Humboldt’s Gift

By Saul Bellow
Genre: Literary Fiction
Buy Now This book is on reading list for February 2012

Why We Like This Book

One of our book clubs decided to limit our 2011-2012 selections to prize winning authors. The result is an ambitious reading list including Susan Sontag, John Updike, Nadine Gordimer, and of course, Saul Bellow. While some of our conversations involve why these authors won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and most notably, the Nobel Prize, we also wondered whether the form and content of these works remain relevant in the 21st century.

In the case of Saul Bellow, the answer would be a resounding yes. The universal questions that Bellow’s characters wrestle with, and in the case of Humboldt’s Gift and its highly-energized narrator Charlie Citrine, include the soul, death, money, and culture.

According to a Los Angeles Times review published in 2009, “Humboldt’s Gift, is both a crazy mess of a novel and an abiding testament to the vital exuberance of Saul Bellow’s genius.” And in Jeffrey Eugenides smart introduction to the Penquin edition, he writes that Bellow “elevated language and, by doing so, reversed the spirit’s atrophy. That’s what reading Bellow feels like. What makes Bellow’s prose better than just about anyone else’s is that it is touched, in every clause, by enlightenment.”

Sentences like, “Ah Humboldt had been great—handsome, high-spirited, buoyant, ingenious, electrical noble. To be with him made you feel the sweetness of life. We used to discuss the loftiest thinks….to talk to him was sustaining, nourishing” excite and draw the read into the meditations of Charlie Citrine. In fact, these meditations take the form of a conversation with the reader until the end of the novel when Charlie formally says goodbye to Humboldt.

What makes Humboldt’s Gift great is the humanity of our narrator. Charlie lives in the real world, one that we know and also struggle to understand. He makes mistakes and chides himself—his regrets speak to all of our regrets especially those relating to love and friendship. But on his sofa, Charlie explores what makes our lives worthwhile and wrestles with how we might discipline ourselves to make the right choices at the right time.

If you haven’t read Humboldt’s Gift, you should consider it for your book club. It’s not a fast read, but it’s great fun while seizing the serious questions about the meaning of life. We all have a little of Charlie Citrine in us, and in the end, that’s a good thing.

Discussion Questions 

What is Humboldt’s Gift about? What kind of journey is Bellow taking the reader on through Charlie’s escapades with Cantabile and reminiscences about Humboldt? And, what is Humboldt’s gift?

Why is this novel so heavily laden with philosophical and literary allusions? Did you find them helpful or distracting?

Is Charlie Citrine a sympathetic character? How would you describe his behavior, his intentions, his motivations?

How do women function in this very male novel? What are we to make of Humboldt’s Kathleen and Citrine’s many women (Naomi, Denise, Renata)?

Charlie describes his source of happiness on page 332-333 (I encourage you to re-read this section): “I’m not altogether sure why I was in this glorious condition. It couldn’t have been only the result of physical well-being, of sleeping with Renata, of good chemistry. Or the temporary remission of difficulties which, according to certain grim experts, is all that people need to make them happy and is, in fact, the only source of happiness. No, I was inclined to think as I vigorously walked behind Renata that I owed it to a change in my attitude toward death.” What does this say about Charlie, and more importantly, about the theme of the novel?

What happens to Charlie while he is left to care for Roger? Is this the last phase of his meditation and his search for evidence of the human soul?


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