I could do it very well. She saw my eyes on her lower belly and her hand descended to hold the edge of the robe there. Seeing that colourful, round-fingered hand descend, I bitterly felt how my privilege had ended and passed to another man."
Also from Augie March, because it’s awesome:
“Go back to when I was a kid in the municipal swimming pool. A thousand naked little bastards screaming, punching, pushing, kicking. The lifeguards whistle and holler and punish you, the cops on duty squash you in the ribs with their thumbs and call you snot-nose. Shivery little rat. Lips blue, blood thin, scared, your little balls tight, your little thing shriveled. Skinny you. The shoving multitude bears down, and you’re nothing, a meaningless name, and not just obscure in eternity but right now. The fate of the meanest your fate. Death! But no, there must be some distinction. The soul cries out against this namelessness. And then it exaggerates. It tells you, “You were meant to astonish the world. You, Hymie Bateshaw, Stupor mundi! My boy, brace up. You have been called, and you will be chosen. So start looking the part. The generations of man will venerate you as long as calendars exist!” This is neurotic, I know - excuse the jargon - but to be not neurotic is to adjust to what they call the reality situation. But the reality situation is what I have described. A billion souls boiling with anger at a doom of insignificance.”
Anyway, this is me prepping to talk with Walsh, but it’s also me telling you: listen to this interview, and then, if you have some spare time, read some Bellow. He’s not tough to read. He’s great. He’s philosophical and hilarious, and he’ll make you feel better (and worse) about being a human.