The first time I started Humboldt’s Gift, I gave up halfway through; Sven Birkerts’ rapturous essay in Reading Life brought it back to my attention and this time, I managed to complete it. (Further proof that wisdom comes with age).
Bellow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the travails of writer Charlie Citrine and his relationship with the doomed poet Von Humboldt Fleischer (drawn from Delmore Schwartz) can be seen as another triumph of the author’s voice – one that is intelligent, voraciously well-read, colloquial, ironic and often arcane. This, in fact, is what keeps one reading, despite the many exasperating digressions and the clearly white-male-Eurocentric viewpoint.
It’s as much about what living in Chicago does to your sensitivities as it is about the commodification of culture and the writer’s struggle to keep head above water. And, lest you imagine that all this makes it dark and pessimistic, it’s often very funny, too. I wonder what I’ll make of it when I re-read it years from now.