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.