Humbolt’s Gift

Saul Bellow

FROM Humbolt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

He was a wonderful talker, a hectic nonstop monologuist and improvisator, a champion detractor. To be loused up by Humboldt was really a kind of privilege. It was like being the subject of a two-nosed portrait by Picasso, or an eviscerated chicken by Soutine. Money always inspired him. He adored talking about the rich. Brought up on New York tabloids, he often mentioned the golden scandals of yesteryear, Peaches and Daddy Browning, Harry Thaw and Evelyn Nesbitt, plus the Jazz Age, Scott Fitzgerald, and the Super-Rich. The heiresses of Henry James he knew cold. There were times when he himself schemed comically to make a fortune. But his real wealth was literary. He had read many thousands of books. He said that history was a nightmare during which he was trying to get a good night’s rest. Insomnia made him more learned. In the small hours he read thick books ; Marx and Sombart, Toynbee, Rostovtzeff, Freud. When he spoke of wealth he was in a position to compare Roman luxus with American Protestant riches. He generally got around to the Jews; Joyce’s silk-hatted Jews outside the Bourse. And he wound up with the gold-plated skull or death mask of Agamemnon, dug up by Schliemann. Humboldt could really talk.

His father, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant, had ridden with Pershing’s cavalry in Chihuahua, chasing Pancho Villa in a Mexico of whores and horses (very different from my own father, a small gallant person who shunned such things). His old man had plunged into America. Humboldt spoke of boots, bugles, and bivouacs. Later came limousines, luxury hotels, palaces in Florida. His father had lived in Chicago during the boom. He was in the real-estate business and kept a suite at the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Summers, his son was sent for. Humboldt knew Chicago, too. In the days of Hack Wilson and Woody English the Fleishers had a box at Wrigley Field. They drove to the game in a Pierce-Arrow or a Hispano-Suiza (Humboldt was car-crazy). And there were lovely John Held, Jr., girls, beautiful, who wore step-ins. And whisky and gangsters and the pillared doom-dark La Salle Street banks with railroad money and pork and reaper money locked in steel vaults. Of this Chicago I was completely ignorant when I arrived from Appleton. I played Piggie-move-up with Polish kids under the El tracks. Humboldt ate devil’s-food coconut-marshmallow layer cake at Henrici’s. I never saw the inside of Henrici’s.

I did, once, see Humboldt’s mother in her dark apartment on West End Avenue. Her face was like her son’s. She was mute, fat, broad-lipped, tied up in a bathrobe. Her hair was white, bushy, Fijian. The melanin was on the back of her hands and on her dark face still darker spots as large as her eyes. Humboldt bent over to speak to her, and she answered nothing but stared out with some powerful female grievance. He was gloomy when we left the building and he said, “She used to let me go to Chicago but I was supposed to spy on the old man and copy out bank statements and account numbers and write down the names of his hookers. She was going to sue him. She’s mad, you see. But then he lost everything in the crash. Died of a heart attack down in Florida.”

This was the background of those witty cheerful ballads. He was a manic depressive (his own diagnosis). He owned a set of Freud’s works and read psychiatric journals. Once you had read the Psychopathology of Everyday Life you knew that everyday life was psychopathology. That was all right with Humboldt. He often quoted me King Lear: “In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father. . . .” He stressed “son and father.” “Ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.”


Published in: on January 9, 2010 at 9:49 AM  Leave a Comment  

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