1956 – seize the day ~ saul bellow

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

Tommy Wilhelm knows he’s running out of time. With more than half of his life over, he’s all too aware of his own mistakes.

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.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Author: Michelle

Reader, writer, wannabe. Literary critic (with training wheels on). Blogging my way through the 20th century’s classic novels in chronological order.

5 thoughts on “1956 – seize the day ~ saul bellow”

  1. Hello Michelle. I stumbled across this blog whilst researching for the Man Who Loved Children at my workplace – Subiaco Library in Perth, where as a librarian I run book club groups – amongst other back breaking tasks! We are reading that book at the moment.

    I’m very impressed with your blog and it’s a great idea to read the books in sequence and the time travel concept is fun. I noticed that recently you had thoughts about giving up and writers block. Keep going! I can relate in some ways as I too write about books on my own blog – Excelsior, which you can access via the hot link on my name. I’ve only been going for three months or so, but sometimes you can’t be bothered, particularly when you work full time.

    I’m going to place a link to your blog on my blog so the joy can be shared around.

    Regards,

    Jeremy

  2. Hi Jeremy! Thank you so much for your lovely comment. Consider my day officially made.

    I hope your reading group enjoy The Man Who Loved Children as much as I did. I’ll keep an eye on your blog for a review!

  3. That’s good – we bloggers need encouragement from time to time. The meetings are this coming week, so I’m very interested to see how they cope with it. They are a good bunch and fairly adventurous in terms of reading. If you are interested go here:

    http://www.subiaco.wa.gov.au/template.asp?navSelect=15&mainNavID=15&pageRecID=31

    …where you’ll find info about the book club and reviews written by members of the books over the years.

    I haven’t finished it myself yet – about 80 pages to go. You are right, it does draw you into its world – I just hope I can get out!

  4. Let’s now attempt to examine some characters as they appear more or less sequentially in the novel, and take a look at the thoughts that go through Corde’s mind about each, and into which of James’ two groups they may be placed. Some characters, such as the Colonel or the Ambassador, obviously go into a category without much need for analysis of their thoughts and actions; others, such as Minna and Vlada Voynich, are actually hybrid personalities exhibiting strong signs of both personality designations.
    http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com

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