"Humboldt's Gift" by Saul Bellow (1975)
"It was no use arguing. Tolstoi? Tolstoi was last week's conversation. Humboldt's big intelligent disordered face was white and hot with turbulent occult emotions and brainstorms. I felt sorry for us, for both, for all of us, such odd organisms under the sun. Large minds abutting too close on swelling souls. And banished souls at that, longing for their home-world. Everyone alive mourned the loss of his home-world."
Bellow was an American author, born in Canada. In his lifetime he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, and several other prizes and medals. His first novel appeared in 1944, and Humboldt's Gift is his eighth novel out of fourteen. He passed away in 2005.
This novel centers around the novelist Charles Citrine, a somewhat neurotic Chicagoan entangled in a messy divorce, obsessed with a younger mistress, and distracted by an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Western civilization. Charles' best friend/nemesis dies early on in the book, and much of the narrative involves his coming to terms with the loss of this influential companion.
I really wanted to like this book, but it was a real chore to get through. If you thought War and Peace wasn't philosophical enough, if you thought Crime and Punishment didn't brood enough, then this is the book for you. There are pages and pages of this novel wherein absolutely nothing happens, and where one is instead forced to wade through Charles' reflections on art, religion, philosophy, and whatever else has captured his fancy at the moment. In the end it becomes difficult to separate Charles' intellectual vanity from the author's.
I suppose it was this vanity that won him so many awards, but in this day and age the long-winded nature of Bellow's prose is nothing if not exhausting. There are many who criticize Bellow for attempting to resurrect the 19th century novel, and I think this criticism is entirely valid. But maybe, in saying this, I'm being unfair to 19th century novels. Compared to Humboldt's Gift, books like David Copperfield, War and Peace, and Sense and Sensibility don't seem all that long.
In tone, Bellow's fiction reminds me a lot of Philip Roth. This isn't only because both authors happen to be American Jews writing at a certain time of life, but also because they seem fixated on many of the same themes - older men and younger women, aging, modernity, and feelings of obsolescence. But where Roth is all brooding darkness, Bellow displays a lighter touch. His characters have a better sense of their own absurdity, and there is less of a suicidal impulse present within them. I prefer Roth, the more depressing of the two authors, because he's not as long-winded.