Book Review – Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow achieved a remarkable feat for a writer. He managed to craft an engaging tale centered on a pathetic protagonist. Just how pathetic was the main character in Seize the Day? Compared to Tommy Wilhelm, Willy Loman would be in the same category as Tom Brady. That’s quite a feat.

I prefer to avoid the use of negative pejoratives when describing even fictional people. Still, it’s difficult to avoid the term failure when describing Mr. Wilhelm. Unfortunately, that would be the kindest way to do so. As the author explained:

This was typical of Wilhelm. After much thought and hesitation and debate he invariably took the course he had rejected innumerable times. Ten such decisions made up the history of his life. He had decided it would be a bad mistake to go to Hollywood, and then he went. He had made up his mind not to marry his wife, but ran off and got married. He had resolved not to invest money with Tamkin, and then had given him a check. (Page 19)

Wilhem’s father even told him:

“I don’t know how many times you have to be burned in order to learn something. The same mistakes, over and over.” (Page 105)

Aside from giving Mr. Wilhelm the trait of consistency, Mr. Bellow balanced out the character very well. The protagonist made a point to take his sons to Brooklyn Dodgers games on weekends. (Seize the Day was published in 1956.) On one weekend when team travelled, he visited his mother’s grave.

I liked the author’s method of introducing the character. The book opened with the line:

When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought, and there was certainly a lot of evidence to back it up. (Page 1)

Once more I have to extend kudos to Mr. Bellow. He spent the book’s full 133 pages explaining those sentences in detail.

Like many of Mr. Bellow’s works, I found Seize the Day a very difficult read. That made its ‘brief’ length deceptive. I thought the con-man’s, Dr. Tamkin’s, philosophizing very erudite and challenging. The doctor recited an esoteric poem called “Mechanism vs Functionalism Ism vs Hism.” Fortunately, he explicated to Wilhelm which helped me follow its meaning.

As much as the book challenged me, I found it worth the effort. Throughout the story, I kept hoping that Wilhelm would get that one break that would allow him to maneuver his life into a positive direction. I attribute that to great writing on the author’s part.

I did find the book very well written. Mr. Bellow included the following memorable lines:

Mr. Perls put in, “He could be both sane and crazy. In these days nobody can tell for sure which is which.” (Page 37)

Everyone was like the faces on a playing card, upside down either way. (Page 59)

I was the man beneath; Tamkin was on my back, and I thought I was on his. He made me carry him, too, besides Margaret. Like this they ride on me with hoofs and claws. Tear me to pieces, stamp on me and break my bones. (Page 102)

The following description of an old man demonstrated sublime attention to detail.

How old—old this Mr. Rappaport was! Purple stains were buried in the flesh of his nose, and the cartilage of his ear was twisted like a cabbage heart. Beyond remedy by glasses, his eyes were smoky and faded. (Page 82)

So did Wilhelm eventually “seize the day” or did the day seize and strangle him? I’ll allow future readers to experience either that joy or sorrow compliments of Mr. Bellow’s prose. So seize the day and read it.

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