Tuesday 25 March 2014

Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow

 “One must bear in mind the odd angle or slant that the rays of love have to take in order to reach a heart like mine.”

By my recognition, Saul Bellow has rightfully earned his place amongst the greatest American writers of the 20th century so one can understand my high expectations when approaching this particular novel, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Charles Citrine, the esoteric protagonist and narrator of the story recalls that his literary idol and mentor, a once famous poet name Humboldt Fleisher, admonished the literary award with ironic vehemence: “The Pulitzer is for the birds—for the pullets. It’s just a dummy newspaper publicity award given by crooks and illiterates. You become a walking Pulitzer ad, so even when you croak the first words of the obituary are ‘Pulitzer prize winner passes’” (3).  It makes me wonder if Mr. Bellow still harbored these negative sentiments or had a change of heart when accepting the award.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow is a flawed masterpiece, a wildly ambitious tour-de force with the author in top form. Once again, his inimitable writing style featuring the harmonious fusion between scholarly discourse and virtuoso literary aesthetics is funny, poignant, insightful and overflowing with ideas but he is unable to maintain the same consistent momentum or quality of writing established in the first half of the novel. Despite the uneven narrative structure that seems to be split into two completely different novels altogether—the first part focusing on the narrator’s inner thoughts, personal reflections and philosophical reveries greatly overshadowing the second half that is more story-oriented, containing a bizarre series of events, odd character encounters (Charlie’s relationship with an eccentric mobster named Cantible is a perfect example) that seem so out of place, eventually leading to some  questionable outcomes—Bellow should still be commended for managing to keep the overwhelming amount of story material intact from imploding on itself throughout 500 pages even though the narrative gets away from him as it hiccups towards the end. Despite this minor hindrance, Saul Bellow is a very clever writer who uses irony to highlight the absurdities of the narrative—one is not supposed to take the novel at face-value, it satirizes the intellectual as a phony, a buffoon, a failure. At first, this approach hindered my overall enjoyment of the novel because Bellow’s flippant sardonic humor conflicts with my own literary aspirations. Why shouldn’t the artist be recognized as having a prestigious status if their talents prove worthy of esteem? Upon further reflection, it dawned on me that Bellow is using irony as justification for legitimizing the artist in a society that no longer recognizes them not as a group of intellectuals but rather as the creators  behind vapid ‘entertainments’ that come out of Hollywood every year. This irony becomes explicitly clear at the end of the novel when Charlie discovers Humboldt’s gift to him beyond the grave (hence, the title of the novel  takes on a double-meaning since it refers to Humboldt’s talents as a poet along with his “gift” bequeathed to Charlie that solves his financial problems). 

Furthermore, irony is used to subvert the haughty sententiousness of Charlie’s predisposition as an artist who intends to enlighten humanity and influence society through his work, yet his approach is passive; he theorizes eloquently and draws conclusions but is reluctant to take any immediate action to confront many of the contentious issues of living as an artist in a capitalist western society, nor is he willing to address the problems of his own life in a rational manner, which of course causes serious repercussions including divorce, various court proceedings, lawsuits, extortion, the involvement with hoodlums and failed relationships. Charlie recognizes the contradictions of his intellectual life: “What good is all this reading if you can’t use it in the crunch?” (87). Again, more irony. The falling-out between Humboldt and Charlie is a direct result of intellectual stubbornness by both parties, however, the latter is plagued by a guilty conscious after reading about Humboldt’s death in the paper (don’t worry, this is not a spoiler since it occurs in the first few pages) and this sends a flood of memories as he attempts to reconcile the past. Charlie prefers live in the metaphysical realm, avoiding direct experience by replacing it with art and philosophical discourse. With an air of self-righteousness, he believes that it is his responsibility as a distinguished writer and member of the intellectual elite to change the way people perceive the world through the influence of his art as well as continuing the work of other artists, like his late friend Humboldt Fleisher: “It means that the only art intellectuals can be interested in is an art which celebrates the primacy of ideas. Artists must interest intellectuals, this new class. This is why the state of culture and the history of culture become the subject matter of art” (32). As challenging as this endeavor seems to Charlie, his intellectual snobbery only serves to alienate those around him and drive them away.  

Charlie takes solace in meditation, to free the mind from all external influences in order to achieve an enlightened state of being. He refers to this activity as an “exercise in contemplation or Spirit-recollection (the purpose of which was to penetrate into the depths of the soul and to recognize the connection between the self and the divine powers)” (143-144). Religious connotations aside, Charlie spends the first half of the novel engaged in his own therapy session; stretched out on the sofa, he attempts to make sense of his entire life that is spinning out of control through this intellectual exercise of deep contemplation. His ramblings thoughts whirl in every direction as he reflects on the past, his adolescence, former girlfriends, the money grubbing ex-wife, his capricious girlfriend Renata, his tenuous relationship with Humboldt. Additionally, he tackles a great deal of complex issues and ideas, including art, history, pop-culture, philosophy, literature, science, religion, sociology—Bellow is full of encyclopaedic knowledge; he fills his pages with extensive references while expounding on so many different subjects with fervent enthusiasm.  In a similar style to many of his other works, there is less focus on a traditional narrative and more emphasis placed upon the exploration of ideas, an engagement of intellectual discussion. This time around, the main concern is twofold: anthroposophy (theories of the human soul) and death. Charlie is terrified of death (something that I can easily relate to) and is eager to justify his failed life with the belief that humans must possess an immortal soul that is connected to the after-life, otherwise life is meaningless. His intention is to write a significant work, a dissertation on “boredom” focusing on its impact on capitalist society, the connection to sleep and to the human soul. Just thinking about the many lengthy passages devoted to his theoretical undertaking makes my head spin. 

Similar to Philip Sydney or Percy Shelley, Bellow attempts to write his own “Defense of Poetry” for the 20th century and ardently puts forth arguments supporting the artist—in this case the poet—but realizes the many contradictions associated with this role. Charlie goes on to describe the irony of Humboldt’s artistic yearnings:

“He wanted to be magically and cosmically expressive and articulate, able to say anything; he wanted also to be wise, philosophical, to find the common ground of poetry and science to prove that the imagination was just as potent as machinery to free and to bless humankind. But he was out also to be rich and famous” (121). 

This juxtaposition between the artist and capitalist society is an issue that is frequently addressed and Charlie struggles to come to terms with his success and sense of self-worth. Furthermore, the role of the poet in contemporary society is no longer considered prestigious, nor is it highly valued as a lucrative or profession that contributes much to society:

“The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can’t perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar system.  Miracle and power no longer belong to him. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here” (119).

The reference to Orpheus is an obvious hyperbole but the argument is clear:  Poets are no longer praised as valuable members of society like they were in previous centuries. With the advance of technology and the push towards rationalization, the poet is now obsolete, a memento of times past when literary traditions were regarded as important aspects of culture but now they no longer have a place in capitalist society. Charlie continues his position:  

“It was not the factory or department store, not the great corporation office or bureaucratic civil service, it was not the routine job world. If you could arrange to avoid that routine job-world, you were an intellectual or an artist. Too restless, tremorous, agitated, too mad to sit at a desk eight hours a day, you needed an institution—a higher institution” (135). 

The material world has changed, industries have greatly expanded and globalization is taking over.  Therefore, the poet, intellectual or whatever else title you want to call the artist, is someone who challenges the system by avoiding the 9-5 job in order to apply their time and energies to creative enterprises. Of course, this bohemian lifestyle is no longer practical and unless there is income from other sources, it is rare nowadays to be a full-time artist. This is only one aspect of the novel worth exploring. There is so much more story-material to unpack and ideas to analyze. 

Many are sure to find Bellow’s style to be obnoxious and preachy (this is true to a certain extent) but even if he does get carried away at times with his lecturing or philosophical digressions, his writing is such an absolute pleasure to read. He might be an erudite scholar but his prose is not dense or monotonous as one might expect. On the contrary, Bellow possesses such a command of language—his words possess an exuberant energy, sharpness and eloquence that is mesmerizing.  The descriptions are vividly realized, the attention to detail is most striking and his witty humor is spot on. Even though his characterizations may not be the most impressive, Bellow has a knack for writing great dialogue and it is always a joy to hear his characters speak, especially when they debate or bounce ideas off one another.  Unless you happen to already be a fan of Saul Bellow’s work, this is a difficult novel to recommend to newcomers despite being fairly accessible. Then again, it is bound to appeal to anyone with an inquisitive mind, those interested in studying literature or aspiring writers who are committed to mastering the craft. Academics and scholars also seem to be the intended demographic. Nonetheless, this is a richly complex literary work that appeals to my own sensibilities—Bellow being one of those special authors whose writing I find myself connecting with on a personal and philosophical level. Not to mention, I am also quite partial to novels about writers struggling in their artistic and personal lives. Humboldt’s Gift is a wonderful reading experience with my appreciation of its greatness rising as I continue to mull it over. There is very little doubt that I will enjoy it even more with a closer-reading.

This novel is part of my Saul Bellow Project. 

Monday 24 March 2014

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

 “This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature.”

I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction and just happened picked this one up on a whim at the library. This might be a short novel  that can easily be read in one sitting (clocks in at 150 pages) but it is very well-written, full of powerful pithy observations about memory, adolescence, love, friendships, aging, remorse and death--in essence, Barnes is able to effectively tap into the many joyous and painful experiences that accompany one's life. Here is one of many quotes that bowled me over: 

"For the most of us, the first experience if love, even if it doesn’t work out—perhaps especially when it doesn’t work out—promises that here is the thing that validates, that vindicates life. And though subsequent years might alter this view, until some of us give up on it altogether, when love first strikes, there’s nothing like it, is there? Agreed?” 

Well said, Mr. Barnes. The novel is full of these wonderful insights, making it a delightful and worthwhile read but a winner of the Man Booker Prize? Nah. I wouldn't go that far. While Julian Barnes should be commended for his understated meditation on memory and engaging psychological character study, the story leaves much to be desired. Written in the first-person, the novel opens with the narrator  reflecting on some fragmented memories that connect to his childhood relationship with Adrian Finn, an intelligent and precocious schoolmate whom he greatly admires. However, it soon becomes apparent that Tony is trying to reconstruct the past in order to make sense of the present but his memories are distorted with the passage of time. The novel takes on the form of a mystery in which the narrator is searching for answers but they are hidden within repressed memories so he must plunge deep into his murky consciousness in order to extract the truth. Barnes is keen to emphasizes the dichotomy between history and memory. Adrian Finn believes that history "is that certainty produced at that point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation" (59) whereas Tony has a more solipsistic view: "History is the lies of the victors or is it the self-delusions of the defeated?" (122). It is important to keep these two opposing viewpoints in mind since fact and fiction are constantly blurred. Tony cannot be trusted as a reliable narrator, his memories being altered by time and  manipulated by own consciousness in order to repress the truth of having a painful past.

Unfortunately, Barnes isn't as clever as he might think he is and the story falls apart in the final few pages once the true revelations come to light. For me, the "twist" ending is ludicrous, one of those WTF kind of moments that ruins the entire novel. 'Tis is a shame because everything up to this point is surprisingly great. Thus, I will eschew from revealing too much about the plot for anyone interested in checking this one out.   As a fan of brevity, Barnes is able to construct an adequate novel with great insight, sardonic wit and humor that is compelling enough for a quick read but not one that leaves an indelible impression.  

Friday 7 March 2014

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

"If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger."

Well, that was a total waste of time. Why do I keep forcing myself to read such drivel when there are so many other great pieces of literature to discover? Alas, I do seem to possess certain masochistic tendencies, often going through the grueling process of self-inflicted torture just to reach the end of a novel but these unpleasant reading experiences are worthless undertakings bordering on near delusion as a form of self-aggrandizement. Reading should be an enjoyable and rewarding experience without mental suffering akin to shock-therapy. Much to my frustration (mostly at myself for the lack of willpower to just toss the book aside, although plenty of vitriolic criticism is reserved for the author as well), the only accomplishment obtained here is the fact that I can now claim to have finally read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, which is not exactly a noteworthy feat by any means. Besides, who really cares anyways if I have read a highly praised classic novel written in the 1840s? Did I gain any valuable insight from it or will I now be a better person for having done so? No.  However, one, if not the only positive aspect is the realization of how foolish and irrational I have been on my journey to re-discover the classics. From this moment on, I vow to stay true to myself and not give in to the ridiculous notion that it is imperative to finish a novel just for the sake of completion, either to please others or to comply with the general consensus. Seriously, life is too short for such futile endeavors. 

Sorry for that little rant, now we can proceed to the review. There is no surprise as to where my opinion stands concerning this novel. It is baffling to me how so many people praise Wuthering Heights as an alleged “masterpiece" of the English literary cannon and one of the greatest doomed love affairs between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff ever written. Even if you have never read the novel or know anything about it, you have likely heard of this title or the names of these two famous characters, since the novel has achieved a type of iconic literary status. If I am to be considered a philistine for failing to recognize its “genius” or to be the least bit deserving of such fervent commendations, so be it. I have no reservations for denouncing this novel’s reputation, which as far as I can tell, has been championed largely by those who feel it prudent to jump on the literary band-wagon. Or maybe people seem to find something romantic about the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff. She’s a snobby, selfish, temperamental upper-class brat and he’s a brooding, diabolical sociopath of pure evil who is hell-bent on seeking revenge against her for marrying someone else instead of him. A match made in heaven. 

This is not a love story folks. As a psychologically case study, Heathcliff makes an interesting subject for analysis. Adopted by Catherine’s father from undisclosed circumstances, he is treated horribly by Catherine and her brother, prone to incessant teasing and ridicule for being an outsider. All of these negative influences eventually turn him into a spiteful and malevolent villain. At first, it is easy to sympathize with the young Heathcliff since he is a victim of an abusive household. He runs away from the estate in distress after Catherine goes on to marry some dude named Edgar Linton, only to return a couple of years later as a wealthy man (the source of his fortune left ambiguous) but by then, he has transformed into an unsympathetic scoundrel. During his absence, he knocks up Edgar’s sister who gives birth to a son, but the boy suffers from poor health. Unable to stand his cold and unloving disposition, she leaves him, taking the child with her. Even after Catherine dies (sorry for the spoiler but it happens fairly early on in the novel, although her death should have occurred sooner—good riddance!) he still harbors resentment against her for slighting his affections all those years ago. Determined to achieve complete retribution, he patiently waits for her brother to die in order to gain control of the estate. However, Catherine leaves behind a daughter, who is also named Catherine but as a female, she cannot inherit lands and titles. Heathcliff is also unable receive the inheritance because he is not blood relation. Haunted by the past and unable to let go of his love for Catherine, he is driven to madness. He returns to Wuthering Heights with a devious plan to influence an impending marriage between Linton and Catherine Jr. Heathcliff despises his son, cares nothing for his well-being and only wants to use him in his malicious scheme. Knowing full well that Linton is sickly and all he has to do is wait for his early demise so that the inheritance will finally be transferred to him. Also, having Catherine Jr. as a daughter-in-law, places her in close proximity to him (her father being quite adamant to keep her away from Thrushcross Grange, Heathcliff’s place of residence). This living arrangement allows Heathcliff to treat Catherine Jr. as a prisoner, providing the opportunity to use her as a pin-cushion for all of her mother’s wrongdoings. This Heathcliff fellow sure is one classy act. I skipped over many extraneous plot details and will not spoil the ending but as a novel from the late Gothic romanticism movement, prepare to be disappointed if you are expecting sunshine and rainbows. The atmosphere of the entire novel is drenched in gloom and despair. 

It is important to mention that Emily Bronte utilizes a frame narrative, in which the story unfolds. One of the tenants living on the land named Mr. Lockwood and the housekeeper Nelly Dean are the two narrative voices that interpret the action, the latter providing the most dominant perspective. The novel begins with Mr. Lockwood meeting Heathcliff who forms a strange fixation on him and becomes curious to know more about his mysterious landlord. As luck would have it, his current housemaid, Nelly Dean, has also served in the region for many years and has been employed by the Earnshaw family where she raised Heathcliff as a young boy. Poor Nelly Dean! She definitely earns my sympathy for the endless amount of torment she goes through while serving two generations of the terrible Earnshaw family only to be sent off later to work for Mr. Heathcliff. Nelly Dean has the potential to be an interesting character as well as providing the novel with some much needed complexity but she only serves as an objective observer who never gets herself directly involved in any of the craziness going on around her. Just once, I would have liked to see her stand up to Mr. Heathcliff or slap Catherine Sr. and Catherine Jr. upside the head for being insolent rather than standing idly by on the sidelines. There are times when she voices an opinion or disapproval but fails to actually take any action of immediate consequence. Then again, one must take into consideration that the story takes place in the late 1700’s up until the early 1800’s, a time when English social hierarchy and decorum is strongly advocated. It would be considered highly unethical for servants to meddle in the personal lives of their employers. Anyways, she begins to tell Lockwood her side of the story but she also interprets other people’s stories, which is subsequently relayed back to Mr. Lockwood, who then filters this information to the reader. This narrative technique is all a little confusing at first but easy enough to follow once the story progresses and serves two main purposes—establishing Nelly Dean as an unreliable narrator and blurring the truth. An ominous or haunting mystery is one of many genre tropes associated with gothic romanticism. Heathcliff is a terrifying villain because the reader’s only comprehension of his character is presented in fragments, his true persona shrouded in uncertainties. Although his motives seem clear, he often acts unruly or increasingly temperamental; he is prone to violent outburst and fits of hysteria—almost as if possessed by demons (although, one can make the argument that he is in fact haunted by Catherine’s ghost, which accounts for his disturbed psychosis). At one point, he displays a creepy sense of necrophilia and even confesses to Nelly Dean of trying to dig up Catherine’s grave after she has been dead for 18 years during an episode of madness: “Being alone, and conscious two yards of loose earth was the sole barrier between us, I said to myself—I’ll have her in my arms again! If she be cold, I’ll think it is the north wind that chills me; and if she be motionless, it is sleep’ ” (210). Not exactly the ravings of a sane person. He is still so in love with Catherine that even if he was able to hold her corpse, it would feel as if she were only sleeping. Dude has issues.

Wuthering Heights is a horror story but not in the traditional sense. Emily Bronte seems to be playing around with the genre, subverting various conventions to establish her own anti-gothic romance based less on the supernatural and more on the harmful psychological effects of unrequited love. Unfortunately, Emily Bronte fails to deliver anything that remotely resembles genuine human compassion and the narrative distance created between the speaker and the reader diminishes any emotional connection to the characters whatsoever. Furthermore, the prose is incessantly dull and tedious with a story that quickly becomes absolutely ridiculous in its absurdities. Let’s just say that I was rolling my eyes in utter disbelief during every page. As I mentioned earlier, I will not be making the same mistake again by forcing myself to read a novel that produces nothing but vexation and contempt.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.