Fathers and sons in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day
I’m a sucker for critics. Nothing catches my attention like someone’s acclaim of a book, movie or album. I’m so attached to what other people think about things that I sometimes wonder if my own opinions become inauthentic. If any author could be called “acclaimed,” its Saul Bellow. His awards include a Pulitzer Prize, three National Book Awards (he’s the only author with that many), the National Book Award Foundation medal, and somewhere in their he snagged himself the Nobel Prize. Sufjan Stevens even wrote a song about him! Pretty impressive right? I thought so in the summer of 2009 when I read his novel The Dangling Man. The small book told the story of a Canadian living in America during the Great Depression. The story, written in journal entries of the main character, follows him in his struggle to overcome immigration laws in order to fight as an American soldier in World War II. Despite its shortness, the book took me almost two months to get through. I didn’t hate it but I definitely didn’t love it. But what about all the acclaim? Didn’t I have to love it?
Well I decided to give Bellow another shot a few weeks ago. Motivated once again by the all-powerful opinion of a critic I got a hold of a copy of Seize the Day. In his book, How Fiction Works, the critic James Wood calls Bellow “one of the greatest stylists of American prose, a writer who makes even the fleetfooted (authors) seem like monopodes.” He justifies this bold claim using passages out of Seize the Day like this description of a man smoking a cigar:
“A long perfect ash formed on the end the cigar, the white ghost of the leaf with all its veins and its fainter pungency. It was ignored, in its beauty by the old man. For it was beautiful.”
The beauty of that passage alone, taken out of context, made me forget about my experience with The Dangling Man and seek out Seize the Day.
By the time I encountered that line in the book, Bellow’s style had already won me over. The novel is about a man in his forties named Tommy Wilhelm. The books starts with Tommy descending in an elevator to meet his father in the restaurant of the hotel they both live in. Tommy’s father is a successful surgeon while Tommy is a failed student, actor, and most recently salesman. As the story continues the roles of father and husband are added to his list of failures. Bellow uses the lunch conversation between Tommy and his father to show that Tommy is at the end of the rope and ready to try anything to pay his rent and alimony. The best hope he has his mercy from his tight-fisted but wealthy father, or the promises of an audacious and suspicious friend convincing him to “seize the day” by playing the stock markets.
Throughout the book Tommy's personality is torn by loyalties to both his father and his friend largely because there is a little bit of Tommy in each of them.
Tommy's friend, Dr. Tamkin, appeals to his brazen side, the side that motivated him years earlier to drop out of college to pursue acting. Despite his spectacular failure as an actor, Tommy goes into the stock market with Tamkin with his last $4000.
In Tommy's interaction with his father, on the other hand, he comes across as man who's learned to be sensible from a life full of mistakes. Its obvious that when he's with his father Tommy looks at himself with the same harsh judgment his father does.
Bellow uses a unique third person narration style to manages Tommy's complicated inner-duality. Unlike a traditional omniscient third person narrator, the voice of narration in Seize the Day seems to think just like Tommy. Instead of offering an authoritative interpretation Tommy and those around him, the narrator describes people with the same bias Tommy has. Using this style, Bellow leaves it up to the reader to decide, just as Tommy has to, how to read the people in the story. This makes the book feel more real and makes Tommy far more relatable.
By the end of the novel Tommy is worse off than at the beginning and he is left only with the option of begging his father for help. Tommy's desperation in the last pages of the book is heart wrenching. He completely unravels and transforms from a stoic victim into a desperate child seeking protection from his parent. As Tommy pleads with his father to help him financially it becomes clear that the story hasn't just been about a man who's down on his luck. The reader realizes simultaneously with Tommy, that his problems have nothing to do with money and everything to do with the fact that he is completely alone.
I probably haven't come even close to doingt the book justice so all I can say is read it!
If you want a smaller taste of Saul Bellow here is a link to a short story that's also great!