It’s like this: I’m two reviews behind, and I badly need to catch up. I’ve actually taken the drastic step of banning myself from reading another book until I’m up to date with my reviews.
Yes, I’ve resorted to bribing myself. And the really sad thing is, it’s working.
But not being able to read makes me sad. And it makes the train trip to work incredibly dull.
So because Seize the Day is a short novel, this will be a suitably short review…
Seize the Day
by Saul Bellow
Published in 1956
Although he’s in his mid-forties, Tommy is still mired in the same kind of listlessness that most people leave behind in their twenties. He’s been fired from his job as a toy salesman, he’s abandoned his wife and two children, and his acting career evaporated into nothingness years ago, before it ever really began.
With his savings dwindling, and barely able to contain his own emotions after decades of estrangement, Tommy resorts to a meeting over breakfast with his successful father.
It’s the beginning of the most important day of Tommy’s life; a day that will see him risk everything in an elaborate stockmarket gamble. As he hands over the last of his savings to the eccentric Doctor Tamkin, Tommy is all too aware that this is his final chance to make things right – and there’s so much more at stake than just money.
Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day is a moving novel…but it failed to move me, and I’m left trying to work out why. There’s so much that I admired about Bellow’s writing. The elements that make up this novel are so close to perfect, and yet, as a whole, Seize the Day just didn’t work.
What impressed me as I read Seize the Day was Bellow’s distinct talent for creating characters. Tommy, the novel’s faded protagonist, is gently, lovingly pasted together from fragments of information; little things, like the contents of his pockets, the greasy black fingerprints he leaves behind when he touches the egg he’s eating for breakfast, the way his laugh sounds like a honking goose. All these little details slowly accumulate, picking up other details along the way, growing in size and gaining momentum like a cartoon snowball tumbling down a hill.
As a character, Tommy is the sum is his mistakes. In the first half of the novel, Bellow has Tommy reflect upon each and every failure, one at a time; a litany of human frailty. Bellow slowly drip-feeds his reader information, piece by tantalising piece.
Slowly, carefully, Bellow builds up an intense, frenetic energy that had me entranced. The sheer emotion of this novel, the desperation of Tommy’s plight crackles with electricity.
But then, as we enter the novella’s second half, all that potential, all that emotion and frustration simply loses its spark. Bellow leaves the tension hanging in the air for a moment too long, and it disappears into nothing. Bellow’s sudden, sharp turn into absurdity hijacks the narrative, and knocks all the tension from the novel. The furious momentum, the emotional power of the novel’s first half fizzles away.
For me, Seize the Day missed its mark. Though I can appreciate Bellow’s craftsmanship, Seize the Day lost its way. I can glimpse the hint of some important truth hidden between the pages of this novella, but for now, I have to admit defeat. It’s simply slipped from my grasp.
I dislike writing negative reviews. When I don’t find a novel to my liking, I often give the novel the benefit of the doubt, so to speak, and assume that the fault lies with myself, rather than the author.
So, at least for now, I think that what I’m really trying to say is something like this –
It’s not you, Saul Bellow. It’s me.