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Seize the Day
Saul Bellow
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1956



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The possibilities for self-creation, material success, and absolute freedom are the basis of a powerful American myth, one that can just as easily destroy as empower those who embrace it. A long line of literary and historical figures, going back at least to Benjamin Franklin, gives us insight into this myth. Because we are a nation of immigrants whose institutions aim to make the circumstances of birth a mere starting point rather than a predictor of our fate, our capacity to invent ourselves is as limitless as our imagination. Without the practical barriers imposed by a rigid class system, vast wealth becomes not only a possibility but a measure of one's inner worth; if we can't play the game well enough to win, the fault doesn't lie in the game. Our democratic system of government promises freedom from political oppression, but this freedom can encourage us to resist societal restrictions. A democratic government is responsible to its citizens, sometimes fostering the notion that they can reap the benefits of community while being responsible to no one but themselves.

Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day is both inspired and burdened by the American myth of success. At the age of twenty, he changes his name from Wilky Adler to Tommy Wilhelm, a name signifying the person he dreams of becoming. He thereby recalls James Gatz, who by calling himself Jay Gatsby thinks he can conjure up the man Daisy Buchanan will find irresistible. Unlike Gatsby, however, Wilhelm has not fled his past; he confronts it daily through his father, who still calls him Wilky. Wilhelm has 'never . . . succeeded in feeling like Tommy, and in his soul had always remained Wilky .' But he remains optimistic, though the distance between the man he is and the man he aspires to be is an endless source of despair.

Wilhelm's financial troubles have more than practical implications. He feels that 'everyone was supposed to have money,' and his conversations with Dr. Tamkin strengthen his belief that with just a modest amount of will and talent, he could rid himself of financial worry. Tamkin assures Wilhelm that it will be 'easy' for him to make much more in the market than the fifteen
thousand he needs. Just as Wilhelm believes that he will one day become the person his name represents, so he clings to the hope that easy money awaits him. He assumes that his father would accept him if he had more money. Like Willy Loman, Wilhelm links his self-worth to his financial situation. If it really is easy to have more money than one needs, then financial failure must result from some character flaw.

Having quit his longtime job, left his wife and children, and taken a room in a residential hotel, Wilhelm seems intent on unburdening himself of the attachments and responsibilities that limit his freedom. He shares with Huck Finn the belief that personal autonomy somehow leads to personal fulfillment. But he is far from content when the story begins, sensing that 'a huge trouble long presaged but till now formless was due.' Wilhelm is bewildered by the fact that he has gone to such lengths to set himself free yet still feels trapped. Images of confinement proliferate. Beneath them is Wilhelm's desperate loneliness. Tamkin's assertion that we are all slaves to our 'pretender souls' only further confuses the issue for Wilhelm. Is freedom a state of mind, rather than a description of external conditions? He cannot be sure, just as he can never be sure if Tamkin's pronouncements are revelation or simply a means by which Tamkin gets what he wants.

Bellow explores these themes within a tight structure that gives Seize the Day (1956) a formal resemblance to his first two novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947). The Adventures of Augie March (1953) heralded a new expansiveness in Bellow's fiction, against which Seize the Day would appear an exception. But the novella's comedy is in keeping with Augie March and, in fact, much of Bellow's later work. Seize the Day, which looks both backward and forward, occupies a unique place in Bellow's career; it is also a powerful commentary on distinctly American ideals.

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BOOKS BY SAUL BELLOW:

Henderson the Rain King
1959
Henderson has come to Africa on a spiritual safari, a quest for 'the truth.' His feats of strength, his passion for life, and, most importantly, his inadvertant 'success' in bringing rain have made him a god-like figure among the tribes.
SAUL BELLOW'S BOOKSHELF

Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life
Gustave Flaubert, 1857
Hopeless romantic commits adultery, in vain attempt to escape her dull marriage and Norman bourgeoisie.

Notes from the Underground
Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, 1866
Nihilist denounces the decay of the modern world.

The Trial
Franz Kafka, 1925P
Accused man goes in search of his judges and his crime.

Nausea
Jean-Paul Sartre, 1938
Historian in the provinces is disgusted by the bourgeoisie.



The Outsider
Albert Camus, 1942
An indifferent French Algerian shoots a man and then refuses to oppose his sentence.



Sister Carrie
Theodore Dreiser, 1900
Working-class girl uses sex appeal to climb the ladder and plunges her lover in disgrace.



Gimpel the Fool, and other stories
Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1956
In 1952, Bellow translated the story 'Gimpel the Fool' from the original Yiddish into English.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, 1884-1885
Humorous, picaresque novel - in dialect - about a boy who travels down the Mississippi on a raft with a runaway slave.

Ulysses
James Joyce, 1922
The ultimate modernist 'urban novel', where streams of consciousness flow freely: a day in the life of a Jewish advertising salesman in Dublin, 1904.

His Collected Stories
Anton Chekhov, 1880-1885
There are many - we'll try and list the various available collections separately. Stay tuned!

Herzog
1964
An intellectual-in-crisis evaluates his past and writes frantic letters (which he never mails) about the state of the world.
WHAT TO READ AFTER HERZOG?

AMONG JEWISH INTELLECTUALS
The Professor of Desire
Philip Roth, 1977
Literature professor in crisis pursues his Jewish roots.

Dubin's Lives
Bernard Malamud, 1979
Young woman turns the life of a biographer upside-down.

[Zionoco]
Leon de Winter, 1995
New York rabbi with midlife crisis grapples with (his) morals.

CERTIFIABLE
Zeno's Conscience
Italo Svevo, 1923
Neurotic businessman analyzes his life and non-well-being.

Blue Mondays
Arnon Grunberg, 1994
Problematic love life of a Jewish teenager in Amsterdam.

Barney's Version
Mordecai Richler, 1997
Memoirs of the profligate (fictional) television producer Barney Panofsky.

DROWNING IN POPULAR CULTURE
The Fall
Albert Camus, 1956
Monologue in which a lawyer confronts his own hypocrisy.

Surfacing
Margaret Atwood, 1972
Feminist classic about the salutary influence of the Canadian wilderness.

Money: a suicide note
Martin Amis, 1984
John Self (!) descends into the Hell of consumerist New York.

Among the Dead
Michael Tolkin, 1992
Crime and punishment of a young widower.

HUMANISM WITH A WARM HEART
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers, 2000
Postmodern orphan's tale: Dave Egger's parents died from cancer within a month of each other when he was 21 and his brother, Christopher, was seven. They left the Chicago suburb where they had grown up and moved to San Francisco. This book tells the story of their life together.

The Corrections
Jonathan Franzen, 2001
A suburban family falls apart and is chastened.

Dangling Man
1944
Take a man waiting - waiting between the two worlds of civilian life and the army, suspended between two identities - and you have a man who, perhaps for the first time in his life, is really free. However, freedom can be a noose around a man's neck.
The Adventures of Augie March
1953
Fictional autobiography of a rumbustious adventurer and poker-player who sets off from his native Chicago in the spirit of a latter-day Columbus to rediscover the world - and more - especially, 20th century America.
Seize the Day
1956
New York novel about a man with an impossible father and a wasted life.
Mr Sammler's Planet
1970
Mr. Artur Sammler, Holocaust survivor, intellectual, and occasional lecturer at Columbia University in 1960s New York City, is a 'registrar of madness,' a refined and civilized being caught among people crazy with the promises of the future.
Humboldt's Gift
1975
A chronicle of success and failure, this work is Bellow's tale of the writer's life in America. When Humboldt dies a failure in a seedy New York hotel, Charlie Citrine, coping with the tribulations of his own success, begins to realize the significance of his own life.
Ravelstein
2000
The friendship between a writer and a rich, flamboyant intellectual.
The Dean's December
1982
Alternating between Chicago and Bucharest, Bellow's novel tells the story of a college dean who witnesses unrest and corruption at home and abroad, first within the political community of Chicago, then under the oppressive communist rule of Romania.
The Victim
1947
Leventhal is a natural victim; a man uncertain of himself, never free from the nagging suspicion that the other guy may be right. So when he meets a down-at-heel stranger in the park one day and finds himself being accused of ruining the man's life, he half believes it.
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editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht, info@the-ledge.com
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