The narrator, Charlie Citrine, is a somewhat diminished version of Bellow, a writer of fiction and nonfiction whose career and reputation have flourished during the same years that Humboldt’s have declined. Even after death, the outrageous, eccentric figure of Humboldt looms large in Charlie’s life, never far out of sight as Charlie grapples with a late-midlife crisis populated by agents, lawyers, accountants, gangsters, lovely ladies, and former wives (his own and Humboldt’s).
Set mainly in Chicago in the early 1970’s, with frequent flashbacks to an earlier New York, the novel in fact begins when Charlie’s Mercedes is vandalized by an ambitious young hoodlum to whom he owes a small gambling debt. The hoodlum, known variously as Ronald or Rinaldo Cantabile, soon intervenes in Charlie’s life as a strange kind of “angel” bent on reacquainting him with the life of the common man. Here too the figure of Von Humboldt Fleischer looms, as Cantabile’s wife is preparing a doctoral dissertation on Humboldt’s life and work.
Haggling over children and finances with his former wife Denise, inevitably attracted to the treacherous young divorcee, Renata Koffritz, Charlie is again haunted by Humboldt’s memory when he learns that Humboldt has bequeathed him some apparently worthless papers. Later, marooned in Madrid with Renata’s young son after she has deserted them both to elope with a prosperous undertaker, Charlie will learn from the ubiquitous Cantabile that Humboldt’s papers indisputably prove his and Charlie’s authorship of a pirated script that has since been very profitably filmed. Although daunted by the prospect of further legal action, Charlie will in fact take steps to recover Humboldt’s “gift,” the tangible evidence of his warped but gifted personality.
James Atlas’ life of Schwartz, published in 1977, revealed that many of Humboldt’s more implausible actions were directly drawn from Schwartz’s life, leaving the line between life and art even more blurred than before. The novel remains one writer’s eulogy, testament, and testimony to a difficult but oddly rewarding friendship.
Chavkin, Allan. “Humboldt’s Gift and the Romantic Imagination.” Philological Quarterly 62 (1983): 1-19. Discusses the novel as reflecting Bellow’s...
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