Humboldt's Gift

by Saul Bellow

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1403

By the 1970’s, Charles Citrine, a respected author in his mid-fifties, has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for a book on Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president of the United States, and one for a Broadway play, Von Trenck. Charlie’s former wife, Denise, is demanding higher support payments, and his twenty-nine-year-old girlfriend, Renata Koffritz, wants him to marry her.

During a poker game, Charlie loses $450 to Rinaldo Cantabile, which he pays by giving the gangster a check. Charlie’s friend George Swiebel says that he saw Cantabile cheat, however, and at George’s insistence, Charlie stops payment on the check. Insulted, Cantabile batters Charlie’s Mercedes-Benz with a baseball bat and forces Charlie to pay the debt in front of several people. Then Cantabile takes Charlie to the upper floors of an unfinished skyscraper and drops all the money except two $50 bills, which he uses to buy dinner. At dinner, Cantabile asks Charlie to help his wife with a doctoral dissertation on Charlie’s dead friend, the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, but Charlie refuses.

The next day, Charlie meditates while waiting to take part in a court hearing about his payments to Denise. Cantabile arrives, and Charlie tells him about a movie scenario he and Humboldt had written in 1952. In court, the judge, upon learning that Charlie has plans to go to Europe, threatens him with bond and then sets a payment sum of $200,000 for Denise. Denise gives Charlie a letter from Kathleen, Humboldt’s former wife, in which she informs him that Humboldt left him something. Charlie is surprised because he and Humboldt had been estranged and because he did not think that Humboldt, who died destitute, had anything to leave.

That afternoon, Charlie meets his friend Pierre Thaxter, with whom he is hoping to publish a journal. Cantabile finds Charlie and Thaxter, forces them into his car, and takes them to the office of a businessman who has been caught cheating the Mafia. Pretending that Charlie is a Mafia gunman, Cantabile threatens the man. A police detective subsequently arrests Charlie and Cantabile but lets Thaxter go. Instead of trying to get Charlie released from jail, Thaxter goes to the movies. Charlie is released when the secretary of the threatened man talks her employer into dropping the charges against Charlie.

Several days later, instead of going directly to Milan, as planned, Charlie and Renata fly to New York to find out about Charlie’s legacy from Humboldt. They go to Coney Island, where Waldemar Wald, Humboldt’s uncle, lives in a nursing home. There, Waldemar gives Charlie a large envelope containing a letter that Humboldt wrote to Charlie shortly before his death. Although Humboldt had been suffering from bipolar disorder and paranoia for years, according to the letter he had regained his sanity shortly before his death. The envelope also contains a movie scenario that Humboldt had written and a copy of the 1952 scenario he cowrote with Charlie. Humboldt had sealed and registered the envelope containing the 1952 scenario and mailed it to himself in 1960, thus establishing copyright to it. Humboldt’s letter says that another copy of the 1952 scenario exists but that its location is unknown. Charlie considers the legacy worthless, but he is moved that Humboldt thought of him just before his death.

In New York, Thaxter tells Charlie that his publisher will pay Charlie’s expenses in Europe if Charlie will collaborate with Thaxter on what Thaxter calls a cultural Baedeker, or travel guide. The first city they will treat is Madrid. Thaxter says that he is on his way to Paris to begin writing a book on dictators, and he suggests that he and Charlie meet there. Charlie also sees Kathleen in New York. After her second husband died she began working for a movie company, and she is going to Spain to work on a film. Charlie discovers that Humboldt has left Kathleen the same scenario he left Charlie. She offers it to a movie company, which options it for $3,000. Charlie tells Kathleen to keep all the money, but she insists on splitting any proceeds from the scenario with him.

While in New York, Charlie learns that his brother Julius, who lives in Texas, is going to have open-heart surgery. Since Charlie refuses to marry her, Renata refuses to go to Texas with him, so Charlie sends her ahead to Milan while he goes to Texas, planning to meet her later in Italy. After Julius’s successful surgery, Charlie calls Renata and makes plans to meet her in Madrid instead of Milan, because Thaxter has told him that his publisher has agreed to cover Charlie’s expenses there.

Renata has not arrived in Madrid by the time Charlie gets there. The next morning, Renata’s mother, the Señora, comes to Charlie’s hotel room to tell him that Renata told her to fly to Madrid with Renata’s son, Roger, and to charge the tickets to Charlie. Still having heard nothing from Renata, Charlie sends her a telegram proposing marriage. He receives no reply. The Señora leaves Madrid without telling Charlie where she is going; she leaves Roger with Charlie, who is running out of money. Charlie then learns that Thaxter is not in Paris. He calls Thaxter’s publisher and finds out that Thaxter is in Argentina; also, Thaxter had never spoken to the publisher about the cultural Baedeker or about paying Charlie’s expenses in Madrid. Charlie discovers that Renata has left Milan. Later, he receives a letter from her telling him she has married someone else.

Charlie and Roger move into the Pensión La Roca, which is much cheaper than the hotel. After they have spent January and February in Madrid, Cantabile finds Charlie and tells him that the 1952 scenario has been made into a successful film. Initially, Charlie does not believe him, but he finally accompanies Cantabile to Paris, sees the movie, and then meets with Cantabile, two lawyers, and two representatives of the company that made the film. In front of these five men, Charlie opens the sealed envelope that Humboldt had registered and mailed to himself, produces the scenario, and proves that he owns the rights to the scenario. The lawyers Cantabile has hired start negotiating with the movie producers, and they settle on a payment to Charlie of $80,000.

Charlie asks the representatives of the producers if they are interested in another scenario from the same source. They are, and they option Humboldt’s scenario for $5,000. Charlie insists that Cantabile has nothing to do with the new scenario and that he will get only 10 percent of whatever figure is agreed on for the scenario that has been made into a movie, called Caldofreddo. Eventually, Charlie tells his lawyer to pay Cantabile $8,000 and send him away.

Earlier, Cantabile had told Charlie that Thaxter has been kidnapped in Argentina. Thaxter writes an open letter from Argentina, appealing to Charlie for help in paying his ransom. Charlie contacts Thaxter’s publisher and offers to pay $25,000 ransom if the publisher will put up the money and then repay him from what Thaxter will earn from writing about his experiences in captivity.

Back in Spain, the Señora picks up Roger. Kathleen arrives in Madrid and tells Charlie that the people to whom she offered an option on Humboldt’s scenario had declined. Charlie admits to having forgotten about the earlier option but tells Kathleen about his offering an option to the producers of Caldofreddo. He also admits that he is broke. Kathleen suggests that he come to Almería, Spain, where she is working on a film. Before Charlie can leave Madrid, however, a letter arrives from Thaxter’s publisher saying that Thaxter’s kidnapping might be a hoax; Thaxter has had an article published in The New York Times in which he asked for ransom funds. People from all over the world have sent money, so Charlie does not need to pay the ransom.

Later, Charlie returns to New York, where he has moved Waldemar from the nursing home to an apartment on the city’s upper West Side. Charlie, Waldemar, and Waldemar’s friend Menasha rebury Humboldt and Humboldt’s mother. At the cemetery, Menasha, who had wanted to be an opera singer but has a terrible voice, sings several songs. As Menasha walks away from the graves, he uncovers some green shoots sprouting from the ground; Charlie thinks they are crocuses.

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