Carpe diem. Seize the day. This phrase from a poem by Horace has echoed through the centuries, in literature, music and film. In 2007, it is the name of a radical British folk band; the subject of numerous blogs and self-help books; it’s even basketball superstar Kobe Bryant’s new motto. This deceptively simple philosophy, however, is fraught with ambiguities in the greedy, get-ahead atmosphere of 1950s urban America.
This is the setting of Saul Bellow’s novella, which takes place in the space of less than one day. The story begins with Tommy Wilhelm’s descent in an elevator to the ground floor of a Manhattan hotel. For him, the day presages a “huge trouble” he has long expected. The story – not a moral tale – ends away from the heat of a hot city afternoon, in a cool, quiet chapel.
Wilhelm’s elderly, vain father Dr. Adler, “idolized by everyone,” is also a hotel resident. As they sit down to breakfast, the reader is first plunged into the unhappy contortions of Wilhelm’s thoughts, then back to his father’s cold, judgmental observations of his son. His father brings out the worst in Wilhelm. For he is a self-confessed failure: an innocent, slightly out of focus, finding life an uphill struggle, cursing his own weakness. A middle-aged failed film actor, with “no position” and a bitterly broken marriage, he sees himself as a sacrificial lamb on the altar of modernity.
Enter now the strange, sinister Dr. Tamkin, who holds a hypnotic power over Wilhelm. The reader soon realizes Tamkin is a con man; but Wilhelm cannot seem to “figure him out.” Earnest, almost child-like, he seeks truth and enlightenment, and senses Tamkin, with his “peculiar flavor of fatality,” will lead him there. And indeed he does, although not in the way Wilhelm expects.
Where are the women? They have no place here, where even old men like the half-blind Mr. Rappaport are consumed with the burning pursuit of money. The few women who inhabit this world appear predatory and hostile. Wilhelm’s estranged wife, back home with their child, is depicted as a demoralizing, “destructive” force.
Bellow’s style is almost Dickensian. Characters are described so closely – every wrinkle, every detail of dress, every spark of the eye, every gesture – that the physical appearance becomes the essence of the man, who springs full-blooded from the page. Tamkin resembles a stooped bird of prey, a vulture with glittering eyes. Wilhelm, with his “panting laugh” and “dark-blond skin,” is an amiable, slightly absurd bear. The language is surprising, and as beautiful as an oil painting by a Dutch Master, full of light and shadow: “A glass of water is only an ornament; it makes a hoop of brightness on the cloth; it is an angel’s mouth.” Occasionally, Bellow strings together adjectives that tumble together deliciously: New York is “deep, azure, dirty, complex, crystal, rusty.”
In a movie once, Wilhelm puffed away at bagpipes, but no sound came out. We are immersed in, and often frustrated by his vain struggles. But as the story rushes to its conclusion, we clap and cheer with every tear he sheds.
At last he is in the “here-and-now…the real universe.”
Author Note: Saul Bellow was born Solomon Bellows in 1915 in Montreal, the son of poor Russian Jewish immigrants. The family moved to the slums ofChicago when he was nine. He graduated from Northwestern University in sociology and anthropology, but abandoned post-graduate studies at theUniversity of Wisconsin to become a teacher and writer. During the 1930s he was a member of the Chicago Writers Project, a radical group that included literary luminaries such as Richard Wright. Bellow’s first novel, “Dangling Man,” was published in 1944 when he was serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine. With a Guggenheim Fellowship, he moved to Paris, and began work on his famous novel, “The Adventures of Augie March.” After living and writing inNew York, he became Fellow of Creative Writing at Princeton University. He joined the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought in 1962. “Herzog” was published in 1963, receiving critical acclaim as well as the International Literary Prize and the National Book Award – which he won again in 1971 for “Mr. Sammler’s Planet.” In 1976 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He continued to publish novels and short stories through the 1980s and 1990s, and died in Massachusetts at the age of 89 in 2005. For more information visit the Saul Bellow Society website at http://www.saulbellow.org/index.html.
- Saul Bellow: Letters – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Saul Bellow’s Quest for the Vernacular Sublime (nytimes.com)
- Economix: Novels About Losing Your Job (economix.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Mean Street: Thanksgiving Thanks to Bellow and Springsteen (blogs.wsj.com)