Humboldt’s Gift is loosely based on Saul Bellow’s relationship with Delmore Schwartz who, as a short story writer and poet, in his early twenties burned as brightly as the best of them before failing to live up to the expectations that were placed on his young shoulders by the waiting literary observers. It’s impossible to unstitch the story of Delmore Schwartz, and in turn his own work as a writer/poet and teacher, from New York’s cultural landscape. At Syracuse University he taught a young Lou Reed, whose band, The Velvet Underground, would dedicate ‘European Son’ to him. In later years Schwartz’s life would be curtailed by increasing mental health problems and Bellows story begins with his narrator, ‘the successful’ Charlie Citrine, the toast of senators and Broadway (his hit play is about a character based on Humboldt’s genius) alike, hidden behind a car, spying his one time friend, in the gutter eating a pretzel stick, “the dirt of the grave already sprinkled on his face.” This is the last time that Citrine will see the older writer alive before he reads his depressing obituary (“for after all Humboldt did what poets in crass America are supposed to do.”) five years later. Back in his native Chicago to write his masterpiece on Boredom Citrine finds his own life to be in a slump. But then after a chance encounter with a small time hood at a poker game he is reunited with his old friend’s legacy and so he is forced to reavulate his own life. Whilst the premise of story is just that, this is also a book full of wisdom about the meaning of success, what it is to be ‘real’ and why America loves to see it’s poets, those who strive most of all to be real, dead. Advertised as having an introduction by the formidable Martin Amis, its mysterious omission will not hinder your enjoyment of this warm book. Read one of these books and you’ll want to read the other whilst listening to the echo of the Velvet Underground in your head.
Humboldt’s Gift: Saul Bellow/In Dreams Begin Responsibilities: Delmore Schwartz