Transformer: Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day”

Bellow, Saul (1996), Seize the Day, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-141-18485

Saul Bellow is a great writer and his novels never disappoint; on the contrary most of them belong to the best that this century has to offer in the form. Plots, however, are not his forte, most of his books feel somewhat too long; after all, all of us remember the labored ending of the otherwise stunningly excellent Humboldt’s Gift. His insights into his culture and the (male) human beings in it, are valuable throughout, and his prose is a joy to read. Thus, it is no surprise that Seize the Day, his fourth novel (published in 1956), which is extraordinarily short, in my edition just 119 pages, is a success from start to finish. It doesn’t follow a convoluted plot: instead we accompany its protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, Adler, on a trek through New York, on one single day. By now we the readers are well acquainted with the device of having a novel take place within the narrow confines of twenty-four hours, but, since Seize the Day, structurally, resembles a short story rather than a ‘proper’ novel, reaching into the dustbin of literary history for Joycean analogies is, perhaps, inappropriate.

This single day is a special, a peculiar day, this we know early on. Tommy Wilhelm has reached the end of his rope. He isn’t the smartest of men, nor the most adept at making the best out of a bad situation. He is divorced and financially on shaky grounds yet he pays his former wife far more than he would have to, at least according to his father. But Tommy Wilhelm gladly pays the money, as long as he’s able to, presumably because that gesture of generosity offers him a sort of redemption, a meaning in his otherwise empty and luckless life. He can’t admit to this, of course, and he doesn’t need to: Tommy is a pro at self-deception. When, many years ago, a grandiose Hollywood agent told him that he should be in the movies, he believed him, moved to Hollywood and overstayed his welcome. Even as all the signs suggested that this may not be the best place for him, he persevered, until circumstances (i.e. failure) made it impossible for him to continue deluding himself.

This proves to be a pattern in Tommy’s life: slipping into a habit of self-deception until circumstances shake him up and awaken him to the state he’s really in. Although we are deprived of details of his marriage, it is quite probable that he noticed its failure only after his wife left him (or a comparable scenario). He notices too late that he is on his way out in his job as a salesman, and, in an effort to correct his tardy recognition of the fact, overreacts and quits, which puts him in a precarious financial situation. Tommy appears incapable of planning or spending his money responsibly. Paying his former wife hand over fist, stumbling in and out of a career as a salesman is one aspect of this; the other, far more damaging aspect of his myopia is the fact that, as his money starts running out, engages in a dubious financial operation with a strange, suspicious man who turns out to be a con man. The day that we accompany Tommy on his errands in NYC, he signs over his very last money to that man, Dr. Tamkin.

Dr. Tamkin is easily the most intriguing character of the book. Tommy’s father and his respectable friends, who know Tamkin by name, have long suspected him of being a crook; in fact, his behavior is so dodgy and smooth at the same time that even Tommy, who isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, repeatedly considers severing his ties to that curious man. Bellow’s portrayal of Tamkin is another one of his justly celebrated Dickensian character sketches:

What a creature Tamkin was when he took off his hat! The indirect light showed the many complexities of his bald skull, his gull’s nose, his rather handsome eyebrows, his vain mustache, his deceiver’s brown eyes. His figure was stocky, rigid, short in the neck, so that the large ball of the occiput touched his collar. His bones were peculiarly formed, as though twisted twice where the ordinary human bone was turned only once, and his shoulders rose in two pagoda-like points. At mid-body he was thick. He stood pigeon-toed, a sign perhaps that he was devious or had much to hide. The skin of his hands was aging, and his nails were moonless, concave, clawlike, and they appeared loose. His eyes were as brown as beaver fur and full of strange lines. The two large brown naked balls looked thoughtful – but were they? And honest – but was Dr.Tamkin honest?

Dr. Tamkin, by the way, professes to be a psychologist, quite a successful and rich specimen of his guild, too, who likes to hazard his money in speculations now and then, although, as he makes clear, the danger’s rather small. As we all know, we who have been subjected to at least one enthusiastic salesman who tried to sell us a stock or a stock depot or some other very clever investment, these investments are always almost ‘risk-free’, until we are broke, that is. And we are talking about honest brokers here. The risks suddenly multiply when we add a con scheme to the scenario. So, Tommy keeps suspecting Tamkin of being a crook, to the point of paranoia, but at the end of the day, he trusts him with his money.

Part of the reason for that is, most likely, the fact that Tommy’s not on best terms with his father, as we could have expected once we found out that Tommy took a gentile name, rejecting the paternal “Adler” for the more majestic “Wilhelm”. Turns out, Tommy’s father is a retired rich man and could be said to hate his son. Fathers who are dissatisfied with the way their sons have turned out is an old topos in literature, but Mr. Adler’s feelings are remarkable in that he’s frequently almost disgusted by his son. Interestingly, much of his disdain focuses upon the physical aspects of his son. Not only does he not like the way his looks have turned out, he also considers his son dirty, literally feculent and filthy. In one of the few passages where we hear Mr. Adler think, he’s almost obsessively considering his son’s grimy fingernails. Clearly, this father has no love to offer his son, consequently the scorned 40 year old junior is constantly foraging for people who would be able and willing to show him affection and respect, so he ends up with Dr. Tamkin.

That crook is not just the only person throughout the whole novel to show Tommy affection, he is also the one who gives him valuable advice on how to make his life worth living again: seize the day (ahem), dare to grasp an opportunity, live life to the fullest as long as you’re able to. On the one hand, it describes Dr. Tamkin himself, who is not afraid of grabbing his opportunities whenever they present themselves, including the opportunity to take Tommy’s money and disappear; on the other hand, he follows up his advice with a bit of practical help. As if he’d sensed that Tommy would continue to bumble through his life even with miserable financial prospects, he deprives him of the opportunity to do so by taking all his money, forcing our sad protagonist to change his game. The novel ends with a cathartic epiphany. We do not get a clean conclusion, Tommy’s life is still hanging in the balance, but he has been transformed, we feel. He has broken through his behavioral pattern and stepped free of his self-deception.

Earlier I said that this novel bears the marks of a short story. Now, as a conclusion of sorts, I want to propose a different genre affinity: the Bildungsroman. The very name of the protagonist, Wilhelm, made me think of Wilhelm Meister, quite possibly the most famous ‘Wilhelm’ of literary history. Franko Moretti, in his interesting (if flawed) international study of the Bildungsroman, The Way of the World, claimed that there are two kinds of Bildungsromane: the classificational and the transformational kind. The first one encompasses all the classic German Bildungsromane, including Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre (In order to fit it into that category, Moretti severely misreads the book, but that’s beside the point), that is novels that are carefully structured, that are didactic and that depend upon a clear and meaningful ending that shows us the protagonist’s progress from child to youth to adult and demonstrates how he’s grown as an intellectual/artist/… and adapted to the society around him.

The other kind of novel, which Moretti sees exemplified in Flaubert’s Education Sentimentale, focuses on the process of transformation. Although Seize the Day takes place during the course of a single day and features not a child or a teenager but a middle-aged man, I think it could well be regarded as a transformational Bildungsroman, or at least as a parody of one. The very structure of the plot fits this idea quite well, since it starts with the father and his good advice, after which the son leaves his home (or his father’s hotel) to pursue his path. He will encounter various people, he will fail at least once, and he will receive advice. All of these things transform him so that, at the (open) end, we have a changed, even grown, Tommy Wilhelm, who could turn his life around. This is an extraordinary novel, full of hidden, and not so hidden, riches. The characters are all delightful, if not lovable, and the writing breaks your heart every other page.

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One thought on “Transformer: Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day”

  1. Pingback: Saul Bellow: Seize the Day - World Literature Forum

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