Page 33 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 35

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RIBALOW / SAUL BELLOW
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lumbia University, having once lived in Bloomsbury, having
known H.G. Wells and other English literary personages. He
continues to recall the Polish ghetto and Rumkowski, “the mad
Jewish King of Lodz.” Sammler questions his belief in God,
tartly observing, “I saw that God was not impressed by death.”
Sammler remains grateful to his relative, Elya Gruner, who
brought A rtu r Sammler and his daughter Shula to the United
States when they were DP’s, and supported Sammler for twenty-
two years. Gruner is now dying and Sammler grieves, as he
grieves over his own misspent, lost, meaningless life. It is a grim,
sometimes sour, novel. But Sammler is a twentieth century Jew,
a relic, a sufferer. Wh ile Bellow’s concentration camp survivor is
not quite as agonizing a figure as some others, notably those in
the novels of Elie W ie el, he is a Jew who remains fixed in the
eye o f the attentive reader.
Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow’s most recent work of fiction, has
been highly praised and has enjoyed a popular success. It is
difficult to understand why. It is often boring, padded, illogical
and novelistically unbelievable. Charlie Citrine, a fairly success­
ful writer, is a friend of Von Humboldt Fleisher, a failed poet
(based on the hapless Delmore Schwartz). Like Schwartz, Hum­
boldt “dropped dead in a dismal hotel off Times Square.” For
some years, he had been a popular poet and had taught at vari­
ous academic institutions, including Princeton, where Citrine
also taught. Humboldt tells Citrine, “You and I are expendable
here,” because “we’re Jews,” He explains, “In Princeton you
and I are Moe and Joe, a Yid vaudeville act.” Humboldt also
remarks to Citrine, “You’re not a real American. You’re grateful.
You’re a foreigner. You have that Jewish immigrant kiss-the-
ground-at-Ellis-Island gratitude. . . . You’re a Yiddish mouse in
this great Christian house.”
The novel itself involves a small-time Italian hood, a pneu-
matic-bliss machine named Renata who (like Ramona in Her­
zog) is sexually willing, pliable and insatiable. Humboldt leaves,
after his death, a movie outline to Citrine, which is transformed
into a major box office smash success. It is an unimaginative,
sometimes even silly novel, far beneath what a Nobel) Prize
winner should produce.
In his only work o f non-fiction, To Jerusalem and Back,