Book for January 2012
The novel, which Bellow initially intended to be a short story, is a roman à clef about Bellow's friendship with the poet Delmore Schwartz. It explores the changing relationship of art and power in a materialist America. This theme is addressed through the contrasting careers of two writers, Von Humboldt Fleisher (to some degree a version of Schwartz) and his protege Charlie Citrine (to some degree a version of Bellow himself). Fleisher yearns to lift American society up through art but dies a failure. In contrast, Charlie Citrine makes quite a lot of money through his writing, especially from a Broadway play and a movie about a character named Von Trenck - a character modeled after Humboldt.
Another notable character in the book is Rinaldo Cantabile, a wannabe Chicago gangster, who tries to bully Citrine into being friends and whose career advice to Citrine, focused solely on commercial interests, is the opposite of the advice Citrine was once given by his old mentor, Humboldt Fleisher, who valued artistic integrity above all other concerns.
Some critics, including Malcolm Bradbury, see the novel as a commentary on the increasing commodification of culture in mid-century America, and throughout much of the book, Bellow analyzes, through the voice of Citrine, his concerns about spirituality, poetry, and success in America.
In the words of the Swedish Nobel Committee, his writing exhibited "the mixture of rich picaresque novel and subtle analysis of our culture, of entertaining adventure, drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession interspersed with philosophic conversation, all developed by a commentator with a witty tongue and penetrating insight into the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting, and that can be called the dilemma of our age." His best-known works include The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Mr. Sammler's Planet, Seize the Day, Humboldt's Gift and Ravelstein. Widely regarded as one of the twentieth century's greatest authors, Bellow has had a "huge literary influence."