“What you really want is to get rid of everybody, to tune out and be a law unto yourself.” These words are spoken to Charlie Citrine, the narrator of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, but could they not also refer to the contemporary reader, who must tell the world and its importuning texts and emails to shove off while he cracks a book? He certainly has to withdraw to read Humboldt’s Gift, a mess of a novel that overflows with information: “Human activity, often frenzied and feverish in Bellow’s fiction,” wrote John Updike in his ambivalent New Yorker review, “is more than ever felt as a distraction to thought.”
The novel’s here-comes-everybody quality can indeed be trying: skeins of plot and character unravel on every page, like text messages adding up on an airplane passenger’s phone upon landing. Charlie meditates on the author’s place in postwar America, on Chicago’s vanishing ethnic neighborhoods, on the nation’s decaying cities. He grapples with the costs of affluence and notoriety. He’s hassled by a mobster, sued by his ex-wife, teased by his mistress. He dabbles in Rudolf Steiner’s theosophical teachings and briefly tags along with Robert Kennedy, the senator’s “foxy head high with hair.” One wonders if Bellow needed to include summaries of not one but two film treatments; Charlie’s late travels to Texas and Madrid feel hurried and appended, and the literary allusions (“So spoke old Dr. Samuel Johnson, and added in the same speech, that the French writers were superficial…”) creak wearily by the book’s end.
Yet it’s thanks to all this motion that the novel now seems prescient. Written decades before an iPhone mewed from every pocket, it anticipated, in the sheer amount of stuff it throws at its hero, the daily churn of busyness that awaited the twenty-first-century individual—after a fashion, Humboldt’s Gift is the first great account of the digital age. Charlie’s insights into 1970s America feel especially calibrated to our hyperconnected world: he understands both the wages of overstimulation (“I knew that it took too much to gratify me. The gratification-threshold of my soul had risen too high”) and the paradox of endless information (“I knew everything I was supposed to know and nothing I really needed to know”). Moreover, he recognizes, and is preoccupied by, the difference between activity and meaningful work: “Sloth is really a busy condition, hyperactive,” he meditates. “This activity drives off the wonderful rest or balance without which there can be no poetry or art or thought—none of the highest human functions. These slothful sinners are not able to acquiesce in their own being, as some philosophers say. They labor because rest terrifies them.”
Rest terrifies Charlie, too, even as he ardently seeks it, because it is at rest that he is forced to think about the death of his old friend and mentor, the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher. This relationship lies at the novel’s heart, wrapped in its layers of agitation; the reader who successfully navigates the thickets of plot and thought will reach a bedrock tale of friendship, love, and death. Humboldt, a poet whose early promise gave way to madness while Charlie ascended to literary fame, regarded his friend’s success with suspicion and hostility. He ultimately died in shabbiness, an end Charlie has avoided contemplating for years. But as Charlie’s life falls apart, his finances drained by lawsuits and dissipation, he runs out of distractions, and the novel’s motion turns centripetal, circling ever closer to the inescapable fact of Humboldt’s death.
What often goes unspoken when we speak of distraction is what, exactly, we’re being distracted from. Humboldt’s Gift makes it clear that it’s the ultimate question of mortality: the novel ends with Humboldt’s reinterment in a proper cemetery after a long exile in a potter’s field, and Bellow renders Charlie’s graveside thoughts with muted poignancy. Humboldt, he reflects, “had opened his mouth and uttered some delightful verses. But then his heart failed him. Ah, Humboldt, how sorry I am. Humboldt, Humboldt—and this is what becomes of us.”
Bellow means “us” quite literally; on the final page, he all but holds the reader’s head over the grave as the poet’s coffin is sealed in its vault. “But then, how did one get out?” Charlie wonders. “One didn’t, didn’t, didn’t! You stayed, you stayed!”
What to make of an ending like that, particularly from an author who has asserted, pages earlier, that “we are not natural beings but supernatural beings”? Even Bellow must have found it a bit strong, for he tries to balance it with a mawkish image of spring’s first flowers. He needn’t have bothered. Bellow has no answer to the problem of death, but the five hundred riotous pages that precede the above passage are their own argument for paying attention to life: the lights in the unfinished skyscraper that look like “champagne bubbles,” Humboldt’s sport coat “bandoliered” with pens, the description of Russian baths with heated boulders stacked “like Roman ballistic ammunition.” No twentieth-century author was more urgently concerned with where we were before our birth, and where we go after our death—but what makes Bellow great is his ability to capture what transpires in between those two unknowns, to throw an inimitable light into life’s murkiest corners. If only we could pay attention.