Saul Bellow, recognized as a Philosophical Novelist, is one of the influential 20th century literary giants. The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to him in 1976 ‘for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work’.  Bellow in a way has invented a refreshed phrenology, or theory of the humors – by the time Seize the Day arrived, it was clear he was on to something few moderns would wish to believe in : the human head as characterological map. Cynthia Ozick writes ‘Bellow’s attraction to the idea of soul may or may not be derived from an old interest in Rudolf Steiner; but no one will doubt that these surpassingly shrewd, arrestingly juxtaposed particulars of physiognomy are inspired grains of what can only be called human essence’. Bellow’s bodies are not bodies, they are souls.

In Seize the Day, Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist experiences a day of reckoning when he reviews his past mistakes that can not be undone, all those bad decisions that he took in his life, the existential crises, and efforts to preserve some dignity in the face of personal destruction, and finally accepts the ‘burden of self’. 

Tommy Wilhelm, in his forties, still retains boyish impetuousness that has brought him to unnervingly a chaotic financial mess – a father of two boys, a failed husband who lost his job as a salesman for a firm that promised him career advancement and then fired him in an act of nepotism. He feels strangled by the recurring memories of the bad decisions that he took in the past, which includes his acting career (a fiasco – a Hollywood agent placed him as ‘the type that loses the girl’) and his estranged wife’s overblown expenses. Stuck in a state of helplessness {even his successful father, an elderly widower, though affluent enough, disappointed in his son, remains indifferent to Wilhelm’s plight and refuses to help him financially), the effectively fatherless Wilhelm sees a glimmering in a mysterious, philosophizing conman Dr Tamkin,  a market gambler, a fly-by-night speculator, an opportunist and exploiter, a shady if not an out-n-out crook, who takes Wilhelm’s last seven hundred dollars, introduces him to the commodities market, promises him a killing in lard, while also spilling out a string of philosophies on how to live ….unfortunately, his last chance to make some dough turns out to be a whopper of mistake!

“..Wilhelm at 44 may be the youngest tenant, and surely the healthiest – big and fair haired, mountainous, with a big round face, a wide and flourishing red mouth, stump teeth…see himself as a reckless, burnt sad sack, a hapless comic figure : fair haired hippopotamus, Ass! Idiot! Wild boar! Dumb mule! – but he is also the humblest: failed husband, failed actor still carrying a phony Hollywood name, broke, appealing to his father for the rent money, pleading with his wife not to squeeze him so hard…”    

Read how he captured Dr. Tamkin, a central character – who may not be a doctor at all : 

“What a creature  Tamkin was when he took off his hat! The indirect light showed the many complexities of his bald skull, his gull’s nose, his rather handsome eyebrows, his vain mustache, his deceiver’s brown eyes. His figure was stocky, rigid, short in the neck, so that the large ball of the occiput touched his collar. His bones are were peculiarly formed, as though twisted twice where the ordinary human bone was turned only once, and his shoulders rose in two pagoda like points. At mid-body he was thick. He stood pigeon-toed, a sign perhaps that he was devious or had much to hide. The skin of his hands was aging, and his nails were moonless, concave, clawlike, and they appeared loose. His eyes were as brown as beaver fur and full of strange lines. The two large brown naked balls looked thoughtful – but were they ? and honest – but was Dr Tamkin honest? “ 

Tommy Wilhelm embraces his blunders, his miscalculations and misjudgment…

“….maybe the making of mistakes expressed the very purpose of his life and the essence of his being here. Maybe he was supposed to make them and suffer from them on this earth…..he had decided that it would be a bad mistake to go to Hollywood, and then he went. He had made up his mind not to marry his wife, but ran off and got married. He had resolved not to invest money with Tamkin, and then he had given him a cheque…” 

Tommy Wilhelm’s interaction with his higher consciousness at a stranger’s funeral is the most masterly scene in the book – which pours out through his convulsions of grief, almost like a turbulent wave of introspective terror… 

“…..standing a little apart, Wilhelm began to cry. He cried at first softly and from sentiment, but soon fro deeper feeling. He sobbed loudly and his face grew distorted and hot, and the tears stung his skin…soon he was past words, past reason, coherence…the source of all tears had suddenly sprung open within him, black, deep and hot, and they were pouring out and convulsed his body…the great knot of ill and grief in his throat swelled upward and he gave in utterly and held his face and wept..” 

The masterfully crafted Saul Bellow’s Broadway Uptown in the middle of the 20th century…because of its sheer vividness, still, lingers in me.

 “…On Broadway it was still bright afternoon and the gassy air was motionless under the leaden spokes of sunlight, and sawdust footprints lay about the doorways of butcher shops and fruit stores. And the great, great crowd, the inexhaustible current of millions of every race and kind pouring out, pressing round, of every age, of every genius, possessors of every human secret, antique and future, in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence – I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want. Faster, much faster than any man could make the tally. The sidewalks were wider than any causeway; the street itself was immense, and it quaked and gleamed….”

The author’s contemplation on today’s materialistic pursuits rings so true. Most of us, whether or not like it, do have to engage in varied kind of materialistic pursuits which come with  too many stressful obligations …”In the old days a man was put in prison for debt, bt there were subtler things now. They made it a shame not to have money and set everybody to work”  

Advertisements