December 27, 2007
Saul Bellow: Seize the Day
For the second leg of my attempt to read Saul Bellow’s novels – or, as I’ve read several already, should I say to enjoy Saul Bellow’s novels – in fact, as I’m not that ambitious, make that to get Saul Bellow’s novels – I thought I would go for one that’s even thinner than Dangling Man. Well it is Christmas. Seize the Day (1956) was Bellow’s fourth novel, coming immediately after his breakthrough book The Adventures of Augie March. It’s regarded as representative of his output, but in a bite-sized (118 pages) portion. So let’s get stuck in.
In fact I have read it before, a few years ago, but in the time-honoured tradition, I no longer had a single thought in my head about it, other than “not as bad as Herzog.” Herzog is often regarded as Bellow’s masterpiece, so that shows how much weight you should place on the following.
The difficulty with Seize the Day, as with so many books whose reputations precede them, is the conflict between expectation and experience. I would surely have enjoyed it more without any anticipation that this would be a life-changing read. As it is, I was stuck there halfway between following the novel in my own way, and waiting for the greatness to hit me. It didn’t in any obvious way, so I went out and looked for it. Looking for greatness in Bellow by forensically examining the pages is a little like cutting open a human body to search for the soul. It is everywhere and nowhere.
There are some fine nuggets which indicate the failure status of our hero, Tommy Wilhelm, right from the start: in the third sentence, we learn that “he had once been an actor – no, not quite, an extra.” And “early in the nineteen-thirties, because of his striking looks, he had very briefly been considered star material, and he had gone to Hollywood.” Just how briefly, we soon see:
Hollywood was his own idea, too. He used to pretend that it had all been the doing of a certain talent scout named Maurice Venice. But the scout had never made him a definite offer of a studio connection. He had approached him, but the results of the screen test had not been good. After the test Wilhelm took the initiative and pressed Maurice Venice until he got him to say, “Well, I suppose you might make it out there.” On the strength of this Wilhelm had left college and had gone to California.
One thing the talent scout does volunteer is that he marks Wilhelm down as “the type that loses the girl.” Some people this might discourage. But Wilhelm is his own creation in other ways too: his real name, Wilky Adler, was abandoned, leading to the first fissure in a strained relationship with his father. Nonetheless even his father, Dr Adler, feels the need to cover up for Wilhelm’s inadequacies, describing him to a friend as a “sales executive” with an income “up in the five figures somewhere.”
Despite his troubles, Wilhelm almost laughed. Why, that bounding old hypocrite. He knew the sales executive was no more. For many weeks there had been no executive, no sales, no income. But how we love looking fine in the eyes of the world! … It’s Dad, thought Wilhelm, who is the salesman. He’s selling me. He should have gone on the road.
“Despite his troubles” indeed, because Wilhelm has not had them to seek. He is separated and his wife refuses to give him a divorce, while “giving him the works” by leeching as much of his irregular income as she can. He is living in a hotel and cannot pay his bill. His path through life, begun when he abandoned college to avoid “the narrow life of the average,” has become a dead end, or worse, a maze of possibilities, none of them very tempting. He wants freedom from his mistakes, his past and his self:
His spirit, the peculiar burden of his existence lay upon him like an accretion, a load, a lump. In any moment of quiet, when sheer fatigue prevented him from struggling, he was apt to feel this mysterious weight, this growth or collection of nameless things which it was the business of his life to carry about.
At the same time Wilhelm doubts whether he can ever be free: “Don’t talk to me about being free. A rich man may be free on an income of a million net. A poor man may be free because nobody cares what he does. But a fellow in my position has to sweat it out until he drops dead.” And his way of trying to get to be a rich man – while heading quite surely in the other direction – is to invest in … lard futures (a touch of comic genius from Bellow), at the behest of a philosophising adviser called Dr Tamkin (“I deal in facts. Facts always are sensational. I’ll say that a second time. Facts always! are sensational”). Tamkin – is he really a doctor? – is a man of “vain mustache” and “deceiver’s brown eyes.” As with Wilhelm himself and Dr Adler, Bellow’s portrayal of Tamkin is perfect and memorable, simply because he emphasises enough to make his character stick in the mind without overwriting.
Wilhelm, at a low ebb (“trouble rusts out the system”), places his trust in Dr Tamkin and his easy ways with an aphorism.
The past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real – the here-and-now. Seize the day.
But Wilhelm learns that lard futures are also full of anxiety, and on the single day when the story is set, a day when “willing or not, he would take a good close look at the truth,” he finds that the future can go down as well as up, and that on the subject of losers, Nick Berry may have been a little simplistic.
So once again I find myself unable to engage on any meaningful level with the text of a Saul Bellow novel. The act of splurging my first impressions here, however, has at least raised the book in my estimation, and made me understand that there is much, much further for me to go with this man. If Wilhelm is right in saying that “maybe the making of mistakes expressed the very purpose of his life and the essence of his being here,” then the decision to have a further crack at Saul Bellow no longer seems to me quite the mistake it did just a short time ago.