Novella: Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

UK 2001 paperback

The real universe. That’s the present moment. The past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real – the here-and-now. Seize the day.

Its nearly two in the morning and I am still reading. It has been a long time since I have read a whole book in one sitting, fighting against tiredness, forcing myself through the remaining thirty pages or so. This line, evoking the title of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, justifies my sacrifice of tomorrow for this book.

I should start with a confession. Until very recently I had never heard of Nobel Laureate Saul Bellow. I should also say that I prefer novellas to novels. I could probably justify it with some posturing, but really, it’s just modern day laziness. When I came across this Penguin Classic just under 120 pages, I was compelled to buy it, and so Seize the Day joined my list of one-dayers: The Order of the PhoenixThe Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby.

Bellow’s protagonist Tommy Wilhelm shares a hotel with his father, an uncaring and selfish success, while he attempts to get a divorce from his wife. When you throw in his recent unemployment, failed dreams of being an actor and his hatred for the New York rat race, the reasons for his current predicament, which sees him grabbing for different pills and struggling with insomnia, become apparent. Tension rises throughout Bellow’s book as Tommy Wilhelm laments his situation and revisits the past mistakes that have brought him here, delivering the reader to its climax.

As an exploration of the father-son relationship and a man’s quest to find happiness, success and meaning, Bellow’s book is an interesting read; however, it is the character, Dr. Tamkin, that justifies its inclusion on my read-in-a-day list. An enigmatic spiritual psychologist, Dr. Tamkin takes a liking to Wilhelm and attempts to steer his life away from the rocks. We are left in doubt of the virtue or truth of his character, and a somewhat unsatisfactory, though moving and symbolic, ending only exacerbates our moral dilemma. Regardless, there can be no doubt that Tamkin is the mouthpiece of some of the novella’s most profound and revealing themes, such as the corruption of man by money and the focus on living in the present. Wilhelm’s acceptance of these ideas is tantamount to Bellow endorsing them, but I couldn’t make up my mind. As with the best of all art, Seize the Day has a strong message that you need to take away and mull over for a while, before deciding whether to accept its importance and rightness.

First published in 1956. Available in paperback from Penguin Classics.

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