Wednesday, September 20, 2006

On Saul Bellow's Seize The Day

Saul Bellow's Seize The Day is considered one of the greatest short novels in the English language. It appeared nearly half a century ago, in 1957, and it was Bellow's fourth novel, and the first after the one with which he made his name, The Adventures of Augie March. The Royal Swedish Academy, when awarding Bellow the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, made special mention of Seize The Day, though Bellow himself, in an interview late in life with his great contemporary Philip Roth, asserted that he didn't like the book much, and that he felt very little sympathy for its protagonist Tommy Wilhelm (it would have distressed Wilhelm greatly to know this, for his great problem in the book is that nobody feels any sympathy for him).

Curiously, Bellow is very little read in India - I can't remember his name ever coming up in conversation with other readers. And his books are very hard to find in Indian bookshops: the books go straight from Beaumont to de Bernieres. In fact, it is easier to find a set of his works secondhand, at the bookshop on the pavement opposite Flora Fountain in Bombay, at the place where DN Road and MG Road meet. This was where a week ago I pounced upon an edition of his very hard-to-find book To Jerusalem and Back, an account of a visit to Israel that first appeared as a series of pieces in the New Yorker in the '70s. But to return to Seize the Day.

Tommy Wilhelm is a man broken by life, and he is past helping himself. He is hoping that something or somebody will save him. On the morning on which we meet him first - and the timespan of the novel does not extend beyond this day - we see him at breakfast with his father who, like him, occupies a room at the Hotel Gloriana in New York. But while his father, a retired doctor and a widower, is living at the Gloriana in comfortable retirement, Wilhelm in midlife is a refugee from his home - he is separated from his wife, who now makes constant financial demands on him for the care of their two children - and wracked both by present troubles and unhappy memories.

Wilhelm is a big, still-handsome man, though a little stooped and thickened with age, with an attitude of "large, shaky, patient dignity" - Bellow repeatedly emphasises his heavy physicality, and by implication his burdened soul, by returning to the details of his body and his posture. (An example of the deployment of a similar technique in a contemporary novel might be the references to Chanu's obesity in Monica Ali's Brick Lane - Chanu "moving sideways like a big, soft-shelled crab" or his stomach rolling "a little farther into its nest of thigh" - only here they are suggestive of Chanu's complacent outlook).

Wilhelm thinks of his life as a series of setbacks. A good part of his youth was wasted unsuccessfully trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood (His last appearance on screen, we are told, was as an extra in a scene where he had to blow the bagpipes: "Wilhelm, in a kilt, barelegged, blew and blew and blew and not a sound came out. Of course all the music was recorded.") after which he spent several years as a salesman of children's furniture before falling out with the management and resigning. He and his wife are incompatible, but she will not give him a divorce; he feels she is turning his two children against him even as she sends him bills. And his father, from whom he expects a little sympathy and understanding if not monetary assistance, is cold to him.

The only person who is willing to take time to hear Wilhelm is the mysterious psychologist Dr. Tamkin, one of many Bellovian figures full of flowery talk and bizarre ideas. Among the many bits of advice Tamkin offers Wilhelm ("I want to tell you, don't marry suffering. Some people do. They get married to it, and sleep and eat together, just as husband and wife. If they go with joy they think it's adultery.") is to practice living in the "here-and-now" and to "seize the day".

Many criticisms can be made of Bellow - his plots don't move very well, his protagonists are too much like each other, there are few sympathetic female characters in his work- but, like Dickens, he was a master of that most essential of novelistic arts, that of portraiture. Here is his vivid realisation of Tamkin - not at the moment at which he is first introduced, but midway through the book, at a moment when Tamkin happens to take his hat off before Wilhelm:

What a creature Tamkin was when he took off his hat! The indirect light showed the many complexities of his bald skull, his gull's nose, his rather handsome eyebrows, his vain mustache, his deceiver's brown eyes. His figure was stocky, rigid, short in the neck, so that the large ball of the occiput touched his collar. His bones were peculiarly formed, as though twisted twice where the ordinary human bone was turned only once, and his shoulders rose in two pagoda-like points. At mid-body he was thick. He stood pigeon-toed, a sign perhaps that he was devious or had much to hide. The skin of his hands was aging, and his nails were moonless, concave, clawlike, and they appeared loose. His eyes were as brown as beaver fur and full of strange lines. The two large brown naked balls looked thoughtful - but were they? And honest - but was Dr.Tamkin honest?
And here, just for pleasure, is Dickens's famous portrait of Scrooge at the beginning of A Christmas Carol ( Scrooge might be said to have a connection with Wilhelm, in that he too must break with the past and learn to "seize the day"):

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.
Seize The Day ends with a beautiful scene in which Wilhelm, having lost most of his money at the bourses, goes searching for Tamkin, stumbles by accident into a funeral procession, is led towards the dead body and, after holding back his tears at several other points during the day, breaks down here and cries his eyes out. There is no neat resolution of Wilhelm's problems, but what we feel instead is a moment of catharsis.

And as always, great writers inspire great writing from readers. Here is a selection of good pieces about Bellow: "Rereading Saul Bellow" by Philip Roth; "The High-Minded Joker" by James Wood; "Editing Saul Bellow" by his long-time editor at Viking, Elisabeth Sifton; and "Bellow's Great Accomplishment", a very perceptive, often negative, assessment of his work by Tim Marchman ("Saul Bellow is a great writer, but I do not think he has written great books. It's difficult, thinking it through, to name one novel of his that is as good as its best passages, or worthy of its best ideas.What we take instead from Mr. Bellow are characters, precise observations, and particular settings of life that together amount to a style of consciousness."). Ramona Koval has a very good interview with Bellow here - you'll have to scroll down the page a little before Bellow begins.

More on Bellow next month, with a piece on the new issue of a journal he edited with Keith Botsford, News From The Republic of Letters.


Anonymous said...

Another short novel by Saul Bellow and immensely readable too is The Dangling man. It expresses the angst of human existence.However, I gave up reading midway,his last novel, Ravelstein. What says thou (plural) about that work.

Anonymous said...


The USIS library has a collection of Bellow. It is just opposite alliance francaise building, Churchgate.

Falstaff said...

Nice. There's also Coetzee's review of Bellow's early novels in the NYRB in 2004:

Anonymous said...

Okay not many read Bellow in India; for that matter, not many actually read or are able to read in India. But the poin here is Bellow fans: Chandrahas, there is a man named Rakesh Bedi in Economic Times who is not only an avid Bellow reader (infact there a few more too) but also writes much in the style of bellow and sometimes a product of Kafka having slept with solzenistin. If you like to read I can quote his contribution to a small stealth blog meant only for a few commandos. Nonetheless, you judge it yourself. He wrote it without effort and with a few typos; but then he was writing in one go (okay there was a quick second read too). will paste it in the next post.
Bedi's only passion in life is reading (unlike majority of his Punjabi brethren) and drinking (quire like his...) He wont mind dicsussing a point or two with another bellow fan, though I must admit he is a very shy guy.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read anything by Bellow yet but 'Seize The Day' seems like a good book to begin with--short and interesting.

Anonymous said...

I had a comment about Ravelstein in this post (scroll down).

Chandrahas said...

Molekhi - while I greatly admire your devotion to Mr.Bedi's writing, I'm afraid I can't see anything about the excerpt you sent me that resembles either Bellow or Kafka having slept with Solzhenitsyn, as you so charmingly put it. Let us say Mr.Bedi - Mr.Bedi has his own distinctive style, one that belongs to him and to him alone - no Bellow, Kafka or Solzhenitsyn can quite approach it.

Shoummo - I haven't read *The Dangling Man*, so I've got nothing to say about it. I hope this will change.

Unknown said...

I am reading this novel right now and having read forty-three absorbing pages, I thought I'd revisit the piece that had first got me interested in the book. Having read a little, I think it might be better if I read it after having finished the book. I don't know why I'm making this comment considering I have nothing of consequence to say apart from the fact that if you wish to read Bellow's novels, the American Center Library might be a good place (am I being obvious?). You won't be able to make notes in the margin though. (I feel like inserting a smiley here but The Middle Stage -- btw, why 'The Middle Stage'? -- has a gravity about it which deters me.)

Chandrahas said...

Anirudh- That's okay, I've got all the Bellow novels I want now from old bookshops. I find I am not such a big fan of his work. Oftentimes I find his fabled energy merely dull. As with Rushdie, I sometimes prefer his essays to his fiction. A collection of his called It All Adds Up has several very fine pieces.

Many readers have left smileys in their comments here, and lived to see another day. In fact, the only things balancing out the gravity of the Middle Stage are reader comments and smileys, without which this would be a hopelessly one-dimensional site.

Anonymous said...

The "Dr. Tamkin" character in "Seize the Day" does a lot of talking (in the midst of an otherwise rather mercenary capitalist environment in which Tommy finds himself) about what one might call core spiritual issues, even Vedantic issues. It's part of what makes the book so interesting, if ambiguous, because Tommy never really fully believes anything that Tamkin says, but is his skepticism because he is too spiritually burned out to be receptive? Or because he's not really open to anything new, emotionally or spiritually, because he is so oppressed? Or is Tamkin just a smoothtalking fraud?

I sense that Bellow was careful to never have Tamkin say or do anything that the reader knows to be misleading or a lie (and in fact makes an effort to confirm a couple of Tamkin's stories), but neither does he allow Tommy to trust that what Tamkin is telling him might help "save" him from the misery of his existence. As readers we see plenty of evidence that what Tamkin is telling Tommy is true. But we can't be sure. Certainly nothing we observe (or Tommy observes) contradicts Tamkin's claims or stories, and yet they go so against the commonplace myth of money = freedom that Tommy can't trust it.

Another great passage:

That sick Mr. Perls at breakfast had said that there was no easy way to tell the sane from the mad, and he was right about that in any big city and especially in New York -- the end of the world, with its complexity and machinery, bricks and tubes, wires and stones, holes and heights. And was everybody crazy here? What sort of people did you see? Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking' he had his own ideas and peculiar ways. If you wanted to talk about a glass of water, you had to start back with God creating the heavens and earth; the apple; Abraham; Moses and Jesus; Rome; the Middle Ages; gunpowder; the Revolution; back to Newton; up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler. After reviewing this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a glass of water. "I'm fainting, please get me a little water." You were lucky even then to make yourself understood. And this happened over and over and over with everyone you met. You had to translate and translate, explain and explain, back and forth, and it was the punishment of hell itself not to understand or be understood, not to know the crazy from the sane, the wise from the fools, the young from the old or the sick from the well. The fathers were no fathers and the songs no songs. You had to talk with yourself in the daytime and reason with yourself at night. Who else was there to talk to in a city like New York?

A queer look came over Wilhelm's face with its eyes turned up and his silent mouth with its high upper lip. He went several degrees further -- when you are like this, dreaming that everybody is outcast, you realize that this must be one of the small matters. There is a larger body, and from this you cannot be separated. The glass of water fades out. You do not go from simple A and simple B to the great X and Y, nor does it matter whether you agree about the glass but, far beneath such details, what Tamkin would call the real soul says plain and understandable things to everyone. There sons and fathers are themselves, and a glass of water is only an ornament; it makes of hoop of brightness on the cloth*; it is an angel's mouth. There truth for everybody may be found, and confusion is only -- temporary, thought Wilhelm.

I live in New York, and some of these observations still ring true. I think I tend to interpret "Seize the Day" as rather a spiritually-oriented book, but at the same time Bellow leaves much ambiguous or inconclusive, especially the end of the story. This is part of what makes it fascinating, since, just like life, you can't find an empirical way to believe in something better than you are finding around you. But most human beings need to find that connective something nevertheless, even if it cannot be measured or proven.

AndyW said...

I've just finished reading Seize the Day, and can't really say I enjoyed it. The odd passage was beautiful, particularly Wilhelm's moment of realisation in the last few pages, but overall I found it very dull.

Tamkin was well-portrayed as a pseudointellectual bore, but the problem was that Bellow had to resort to a lot of pseudointellectual waffle to achieve that effect! It wasn't entertaining, nor was it thought-provoking. Very few of the 'philosophical' or 'spiritual' ideas struck me as being very original or insightful.

Some characters were more interesting (Wilhelm, Dr Adler, Mr Perls), and the setting was skilfully evoked; but it had the plot of a short story, not a novella.

I much preferred the other Bellow novel that I have tackled: The Adventures of Augie March. I suspect that Seize the Day is one of those books that has benefited from being an 'accessible' introduction to an otherwise rather inaccessible author. In fact, Seize the Day was, despite its brevity, a tougher read for me than Augie March -- which comes highly recommended.