A Canadian-American writer Saul Bellow created Humboldt’s Gift with a beautiful blend of liveliness and dark humour. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Bellow is known as one of the prominent American writers of 20th century and also won the Nobel Prize for his literary work.
Bellow wanted it to be a short story but it became a roman à clef relating to friendship of Bellow and the poet Delmore Schwartz. This novel scrutinises the reforming relation of power and art in materialistic society of America. This subject is explored through the divergent line of work of two authors Von Humboldt Fleisher – a version of Schwartz to some extent, and his pupil Charlie Citrine – a version of Saul Bellow. Fleisher desires to raise America through art, but dies without any success. On the other hand, Charlie earns huge money through his publication, mainly from a Broadway play & a film about a character Von Trenck, representing Fleisher.
The novel contains a lot of childhood memories of Charlie, and the time he spent in Greenwich Village with Humboldt Fleischer, his mentor, who by the time of telling has fallen into insanity and death. All through the novel, Charlie is driven by the memories & retaliations of Fleischer.
The novel begins with a short memory of Charlie’s child-hood in Chicago, when for the first time he reads ‘The Harlequin Ballads’ by NY poet Von Humboldt Fleischer. Humboldt’s work has a great impact on Charlie, so he borrows some money from his girlfriend and leave for Greenwich Village in search of his new hero.
Humboldt Fleischer welcomes Charlie as a pupil, and they establish a long lasting connection that starts with the thrilling sensation of living as Marxists during early years of cold war, criticising the authorities, cussing capitalism, drinking wine and living poets’ and scholars’ lives.
Turning back to the present moment, in the mid 1970s in Chicago, when Charlie, now a middle aged man wakes up in his apartment to his life’s worst day. His ex-wife is bringing a suit against him, and the IRS is in search of him. And on top of that a criminal named Rinaldo Cantabile is giving him threatening calls. It does not ends here, when Charlie goes out to the street, he finds his Mercedes beaten with a baseball bat & hammers, and he’s aware that it is none other than Rinaldo Cantabile.
Rinaldo is after Charlie because ceased payment on a cheque written to mobster to pay a poker debt. Charlie ceased this payment because George Swiebel, his friend told him that Rinaldo with his cousin was swindling the game hosted by George. Charlie gives Rinaldo a call and assents to settle this, but Rinaldo asks for money in a public forum to please his ego.
Rinaldo takes Charlie to various comedy episodes at several landmarks of Chicago, at last receiving money on a stormy night on a skyscraper girder under construction in Chicago. Rinaldo then proclaims himself as a friend of Charlie and troubled him approx. for three months, and even follows him to Europe.
In the middle of all this crux, Charlie starts his relationship with Renata, a young and beautiful woman with a gluttonous hunger for sex, deep understanding of carnal charms, a fondness of lavish things and a desire of becoming wife of Charlie.
Going further into Charlie memories, we come to know that he married Denise and also fathered her two daughters. Although she has got hold of a lot of Charlie’s wealth, but she is committed to take every single penny he owns. After Denise, Charlie gets involved with Demmie, who meets death with her parents in plane crash.
Death is preying on Charlie’s mind, and he is fully convinced that the soul doesn’t die with the body. All through this novel, Charlie devotes a lot of time thinking about this and other supernatural queries. By the end of this book, he has become accustomed to reading & talking to the dead. Saul Bellow skilfully and comically entwine this specific oddity of Charlie into a well-woven tapestry of an American psychopathic old man.
Also dealing with the sensuality of an ageing person, Charlie is going through the distress & rite of path linked with getting older. After being dumped by his teenage lover in Madrid, Charlie was shattered completely, but this incident makes him more sensible, and provides him with a more composed outlook towards sexuality.
Although Charlie is the main focus of this story with his intellectual & emotional struggle, but other cameo and minor characters of the story add profoundness and provide humorous experience of life in America.