Humboldt’s Gift

The book that changed my life

In South Africa as a child and a boy, I read a huge amount. There seems to have been something anthropomorphic about my early reading: animals flew, boys talked to horses and rodents were lovable.

A book called Pookie, about a flying rabbit, first persuaded me I could fly, and nearly ended my life as I launched myself off the roof of the garage at the age of five. Then The Water-Babies entered my life and I spent a whole year utterly absorbed in the problem of how to penetrate the wainscot of our house - difficult, as we didn't have any wainscotting at all, and nobody knew what a wainscot was anyway. I loved Ratty and Mole with a reckless lack of discretion, and Swallows and Amazons convinced me that a watery future in England involving sailing about in a dinghy and chatting to voles was my destiny. I imagined myself saying, "I say, do you think I have cut it too fine, Moley?" as I tucked in to egg-and-cress sandwiches.

Just about the time it dawned on me that I might be able to make a career out of writing, I discovered Saul Bellow - first Humboldt's Gift and then Herzog. I had long before discovered John Updike, whom I revered, but there was something about Humboldt's Gift - the sheer ecstatic pleasure of the writing, the intensity of the imagery, the entrancing ability to combine high comedy with deeply serious intellectual ideas, the astonishing talent for describing faces, the warm affection for Chicago characters - which excited me almost beyond endurance.

I thought that Bellow was the most exciting writer I had ever encountered, and to a degree I still think so. To tell the truth, I did not for some time fully understand the plot of Humboldt's Gift, but it didn't matter, as I revelled in the bravura of the writing. Charlie Citrine's account of his meeting with the hoodlum Rinaldo Cantabile, his troubles with lawyers and women, his love of his gross brother Ulick, his stay in Madrid, his descriptions of Chicago ("bits of snow fell from the grey invisibility that lay upon the skyscrapers" and the "limp silk fresh lilac drowning water") are both razor sharp and invariably undercut by some human irony. Bellow is entranced by what it is to be human: nobody describes faces and bodies as he does. He searches for history in faces: Professor Kippenberg is described as having "eyebrows like caterpillars on the Tree of Knowledge". A rabbi has "a big soft nose, pitted with black"; a cowboy has "horse-disfigured legs", which make it impossible for him to swim. In Herzog, Valentine Gersbach, the one-legged man who has stolen Herzog's wife, has a curious, dipping action when he walks, like a gondolier's. Actually, Bellow did not write women very well, but that is another matter.

So when I encountered Humboldt's Gift, and worked my way through the Bellow oeuvre, I understood that there was a standard of writing that I wanted in my own way to strive for. It absolutely changed my perspective on the possibilities of modern literature. At the time it seemed to me that Bellow had a miraculous ability to wander, veer, stagger between wonderful imagery, low comedy and heady ideas: Koestler, theosophy, the nature
of landscape, Spengler, Rudolf Steiner and Hitler's Table Talk all crop up in Citrine's mind, between comic and touching episodes in the old Chicago bathhouse, the kidnapping of him and his deluded friend Pierre Thaxter by Cantabile, and some wonderfully observed action with his lover, Renata, who in the end opts for an undertaker as a better bet than Citrine the writer. The long-dead poet Von Humboldt Fleisher is a creation of genius.

It is hardly a surprise that the English critics who were most inclined to disparage this heady mixture were Kingsley Amis and Auberon Waugh. It seems to me that their objection is that it is too American, perhaps too immigrant-American. Yet, as James Wood points out, Bellow owes a lot to a very English and Dickensian kind of writing.

And so it was Humboldt's Gift that changed my life. Nowadays I see it still as a kind of literary five-finger exercise: if ever I am in doubt, I speed my way through a few pages, and invariably I am inspirited.

“Humboldt's Gift" by Saul Bellow is published in the Penguin Classics series (£10.99)
Justin Cartwright's latest novel, "To Heaven by Water", is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right