Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

July 13, 2009

While looking for something else, I noticed the Bellow section. I previously read one of his short stories, “A Silver Dish” (in the anthology America’s Best Short Stories of the Century), but had not read any of his novels. I decided that, as the novel I was looking for was temporarily unavailable, I would grab something Bellow. After much serious consideration, I ultimately chose SEIZE THE DAY. It is quite short.

Bellow is a stunning stylist. He crafts sentences that are worthy of having a novel wrapped around them. For instance, Bellow delights with the following when Wilhelm, the protagonist, is watching an old man at the commodities exchange:

A long perfect ash formed on the end of the cigar, the white ghost of the leaf with all its veins and its fainter pungency. It was ignored, in its beauty, by the old man. For it was beautiful. Wilhelm he ignored as well.

SeizeTheDayAside from its aestheticism, this paragraph provides a sense of Wilhelm’s place in the world. Wilhelm is a sort of Willy Loman, an everyman, if not entirely a loser, certainly not a winner. And, yet, as implied from this sentence, there is something beautiful about him.

As the book opens, Wilhelm is an out of work salesman with an estranged wife, two sons he rarely sees, a rather cold father, and a pressing need for money. He also holds three orders of lard in the commodities market. The action of the novel takes place place in a single day and revolves around Wilhelm’s need for cash. His father, Dr. Adler, is a man of sufficient means to help. Whether Wilhelm will ask and whether Dr. Adler will oblige are questions that provide some of the narrative tension.

However, the most pressing issues involve the orders of lard. Wilhelm knows nothing about the commodities market and so finds himself at a loss when the price for lard drops the choice is between selling or waiting for a rebound. “The psychologist, Dr. Tamkin, had got him into this.” Tamkin and Wilhelm first met at a nightly gin game where Wilhelm “had never won. Not once.” Dr. Tamkin is, aside from Wilhelm, easily the most interesting character of the novel.

What a rare peculiar bird he was, with those pointed shoulders, that bare head, his loose nails, almost claws, and those brown, soft, deadly, heavy eyes.

Dr. Tamkin had enthralled Wilhelm with the possibility of easy money in commodities. Wilhelm is not greedy, he only hopes to “work out a little steady income.” An early exchange between Wilhelm and Dr. Tamkin sets the tone of their relationship and warns the reader of the danger ahead:

“I’d be so grateful if you’d show me how to work it.”

“Sure I will. I do it regularly. I’ll bring you my receipts if you like. And do you want to know something? I approve of your attitude very much. You want to avoid catching money fever. This type of activity is filled with hostile feeling and lust. You should see what it does to some of these fellows. They go on the market with murder in their hearts.”

“What’s that I once heard a guy say?” Wilhelm remarked. “A man is only as good as what he loves.”

“That’s it — just it,” Tamkin said. “You don’t have to go about it their way. There’s also a calm and rational, a psychological approach.”

Wilhelm puts his last seven hundred dollars into the market under Tamkin’s guidance. This foray is, technically, against his father’s advice:

…Dr. Adler…had warned him once against Dr. Tamkin. Rather casually — he was a very bland old man — he said, “Wilky, perhaps you listen too much to this Tamkin. He’s interesting to talk to. I don’t doubt it. I think he’s pretty common but he’s a persuasive man. However, I don’t know how reliable he may be.”

Wilhelm is less impressed by the advice than by how it exemplifies his father’s “detachment” regarding his welfare.

Wilhelm’s relationship with his father is quite strained. Wilhelm has been a disappointment to his father since quitting college to try acting on the advice of a talent agent who told him he had the “it” factor. The talent agent turned out not to be quite what he said he he was. Wilhelm’s greatest acting role was as an extra in a movie. His father never forgives him for quitting school for such frivolity. He had wanted “Wilky” to be a doctor.

Wilhelm had been unwilling to go into medicine. In a flashback to a conversation with his mother, he explains:

“I can’t bear hospitals. Besides, I might make a mistake and hurt someone or even kill a patient. I couldn’t stand that. Besides, I haven’t got that sort of brains.”

While his father’s disappointment is simple and straightforward, Wilhelm’s feelings toward his father are more complex. He seeks his father’s love and approval, yet finds his father repulsive in various ways. Despite his revulsion, and with all of New York, at least, to choose from when Wilhelm leaves his wife, he moves into the old hotel where his father lives, albeit Wilhelm’s room is several floors below his father’s. They meet often for meals, despite the fact that neither of them enjoys the other’s company. On this day, his father brings an acquaintance, Mr. Perls, as buffer or distraction. The intricacies of this father-son relationship are largely revealed during breakfast, even with Mr. Perls present.

Bellow introduces the important aspects of Wilhelm’s character through two early interactions with otherwise irrelevant characters. On his way to meet his father for breakfast, he stops for a newspaper. Bellow manages Wilhelm’s interaction with Rubin, “the man at the newsstand”, magnificently. While buying a newspaper is usually a routine and mundane event, Bellow uses the exchange to give the reader insight into Wilhelm. Though Wilhelm and Rubin exchange pleasantries daily, Wilhelm invests their interaction with unusual weight.

The other character is the clerk at the hotel. The clerk gives Wilhelm his mail, which includes a bill. As with Rubin, Wilhelm gives the clerk far more thought than the clerk apparently gives him. This is the kind of fellow Wilhelm is.

Wilhelm has not been successful in life, but he has managed a middle class existence. His not having a job is partly due to principle rather than any professional failing. Wilhelm is not, like his father, a lover of money. As his interactions with Rubin and the clerk show, he respects men as men, regardless of social position. His charitableness, his willingness to assume the best of others is his best feature. Of course, it also leads to gullibility, as with the talent agent.

I do not want to reveal more regarding the relationship between Wilhelm and Tamkin for fear of spoiling the primary pleasure of the novel. Is Tamkin reliable or not? Will he come through for Wilhelm or not? How will Wilhelm solve his problems? It is absolutely delightful to watch the relationship between Wilhelm and Tamkin unfold.

Bellow is a superb writer, both of sentences and of whole works. This novel, as Cynthia Ozick points out in her introduction to this edition, is complete. She compares Bellow to the great Russian novelists and she is correct. But this is not a Russian epic, it is a Wall Street novel, a New York novel, an American novel. It is also a philosophical novel. Bellow writes with elegance, wit, and weight. He packs a world into these 118 pages.

I am sold on Bellow.