Northpapers's Reviews > Seize the Day

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
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Feb 26, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: favorites

Before I get into Saul Bellow's little powerhouse of a novel, a word about introductions, forewords, and prefaces.

Unless I finish a novel with a feeling of wonder, I rarely read the introduction. Any kind of foreword usually functions to inflate the page count, advertise the book (why, if I'm already reading a book, do I need to read an ad for it?), and attach some big shot author's name with the work at hand.

However, there are those few introductions which function as great literature in their own right. Tom Wolfe, in his introduction to Bonfire of the Vanities (I have yet to read the book, but I have read the introduction at least three times), offers readers a lucid, hilarious, paradigm-shifting look at the history of style and content in the modern novel. David Eggers, in the Preface to A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, confronts every imagined complaint about his memoir and vehemently defends his choices, offering a blazing portrait of the self-consciousness that he goes on to explore in the book. And, in the intro to Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick effectively illuminates literature's unique power, and spotlights Bellow's work as a defining example of that force.

She compares literature, with its descriptions and suggestions, to the pre-processed sights and sounds of television and cinema. She mourns the time when novels were a shared language in our culture, saying the following:

"If literature can give new eyes to human beings, it is because the thing held in common is seperately imagined."

A world where we all share a certain bibliography, with which we all interact in our own imaginations, is difficult to imagine. We just don't read that much anymore, and the volume of books being published scatters the few readers left to their own favored genres and authors.

So, fellow readers, if we are to correct this problem, I suggest that we start with Seize the Day. I suggest this for a few reasons.

First, the book is notably short. Barely over one hundred pages, it is compact in its time span, plot, and action. Second, its density is astounding. It packs in stunning, nuanced explorations of loyalty, generations, marriage, financial stress, cities, psychology, spirituality, and the quest for the soul. Third, on the tail end of the second, it presents us with a shared Truth which we seperately imagine: We each have a soul that transcends our circumstances.

The book spends its time in the head of Tommy Wilhelm, a failed actor and an unemployed salesman, seperated from his family, living in an apartment near his retired father in New York. Wilhelm throws his money into one last gamble, trusting a purported psychologist and investing in lard.

While the mind of a character has been a common setting for novels in recent years, Bellow's choice to paint the landscape of his character's inner life was an innovation in its time, and it still astounds and inspires in its result, despite the flood of followers.

The final chapter, moving in response to Wilhelm's misfortunes and poor choices, plunges deep after the human soul, until it is out of sight.

The way Wilhelm falls apart, the way he rages and fumes and fights and grieves, all suggests some presence beyond comprehension. Some guiding platonic reality that requires the complete obliteration of his pride, self-delusion, and wealth.

Very little in the story goes the way we might hope. But when we leave Wilhelm's story, and we are filled with a new, deeper sense of hope that transcends the events of the book.

So the book leaves us with a sense of assurance that there is a soul within the man, but it allows us to wonder at its nature and to wonder at our own souls as well.

That, fellow readers, is an outcome well worth both our shared exploration and our individual imagination.
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