Nick's Reviews > Humboldt's Gift

Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow
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Aug 09, 12

Read in May, 2012

I've probably read better novels, but I've certainly never read a better novelist. That might seem not to make sense--the test of a good novelist is to write good novels, right? Yes and no. One might be a philosopher or a poet or might have a Muse that brings him brilliant idea after brilliant idea and write a great novel despite not really mastering the novel as an art form, mastering its mechanics. One who can do that would be a great novelist in the sense I mean here.

It was this kind of mastery that really impressed me in Humboldt's Gift. Bellow's characterization is probably the best I've ever read. His minor characters seem realer to me now, in memory, than other novels' protagonists. And his prose style is incredible. Extremely erudite and evocative, yet smooth, musical, and easily read. Bellow seems to stroll through verbal obstacle courses without breaking a sweat. His freakish novelistic powers are especially evident in the last 100 pages or so. The novel's major themes (death (of God, art, middle-aged writers, everything), the Weberian "iron cage" of modern rationality, the "moronic inferno" that is so much of human affairs) coalesce elegantly in its last act, old characters come back in ways true to themselves and the plot, and the book closes with a perfect image I won't give away here. I laughed to myself when I finally closed the book and thought: "Hoo-boy. THIS is how a master does it."
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