HUMBOLDT’S GIFT.

As longtime readers know, I read novels to my wife at night, and having just finished Lucky Jim (hilarious, and perfect bedtime reading), we’ve moved on to Humboldt’s Gift. I memorialized Saul Bellow here (and I might note that I never got an answer to my question about his original Russian family name—was it Belov or Belo, and if the latter, what the hell kind of name is that?), and his prose is just as delicious as I remembered. Here’s the first paragraph; note the perfect pitch for both American vernacular and high-cultural allusion, and the effortless passage between them:

The book of ballads published by Von Humboldt Fleisher in the Thirties was an immediate hit. Humboldt was just what everyone had been waiting for. Out in the Midwest I had certainly been waiting eagerly, I can tell you that. An avant-garde writer, the first of a new generation, he was handsome, fair, large, serious, witty, he was learned. The guy had it all. All the papers reviewed his book. His picture appeared in Time without insult and in Newsweek with praise. I read Harlequin Ballads enthusiastically. I was a student at the University of Wisconsin and thought about nothing but literature day and night. Humboldt revealed to me new ways of doing things. I was ecstatic. I envied his luck, his talent, and his fame, and I went east in May to have a look at him—perhaps to get next to him. The Greyhound bus, taking the Scranton route, made the trip in about fifty hours. That didn’t matter. The bus windows were open. I had never seen real mountains before. Trees were budding. It was like Beethoven’s Pastorale. I felt showered by the green, within. Manhattan was fine, too. I took a room for three bucks a week and found a job selling Fuller Brushes door to door. And I was wildly excited about everything. Having written Humboldt a long fan letter, I was invited to Greenwich Village to discuss literature and ideas. He lived on Bedford Street, near Chumley’s. First he gave me black coffee, and then poured gin in the same cup. “Well, you’re a nice-looking enough fellow, Charlie,” he said to me. “Aren’t you a bit sly, maybe? I think you’re headed for early baldness. And such large emotional handsome eyes. But you certainly do love literature and that’s the main thing. You have sensibility,” he said. He was a pioneer in the use of this word. Sensibility later made it big. Humboldt was very kind. He introduced me to people in the Village and got me books to review. I always loved him.

Listen to the eighteenth-century balance of “His picture appeared in Time without insult and in Newsweek with praise.” And any past or present New Yorker will smile at the mention of Chumley’s… although I learn from that Wikipedia article that “Chumley’s has been closed since the chimney in its dining room collapsed on April 5, 2007.” So Eden sank to grief, so dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.

Comments

  1. Huh. Nevah hoid of it.

  2. rootlesscosmo says:

    I went there in the early 60′s, feeling clever just to have found it. Like a number of Village bars (for example the Lion’s Head, which was my haunt around 1969-70) it served food; I made the beginner’s mistake of ordering the spare ribs, which were a solid slab baked to the hardness of linoleum tile. After a couple of tries at chewing some off the bones I gave it up, finished my drink and left, feeling as though I’d made a display of my ignorance, though in hindsight I doubt any of the other patrons noticed my discomfiture. I was about 20, a very self-conscious youth beneath a thin veneer of bebop bravado.

  3. Off-topic, but regarding your last two sentences: I love that poem! Aside from certain psalms and prayers and such, I think it’s the only poem I have memorized.
    (I’m a total philistine, I admit it.)

  4. about his original Russian family name
    Russian sources, including Вikipedia, say it was Белоус (White moustache), a common family name (also Belousov), there is a plant and a river with that name. But it was also very common for non-Russians, not only Jewish, to change or modify their names so that they sounded Russian. (Brulleau becomes Брюллов, von Wiesen – Фонвизин, von Dorne – Фандорин).

  5. Huh. Nevah hoid of it.
    I’m glad, I thought it was just me. But when I google-image it I realise I’ve been there, I remember the courtyard back exit. Probably you’ve been there too, John. By the way, why is it it takes years & years to fix these places up in NY? Some buildings in the Village seem to need ten or twenty years.
    Listen to the eighteenth-century balance of “His picture appeared in Time without insult and in Newsweek with praise.”
    Of course, sensibility (& the Pastoral symphony) made it big in the early 19th century too.

  6. A better sentence would have been, “His picture appeared in Newsweek with praise and in Time without insult.”

  7. I’d have liked “His picture appeared in Newsweek with praise and in Time with Amis’s.” Or even “His picture appeared in Newsweek with praise and in Time with regularity.”

  8. Week praise and timely insult are popish:

    Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
    And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;

  9. the Lion’s Head, which was my haunt around 1969-70
    I hung out there a decade or so later. Wonderful place, as of course is/was Chumley’s. (And yes, I suspect a lot of people have been there without registering the name, which does not appear on the outside at all; it’s “that old speakeasy with two entrances.”)
    As for bebop bravado (wonderful phrase!): when I first moved to NYC, completely broke but like Charlie Citrine wildly excited about everything, I decided to make a pilgrimage to the famous jazz bars of 52nd St. There was only one left—it must have been Jimmy Ryan’s—and I went in, bellied up to the bar, ordered a Budweiser (not that I liked the stuff, but it was bound to be cheap), and settled back to listen to the music. The barkeep brought the beer and said “That’ll be two fifty.” What?! I was expecting it to be forty, maybe fifty cents. I must have blushed as I explained, in the lowest voice likely to be audible to him, that I didn’t have $2.50. He could easily have reduced me to a puddle of humiliation, but he smiled (he’d probably been there himself) and told me not to worry about it. I hope he’s happily retired somewhere.
    As a codicil to that, I will add that the legendary rudeness of New Yorkers is slander pure and simple. New Yorkers in general are among the nicest, most helpful people you will meet. But the prime rule of NYC politeness is “Don’t waste my time.” If you go up to a New Yorker and ask which way Broadway is, they will be happy to tell you; they may even walk you there. But if you start off with some labored chitchat about what a hot day it is and how this is your first time in the big city and you hadn’t imagined how big and complicated it is, throwing in an anecdote about your Uncle Gus who visited for the World’s Fair in ’64 and how he used to tell you stories, you are likely to find yourself talking to empty air, perhaps after being favored with a sample of the colorful language New Yorkers wield so well. This is not the New Yorker being rude, this is your comeuppance for having been rude. Learn the local mores, people!

  10. Russian sources, including Вikipedia, say it was Белоус (White moustache)
    No, Википедия’s source is this, which says “Bellow, Saul; Белло́ус Соломон,” which I am reasonably sure simply reflects the fact that his original given name was Solomon and the family name became Bellows after his father and uncle changed it. His biographer says the original Russian family name was “Belo.”
    Furthermore, Belousov (not a common family name itself, and “Belous” is so uncommon [assuming it exists at all] it’s listed in neither Unbegaun nor Benson) has the stress on the -u-, not the -o-; has only one -l-; and is a pretty unlikely name for a Jewish family.

  11. Time to update U&B, it is more common than mine, both among ethnic Russians and Jewish people. (152 thous hits on Russian Google). In fact, two of my best friends at school were Belous and Krivoguz (Crooked Bum), subject to endless jokes. There is a Jewish writer Alexander Belousov.
    I can’t do more research now, but I suspect Belous (by the way stress shifts in Russian words, as you well know) could be connected to Beylis. In one of the recent threads someone mentioned that Russian spealing nanny used Bela (Whitey) a Jewish girl Beila.

  12. j. del col says:

    What is 18th C about close parallel structure?

  13. Time to update U&B, it is more common than mine
    You learn something every day—thanks! I still don’t think it was the original Bellow name, though, or his biographer would have said so.
    What is 18th C about close parallel structure?
    It was very popular then. Classicism, you know. Everybody read Cicero.

  14. I guess you’d need to define “common,” but I know several Belousovs and think of it as a fairly widespread name.
    Who was Bellows’ biographer?

  15. James Atlas, who spent ten years writing Bellow: A Biography.

  16. Trond Engen says:

    von Dorne – Фандорин
    Heh, I should have thought of that.

  17. AJP: I definitely haven’t been there. I don’t go into places the which I don’t know their names. At least, I only did that once, and it turned out to be a poorly lit gay bar. As I abhor poorly lit places (about the only Hemingway-hero attribute I have), I marched right out.
    Why does repair take time? Paperwork, paperwork, paperwork. It took eleven years to fix the building I’m living in after it had to be evacuated (and the tenants, including me) due to severe termite damage in the under-floor beams. About a year for the repairs, preceded by ten years for the paperwork.
    Conrad: Your version is more conventionally Popish, but I think the original is subtly better, perhaps just because it undermines those Popish expectations.
    Dearieme: Funny is good in general, but this is a situation in which funny ain’t exactly the cheese.
    Hat: I don’t think the double l in Bellow proves anything one way or the other, given the existence of the verb bellow in English.

  18. Important note: Hat’s explanation of NYC politeness emphatically does not apply to most New Yorkers of the black and Hispanic persuasions.

  19. Hat: I don’t think the double l in Bellow proves anything one way or the other, given the existence of the verb bellow in English.
    I wasn’t referring to the double l in Bellow but the double л in Беллоус.
    Hat’s explanation of NYC politeness emphatically does not apply to most New Yorkers of the black and Hispanic persuasions.
    Fair enough.

  20. “more conventionally Popish”
    Gosh, that must be the first time in my life I (or my words) have been called that!

  21. I will add that the legendary rudeness of New Yorkers is slander pure and simple.
    A friend of mine recently saw the following “bumper” sticker on a scooter in Paris:
    “Je (heart) rien. Je suis Parisienne.”

  22. komfo,amonan says:

    I’ve been here for 17 years, & I find New Yorkers to be insufferably rude. Specifically, beset by extreme self-regard. Everyone behaves as though he were the only person in the city.
    As far as Chumley’s, it is said to be the victim of the landlady’s yearning for gentrification.

  23. insufferably rude. Specifically, beset by extreme self-regard.
    You haven’t been to Paris?

  24. double л in Беллоус.
    I love you being stickler for detail like this, a sign of true academic.
    How about this exercise in reconstructive history:
    two Russian-Jewish immigrants arrive in Canada in early 1900-1910s, go to a notaire or immigration officer, write down themselves as Belous, the Quebec official thinks ‘bloody foreigners, they can’t even spell’ and corrects the name to what he thinks it should look or sound like ‘Bellows’, and then, thinking they were using plural – for the family, corrects again and drops ‘s’ at the end. The newly christened Bellows don’t argue, because, as Voltaire said, ‘it’s dangerous to be right on matters where those in power are wrong’. The accent: remember how Mariella Frostrup insisted on shifting poor NaBokov to NAbokov?
    We won’t know the actual original name unless the biographer, or someone else has actually seen their passports or birth certificates. And even then there is room for doubt as, sadly, many people of Jewish ethnicity were changing (and had been doing that throughout the 20 century) their Yiddish/Germanic (-er) or Polish/Jewish (-sky) names to more ‘ethnically correct’ Russian sounding ones.
    About 20 years ago I was dining in a very posh club in Johannesburg. A companion next to me had the nameplate ‘Serebro’. ‘But that’s ‘silver’ in Russian’, I said recklessly. There was a stone silence. Zilber was the original (Jewish) name of the famous Soviet/Russian writer Veniamin Kaverin (Two Captains).

  25. Snap! Just read Lucky Jim and also found it hilarious, then followed up with Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers – an interesting combination

  26. marie-lucie says:

    I read Lucky Jim many years ago, having heard that it was hilarious. As I plugged away at chapter after chapter, I kept waiting for the funny parts, which never came. I did not find the book funny at all: an awful lot of drinking, odd situations, dreary characters, especially Margaret, the unattractive girl who kept getting drunk and throwing herself at Jim. Later I discussed my reaction with a British colleague, who explained that it was satirical, having to do with the social upheaval created by the arrival of lower-class people into the universities. I had not known that background when I read the book, and even though I read English quite fluently at the time, I was obviously unable to detect the irony.
    Just a few years ago I saw the movie. I was disappointed in the actor playing Jim: he was big and slow, not how I imagined the character. But the actress playing Margaret was excellent (she made Margaret, although still desperate for a man, much more interesting than the one in the book).

  27. rootlesscosmo says:

    The class theme is certainly prominent–Dixon’s Professor is marked as upper-class by, among other things, his musical tastes, which run to amateur madrigal singing, and his academic specialty, which is connected with his admiration for a bygone society he calls Merrie England. Dixon’s acute dislike of the madrigals, and, at the climax of the book, his extempore, alcohol-fueled savaging of Merrie England, express his class resentment.
    But so does his attraction to the apparently out of reach upper-class blonde, girlfriend of the Professor’s odious son; dumping poor needy (as we would say now) Margaret, a dreary academic of the kind he fears to become, and discovering the blonde prefers him to Bernard, are important signs of his having overcome his class disadvantage. In short Woman is represented as either ball-and-chain, trophy, or (the Professor’s wife) insufferable snob; I’ve never met a woman, however au fait with postwar English class disruption, who found Lucky Jim the least bit amusing.

  28. My wife loved it, but then she doesn’t know or care about postwar English class disruption, she just likes good prose and storytelling.

  29. “There is a Jewish writer Alexander Belousov.”
    A Yiddish poet, and not a bad one either. Not Jewish, though.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    LH: my wife loved it
    Since she heard you read the book aloud, it reflects very well on your ability to bring out the author’s comic talent.

  31. Not sure who came first, Bellow or Perec?

  32. Here is a good article about Saul Bellow & his wife Janis in today’s Observer. It’s followed by a few of his letters.

  33. That’s an excellent article, thank you! And I love the dreams he recounts in a letter to Martin Amis:

    Dream I: I identify Tolstoy as the driver of a beat-up white van on the expressway. I ask the old guy at the wheel of this crumbling van what he can do to keep his flapping door from banging against the finish of my car. When he leans over to the right I see that he is none other than Leo Tolstoy, beard and all. He invites me to follow him off the expressway to a tavern and he says, “I want you to have this jar of pickled herring.” He adds, “I knew your brother.” At the mention of my late brother I burst into tears.

    Dream II: A secret remedy for a deadly disease is inscribed in Chinese characters on my penis. For this reason my life is in danger. My son Greg is guarding me in a California hideout from the agents of a pharmaceutical company, etc.
    Dream III: I find myself in a library filled with unknown masterpieces by Henry James, Joseph Conrad and others. Titles I have never seen mentioned anywhere. In shock and joy I open a volume by Conrad and read several pages, sentence after sentence after sentence in the old boy’s best style, more brilliant than ever. “Why in the hell was I never told about this?” I ask. Certain parties have been holding out on us. I am indignant.

    Those are definitely the dreams of a writer who deserved his Nobel.

  34. After I read the Bellow article, I happened to read an old LRB piece by Colm Tóibin about John Cheever. Though they were good friends, Bellow was for the most part happy whereas Cheever was miserable. From their work, I would have expected the opposite. And then somewhere else recently (in connection with the Nobel prize) I read that Philip Roth was the greatest American writer of the second half of the 20th century; which is quite amusing when you think of the great Saul Bellow.

  35. And then I was reading the Wikipedia entry on the painter Jack (brother of W.B.)Yeats, and it says:

    Unusually, Yeats holds the distinction of being Ireland’s first medalist at the Olympics in the wake of creation of the Irish Free State. At the Paris Olympics of 1924, Yeats’ painting The Liffey Swim won a medal in the arts and culture segment of the Games. In the competition records the painting is simply entitled Swimming.

    I’d no idea that painting was an olympic event. Does the fastest painter win? There are few winners whose name I recognise. William Nicholson won a gold, apparently.

  36. Last night I began reading The Adventures of Augie March to my spouse. Thank you for the inspiration.

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