December 27, 2007

Saul Bellow: Seize the Day

Posted in Bellow Saul, Penguin Modern Classics at 1:19 pm by John Self

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.

Seize the Day

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.

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28 Comments »

  1. Tony S. said,

    I have also struggled to appreciate Saul Bellow’s work. He did write this long short story called “The Silver Dish” which I remember had a strong impact on me and I liked very much. This might be a gross generalization, but it seems like a lot of the major American novelists don’t see a novel as a long story about several characters with a well-constructed plot, but an attempt to capture a whole person’s life (Rabbit Angstrom or Herzog or Nathan Zuckerman or Frank Bascombe). So instead of a well-constructed story with several interesting characters, we get a person’s whole life which is necessarily cobbled together. English writers are much more apt to see a novel as a story about a group of characters, each character as important as the next, rather than egotistically focusing on a character that resembles the novelist himself. I recently finished “The Welsh Girl” by Peter Ho Davies, and this is a fine example of a well-constructed story with several interesting characters. I did notice that Peter Ho Davies is now living in Michigan, so I hope he stays with the English way of writing novels.

  2. Tony S. said,

    Reading your review of Bellow, I began thinking of the differences between English and American novels. English novels usually have a well-constructed story or plot with several interesting characters. The major American novelists usually write about the entire life of one character, usually male, (Rabbit Angstrom, Nathan Zuckerman, Herzog, Frank Bascombe). Since the American novel is dealing with a person’s entire life, the story is necessarily cobbled with a lot of irrelevancies, and since the main protagonist usually resembles the novelist, it’s kind of egotistical. I much prefer the English model with a well-constructed plot and several well-developed characters, all as significant as the next. A fine example of a well-constructed English novel is “The Welsh Girl” by Peter Ho Davies which I just finished reading. This story and its characters are put together very solidly. But it says on the back cover that Peter Ho Davies has moved to Michigan, so I hope he doesn’t pick up any bad habits. . .

  3. John Self said,

    An interesting observation, Tony, which wouldn’t have occurred to me. I’m a big fan of The Welsh Girl as you’ve probably seen. Perhaps it’s my English (or at least UK-ish) upbringing that makes me more attuned to those novels than the US big boys. I have however developed a real taste for Roth over the past year and a more mixed taste for Updike before that, and I’m hoping that Bellow is one that I’m capable of acquiring too. All those writers who nominated him in a (London) Sunday Times poll as the greatest living English language novelist in the 1990s can’t be wrong … can they?

  4. Isabel said,

    I find that I don’t read too many novels from the US. I guess since I live there, I don’t find many characters interesting.

  5. This is where we differ. Why do you feel the need to read authors you do not like? Life is too short for me. I used to even make myself finish books I didn’t like but not anymore. The sooner I leave em the sooner I can get on to something more enjoyable.

    I put up my year’s best list. Happy New Year to you.

  6. John Self said,

    I suppose hope springs eternal is the answer to your question, Candy! Also I blame Philip Roth, as mentioned above: I hated the first book of his I read, now I love him. I can’t help wanting similar alchemy from Bellow.

  7. Well good luck with Bellow. I gave him a good hard try about fifteen years ago and the same with Roth about thirty years ago (altho I suppose he may have changed lately). I think I was fair with both of them and I have too large a pile of unreads to want to risk it again. You have more fortitude than I.

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t know what it is like in Britain but over here in the U.S. the religion thing is getting truly frightening. I have to take a dose of sanity whenever I can.

  8. Sam said,

    Dear John

    I’m a frequent reader of your site, but this is the first time I’ve been moved to post. I just wanted to append a couple of my own thoughts on this, one of my favourite books, to the end of your well-considered review.

    I read Seize The Day for the first time around ten months ago and have re-read it twice since. I love it. And I think I returned to it because the characters, as you rightly point out, are memorable. I think they’re made so alive for the reader because of Bellow’s brilliant lyrical dynamism. His characters seem to shimmer into wonderful focus right in front of your eyes: “The doctor looked at him with his deadly brown, heavy, impenetrable eyes, his naked shining head, his red, hanging underlip…” Or: “[H]e retracted his heavy shoulders in a peculiar way, drawing his hands up into his sleeves; his feet moved uneasily under the table – but he was worried, too, and somewhat indignant.” Or when Wilhelm “raised his bearish figure” and walks out of the dining room on his “bending legs”. So much is relayed to the reader with the deftest of touches: “Dr. Adler opened his eyes into Wilhelm’s face. At once he saw the trouble in it, and by an instantaneous reflex he removed himself from the danger of contagion, and he asked serenely…” Bellow’s always looking – and looking intensely – at his fidgety characters, which does mean that there’s less time for narrative drive and some of the others pleasures of fiction (like a plot). But I don’t mind: because of his own relentless gaze, I think he makes me look harder, too, and think harder about things.

    My only other point – just so people aren’t left with the impression that this is not an affective book – would be to say that I do find Seize The Day moving. Wilhelm’s anxiety is touching, particularly when we hear him think: “That the doctor cared about him pleased him. This was what he craved, that someone should care about him, wish him well.” And the final scene in which Tommy wanders into a stranger’s funeral and begins to cry uncontrollably, is, to my mind (and possibly to my mind only!), very moving.

    All best, and a Happy New Year

    Sam

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks for your valuable comments Sam. I think this just goes to show that a book can have as many interpretations and responses as there are readers. As I hope the end of my post indicated, I did warm to Seize the Day more the more I thought about it, and I will be trying more Bellow, perhaps Mr Sammler’s Planet next … if only because it’s the next shortest of the ones I have!

  10. Nico said,

    Again, wonderful info in your blog. Thanks!! You should definetly give it a try to ‘Humboldt´s Gift’, an incredible novel by Bellow (according to Nadine Gordimer, his best–I agree). And what about other US authors that happen to be women: Joyce Carol Oates, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich, etc.

  11. John Self said,

    Thanks Nico – in fact I do have Humboldt’s Gift on my bookshelves, so maybe 2008 will be my year of Bellow…

    I know a little about Joyce Carol Oates (mainly, that she publishes an awful lot of books!) but not much about Ozick or Erdrich. (I did read a wonderful collection of stories many years ago called Working Men by Michael Dorris, Erdrich’s partner, who later killed himself. But that’s as close as I’ve come to her.) Can you fill me in?

  12. nico said,

    Oh, Joyce Carol Oates is such a wonderful writer, I saw her in december live, I couldn’t believe it. She is very prolific and even writes under 3 pseudonisms. She has story collections (of the grotesque, such as ‘Haunted’ and ‘I am no one you know'; her latest ‘The female of the species’) and several novels. If you want to choose short ones I would recommend ‘Zombie’ or ‘Black Water’, or ‘Rape: a love story’, or her Gothic classic ‘First Love’. But you know with her there’s ambivalence, in terms of reaction. But Ozick you MUST get something. You will love her novels (and/or collection of essays. Extremely literary): ‘The puttermesser papers’ and ‘Heir to the Glimmering World’. I think that in the UK this last one is called ‘The bear boy’. So check it out. From Erdrich I would recommend ‘Love medicine’.

  13. John Self said,

    Thanks nico. Oddly, when I logged onto Amazon yesterday it was spontaneously recommending Ozick’s collected stories to me. Sounds like synchronicity to me – will definitely look her out.

    EDIT: I’ve ordered The Bear Boy – thanks for the recommendation, nico!

  14. Stewart said,

    The only Oates I’ve read was Black Water and while I enjoyed the frenzied prose-poetry of it, I didn’t like it all that much. That may just be becaues it had an angle on American politics which I’m not particularly interested in.

  15. Nico said,

    That’s true, that american politics things. Still… worth reading ‘The falls’ or ‘The gravedigger’s daughter’. But I didn’t know about the collection of Ozick’s stories. I’ve read several. There’s one amazing story, ‘Shots’, parallel to Cortazar’s ‘The devil’s drool’, (Antonioni made a movie out of it, ‘Blow up’), and of course her masterpiece, ‘The Shawl’.

  16. John Self said,

    Nico, I read The Shawl at the weekend and will be posting about it here in the next week or so. It’s absolutely terrific. Incidentally, I don’t know how I missed this coincidence before, but Ozick actually provides the introduction to the edition of Seize the Day which this post is about!

  17. nico said,

    Yes, you’re right. Happy to see more expansions!!

  18. [...] Papers around about ten years ago – but she never floated to the front of my awareness until Nico made a comment on my blog a few months ago. He recommended The Bear Boy (also titled Heir to the Glimmering World) [...]

  19. Tom said,

    I would second the suggestion of ‘Humboldt’s Gift’. It was the first of Bellow’s books that I read, and I loved it. Then I read ‘Augie March’, ‘Seize the day’, ‘Herzog’, the collected short stories and, most recently, ‘Dangling Man’, and found in all of them only certain parts which I enjoyed anywhere near as much as I did ‘Humboldt’s Gift’, which trumped them on all counts. Hopefully you’ll find that it delivers too, though I’m not sure whether my enjoyment would have been diluted had I encountered Bellow’s trademark concerns and stylistic quirks in embryonic form (in ‘Dangling Man’, ‘Seize the Day’, ‘Augie March’ etc) before I came to it.

    Anyway, I’m still keen to persevere with the rest of Bellow’s novels. Even if none of them come close to ‘Humboldt’s Gift’, they all throw up countless exquisite lines and ideas.

  20. John Self said,

    Thanks for the recommendation Tom. It’s interesting that Humboldt’s Gift is your favourite and the first Bellow you read: I often find that an author never surpasses my first taste of their books. I wonder if this is a widespread phenomenon?

    ‘Exquisite lines and ideas’ I would happily go along with for Bellow. For me the difficulty is in gathering up the bottle to tackle 450 pages of exquisite lines and ideas one after another…

  21. John said,

    Reading your review of Sieze the Day says everything I felt when I read my first and, to date, only Bellow book. Borrowed a shiny new Penguin Modern Classics edition of ‘The Victim’ in my library. In the blurb there was a quote from some guy praising the book to be the best American novel of the 20th century, and a note reminding us that the autor is the winner of the Nobel prize for literature.

    What a let down! It’s readable stuff, but I’m waiting for something at the end that never comes. Doesn’t get me asking myself all the questions and doesn’t seem to attempt to justify the sometimes verbose detail in the descriptions. The hope that he’s written better forces me to perist with him and maybe read ‘Humboldt’s Gift’ or ‘Herzog’ next.

    However your comments about reputations, anticipation, expectation and experience and waiting for the greatness to hit you and then when it doesn’t, going to seek it out yourself and still not finding much of it, voices exactly how I secretly felt about ‘The Victim’ and that’s not exactly an encouragement. But I’m young so maybe the greatness or the power won’t hit me until I’m in my 30’s or 40’s?

    Outstanding blog by the way. John.

  22. John Self said,

    Thank you very much John. As you’ve seen, I can’t offer much encouragement on Bellow, though the fact that I keep persisting with him might be seen as a good sign in itself. I am in my 30s and I think perhaps I get a little more out of him than I did when I first read him in my 20s. Certainly there are authors like that: I think age has been a factor in my new-found appreciation of that other American big boy, Philip Roth.

    You’ll also have seen above that others recommend Humboldt’s Gift, and certainly Herzog is regarded by many as his best. My main difficulty with Bellow though, I think, is a practical one: to get anything out of his books, I need to reduce my reading speed by about half, which I find immensely frustrating. I am an impatient reader. But your comments have, perhaps perversely, made me want to try something else of his, so perhaps by the time you’ve read another of his, I will have too!

  23. Kerry said,

    I have just posted on my newly minted blog regarding my reactions to Seize the Day, which I just finished. I had actually read your post before, but had long since forgotten the specifics. I am a little shocked looking back that you did not enjoy it. I suppose I only remembered the “growing on you” part.

    Anyway, I love your blog. You provide great reviews. The comments have answered my question about where to turn next. In addition, they have raised the spectre of Oates. I love Oates, but mostly only like her books. The exceptions (so far) are THE GRAVEDIGGER’s DAUGHTER and BEASTS. I highly recommend that you start with BEASTS. It is a dark novella about obsession. Based on the books you like, and the allure of a short introduction to an author, I suggest that one to start. Of course, it is not representative of her other work. THE GRAVEDIGGER’S DAUGHTER is more representative of her “typical” style, though, as your commenters point out, she writes prolificly and in many genres.

  24. Kerry said,

    My name seems not to have linked to my blog, so for the shameless plug: You can click here for my blog, Hungry Like the Woolf. Anyway, I do hope you’ll try Oates’ BEASTS, because I would love to read your thoughts.

  25. John Self said,

    Thanks Kerry for the comments and Oates tips. Curiously, my memory of what I said about this book was that I more or less liked it, so I guess it must be one of those that works in the memory long after. I still consider Bellow a munro I must bag, so to speak.

    Sadly your link hasn’t come up, Kerry. I take it this is it? I look forward to browsing it later (I’m just back from holiday and skimming through all my usual sites at the moment to catch up on things). You can change your profile through WordPress so that your blog link will appear in your name each time you leave a comment on another WP blog.

  26. Erik said,

    Hi John and others,

    I just finished “Seize the Day” last night, my first Bellow read.

    While I agree that the plot is perhaps a little thin and the story may not stick with me till the end of my days, I do find that Bellow’s exploration of Tommy’s character very enjoyable and very “human”.

    Bellow presents a nervous, frustrated, slightly desperate and occasionally very angry loser in a convincing way and with a lot of wit. He convincingly brought a corner of 1950s Manhattan and its characters to life for me and I am therefore grateful for having read “Seize the Day”.

    Has anyone read “Ravelstein”, written by Herzog in 2000?

    PS John, that blog post and comments on the Guardian website, “Best known for the wrong book”, published in July 2011, was a great inspiration. It made me go out and buy several very enjoyable books.

    • John Self said,

      Thanks Erik! Glad to have been of service.

      I haven’t read Ravelstein and don’t know anyone who has. I don’t think it’s widely regarded as one of his best.

  27. Erik said,

    Thank you! In my previous post, that should have read “Bellow” instead of “Herzog”, of course.


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