One 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?