Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Seize the DayOne of the books I bought in the US in 2013 (in Alexandria, Virginia to be precise) was Seize the Day by Saul Bellow. I daresay I could have found a copy in England, but it felt right to buy one of the Big American Writers while in the US of A. And eventually I read it, and then there was quite a gap before I got around to writing this…

I went in with some trepidation. There are all sorts of those Big American Writers whom I’ve still not read. Faulkner, Hemingway… well, those are the only two I can think of right now that I’d put in the same intimidating category as Saul Bellow. But now I’m not quite sure why I put him into that category at all – Seize the Day was really good, and not at all off-putting or difficult or testosterone-filled in the way that I imagine those other two are. (Am I wrong about them too?)

Seize the Day (1956), for anybody else in my position of Bellow ignorance, is apparently considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century and was Bellow’s fourth novel. It’s also super short, which is a criterion that meant more to me than those other things – my copy weighs in at only 118 pages.

The hero – though he is far from that – is Wilhelm Adler, a failed actor who is in a mire of frustration. He is estranged from his wife and children and a disappointment to his elderly father – as his father is not reluctant to let him know. Wilhelm has moved into his father’s hotel, and is trying to reconnect with him, though it is not made easy. The focus of Seize the Day is a single, ordinary day: Wilhelm is going to have breakfast and an argument with his father, and is musing on the various failures of his life. We go in and out of his mind, reliving the past, seeing how everything went wrong by increments. Here, for example, is an overview of his dashed hopes of becoming a filmstar, after he was invited to a screen test:

But when Venice saw the results of the screen test he did a quick about-face. In those days Wilhelm had had a speech difficulty. It was not a true stammer, it was a thickness of speech which the sound track exaggerated. The film showed that he had many peculiarities, otherwise unnoticeable. When he shrugged, his hands drew up within his sleeves. The vault of his chest was huge, but he really didn’t look strong under the lights. Though he called himself a hippopotamus, he more nearly resembled a bear. His walk was bearlike, quick and rather soft, toes turned inward, as though his shoes were an impediment. About one thing Venice had been right. Wilhelm was photogenic, and his wavy blond hair (now graying) came out well, but after the test Venice refused to encourage him. He tried to get rid of him. He couldn’t afford to take a chance on him, he had made too many mistakes already and lived in fear of his powerful relatives.

More recently, he has lost much of his savings in an ill-fated financial dalliance with Dr Tamkin, a self-professed psychologist who is really fraudulently preying upon Wilhelm’s weak character. Yet even here, there are shades of grey. We aren’t seeing the conniving nemesis manipulating the vulnerable hero – it is more nuanced than that.

Most nuanced, and the section I most admired, is the conversation between Wilhelm and his father. If Wilhelm embodies the death of a certain sort of American dream more broadly, these exchanges look more closely at the universal desire to make one’s parents proud. Dr Adler is fairly harsh in his refusal to excuse his son, and is clearly disappointed in him, but Bellow manages to make us see that this is one conversation in a long line of similar conversations. Wilhelm is asking for pity where his father can only feel disgust at his self-pity. Each line of dialogue is believable while being a blow to the heart.

It’s hardly revelatory to say that I think Saul Bellow is a very good writer, but I had expected bravado and grandiose writing, rather than the subtlety and even delicacy – yet somehow a forthright delicacy – that he puts on the page. I’m last to the party, but I can certainly see myself returning to Bellow when in that sort of frame of mind.

Next stop, Faulkner?

18 thoughts on “Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

    • June 29, 2016 at 10:45 pm
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      Ha! I like that process. The Light in August comes up a few times in the comments here -which surprised me, as it’s one I haven’t heard of. I’ll keep an eye out!

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  • June 27, 2016 at 7:36 am
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    Once you get into Faulkner – and if you like his style – the most rewarding of all his work is The Sound and the Fury. You probably need to read it at least twice but it is wonderful and worthwhile.
    As for Saul Bellow, it has been said that his short story A Silver Dish is one of the best short stories by anyone! Well, that’s open but I think the test of any writing is its ability to thrill the reader again and again.
    How lucky you are to have all that ahead of you!

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    • June 29, 2016 at 10:50 pm
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      Oo bold claim for A Silver Dish by whoever said that! I’d be impressed to read anybody who could rival Katherine Mansfield at her finest.

      And thanks for the Faulkner tips!

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      • July 2, 2016 at 3:43 pm
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        It wasn’t me, anyway! Here’s my answer to your challenge: the short stories (and, of course, all her books) by the wonderful, unequalled, dazzling Elizabeth Bowen. Just me saying.

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  • June 27, 2016 at 7:53 am
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    Interesting, I am scared of the Great American Male Writers, too – I have dabbled in Cheever but his collected short stories were too samey. I tend to like the more skewed ones. But we shall see (well, I’ll see in here then see if I dabble further).

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    • June 29, 2016 at 10:51 pm
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      Cheever, hmm, yes… he’s one of those people I always think I should read. But the mix of testosterone and short stories might be too much for me.

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      • July 1, 2016 at 12:35 pm
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        Cheever isn’t testosteroney as much as bitter, from what I recall!

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  • June 27, 2016 at 7:54 am
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    Saul Bellow – I remember I quite enjoyed Herzog, although I probably would have less patience with a midlife crisis now that I am midlife-ish myself.
    Faulkner – yes, it’s best to jump right in and not think of him as intimidating or difficult. Light in August or Sanctuary are not considered masterpieces, but I think they’re both much more ‘fun’ to read and a good place to start. Sound and Fury is his best, but perhaps requires a trained ear and eye, after you’ve got used to his style.

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    • June 29, 2016 at 10:52 pm
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      A fun way into Faulkner definitely appeals more than TSATF. And Herzog was the only Bellow novel I’d heard of – well, I did read his NYRB interview, so I suspect I have heard of more of them at one point. But it didn’t appeal.

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  • June 27, 2016 at 10:21 am
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    Great review Simon. I’ve never read any Bellow and somehow was putting him with the testosterone types as well. Good to know he isn’t like that!

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    • June 29, 2016 at 10:54 pm
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      Thanks! And yes, it was a great relief that Bellow didn’t fall into the category I’d feared.

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  • June 28, 2016 at 10:38 am
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    You made me want to read this one. I read Herzog a few years ago and the absence of annotations made it pretty hard going and frustrating ( I wonder why Penguin Contemporary Classics don’t include notes, does anyone know ? ). The book is packed with references to philosophers I had never even heard of so it made it difficult to get Herzog’s point at times. Perhaps S The D is more accessible for those who did not study philosophy ?
    As for Faulkner, I jumped in at the big end and read TSATF for starters and I am not sorry I did, it’s extaordinary. Makes it difficult to read lesser authors after that, though !
    PS : this is the 3rd times I’m trying to get that post through, I hope you don’t end up receiving them all !

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    • June 29, 2016 at 10:57 pm
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      Seize the Day is definitely (and thankfully!) almost absent of references of any kind – so you might get on with this one much better. I do find books without any notes very frustrating, particularly if they’re clearly the sort of book that requires them.

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  • June 29, 2016 at 1:18 am
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    I would say yes to Faulkner for you, but only non-fiction Hemingway. He writes better about writing than he writes novels. I have never read any Bellow, so am enticed by your review – thank you!

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    • June 29, 2016 at 10:58 pm
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      Oh, that’s interesting! I don’t know what he wrote about writing – I will have to look further.

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  • July 1, 2016 at 3:08 am
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    The thing about both Bellow and Hemingway is that they are at least readable. I find Faulkner impenetrable. I don’t understand both the love and hate camps when it comes to Hemingway. I think both exaggerate the point. I think you would actually find The Old Man and the Sea worth a go.

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  • July 8, 2016 at 9:21 pm
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    Hemingway is testosterone filled, yes. Faulkner, not so much.

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