The Brilliance of Saul Bellow’s novella outlives the later rages of its creator.
Seize The Day, Saul Bellow’s novella about a failure desperate to find humanity separate from financial success is a masterpiece that outlives the demons of its creator. Published in 1956, it remains a stylistic tour de force, brimming with Joycean riffs, brilliant intensity, and an exquisite structure that was wildly experimental yet still fully contained. Rightly lionized in its time, Seize the Day has been overshadowed by Bellow’s later obsessions with blacks, feminists, and the LGBT community, but that-as true and ugly as it is-cannot take away the fact that he-at his best in this book-was as great a writer of prose fiction as there was in the 20th century.
The story centers on Tommy Wilhelm, a fortysomething who has failed as an actor, son, husband, father, and businessman. He begins the story alone, holed up in a hotel, a middle-aged boy who refuses to grow up. The book takes the tone of his quiet madness, a desperation realized not in cartoonish outburst, but in a realistic depiction of angst and failure. During the course of a day, Wilhelm has to come to terms with himself and his mistakes and does so in ways that are complicated, troubling — and heartfelt.
On the fourteenth floor, he looked for his father to enter the elevator; they often met at this hour, on the way to breakfast. If he worried about his appearance, it was mainly for his old father’s sake. But there was no stop on the fourteenth, and the elevator sank and sank. Then the smooth door opened and the great dark red uneven carpet that covered the lobby billowed toward Wilhelm’s feet.
–from Seize The Day
What makes Seize the Day special is Bellow’s beautiful prose, fluent in both the formalism of Proust and street slang, the Talmud and Leaves of Grass, the highbrow tone of New York intellectualism, and the city cadences of the Chicago of his youth. It is the glue and the solvent for Wilhelm’s personal confessions, his jeremiads against the idea of financial success, and his introspection into his own failure. Bellow seems endlessly inventive, a master who does not bring the common and the academic together so much as create a style that rises above both conventions. This is the Saul Bellow who will last, the one who belongs in the pantheon of authors who expanded the territory of the story and gave it a new definition and texture.
As he got older, went through more divorces, and became warier and warier of the changes of the era, Bellow personalized the character of Wilhelm; repackaging him in novel after novel, taking him from the realm of literary creation and making him a political symbol. Without the creative foundation of fiction( I.E. flesh and blood characters and a main character that gets away from the author) a fiction writer is writing bad essays. And after 1964, Saul Bellow wrote a bunch of long essays about his ex-wives. He detoured to write an essay about a black criminal and a white hippie girl that he fantasized a horrible death for( Mr. Sammlers Planet). He detoured to write a REALLY long hatchet job on Delmore Schwartz that included him complaining bout his fame( Humboldt’s Gift). But mostly? Ex-Wives. Herzog. The Deans December. More Die Of Heartbreak. Ex-Wives. Even the novels that weren’t specifically about ex-wives had Saul Bellow talking about his five ex-wives.
Yet the original Wilhelm exists, and the novel in which he was created withstands — and should be divorced from — the diseased late rages of its author. In short, Seize the Day endures and will endure long after Bellow’s outbursts are resigned to history.