Eli Gottlieb’s The Boy Who Went Away won the prestigious Rome Prize and the 1998 McKitterick Prize from the British Society of Authors. It also received extraordinary notices and was a New York Times Notable book. Eli Gottlieb’s latest novel, Now You See Him, will be published on January 22, 2008. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.
Once every few years, usually when I’m beginning a new book, I reread one or two of Saul Bellow’s novels to prime the pump. This year it was Humboldt’s Gift, the last great work in the high Belovian style. It’s a book which has always spoken to my “inner prompter” to use Bellow’s own phrase for the mysterious faculty within us that allows us, as writers, to “speak”. The novel, appropriately enough, was dictated and then transcribed, a process which accounts for the rather jaunty sprawl of its construction. It’s a big, loose, episodic thing, guyed entirely by the high-wire act of its prose, which has the innovation – surely that of a late style – of running adjectives together in way that leaves a painterly blur in the reader’s mind. So Lake Michigan has “limp silk fresh lilac drowning water,” and a woman is “roused, florid, fragrant, large”.
The book is based on Bellow’s close friendship with Delmore Schwartz, the fizzled literary comet of the 1940s, who wrote a perfect book of poems at age 24, lost his mind not long thereafter, and eventually died in a Times Square flophouse hotel, convinced that his wife had left him for Nelson Rockefeller. Schwartz’s longtime shrink was a friend of our family, and I once found myself sitting in the home of the shrink’s widow, looking at the written results of Schwartz’s Rohrschach tests. They stated he was manic depressive, implied a repressed homosexuality, adverted to a probable alcohol problem, and concluded with a chilling definition of the poetic temperament. “It is probable,” read the diagnosis, “that the mania has infected his higher reason.” Ouch.