New York 1956. Wilhelm Adler a 44 year old living temporarily in the Hotel Gloriana is on his way to breakfast with his father, a permanant resident of the hotel that is home too many elderly retirees. As the elevator sank and sank and the great carpet billowed and the curtains drape like sails, Wilhelm can sense that this is a day like no other. ‘The waters of the earth are going to roll over me.’
Told in the third person by an omniscient narrator and through Wilhem’s own thoughts and flashbacks, Bellow deftly interweaves pathos and humour to track Wilhelm’s fall from a respectable middle management lifestyle. He’s been fired from his job, is separated from his wife and children and is now on the brink of financial disaster, this is his day of reckoning before he drowns in despair.
A sense of failure is at the centre of Wilhelm’s character. We know that his sister went to Bryn Mawr and his father is Dr. Adler, we learn that he has a certain boyish charm and dropped out of college when a talent scout offered him a glittering career in Hollywood which didn’t happen. When he arrives in the dining room and we meet his father, the tension between father and son is palpable. Dr. Adler is Conservative with a capital C, to lead life on the straight and narrow is all he asks of his son. He should beg to get his desk job back and go back to his wife, he has no time for his son’s sensibilities, what is all this acting anyway? All a bit creative!
Wilhelm would have grown up during the depression so perhaps its unsurprising that Dr. Adler is so concerned about financial security but he is unable to listen or open his mind, that he speaks a different language to Wilhelm, and that there are many different languages is a favourite theme. I love this observation which I think has a peculiarly NY ring to it:.
‘And was everybody crazy here: What sort of people did you see: Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking: he had his own ideas and peculiar ways. If you wanted to talk about a glass of water, you had to start back with God creating the heavens and earth; the apple; Abraham; Moses and Jesus; Rome; the Middle Ages; gunpowder; the Revolution; back to Newton; up to Einstein; then war and Lenin and Hitler. After reviewing this and getting it all straight again you could proceed to talk about a glass of water. ‘I’m fainting, please get me a little water.’ You were lucky even then to make yourself understood. And this happened over and over and over with everyone you met. You had to translate and translate, explain and explain . . . ‘
Somebody who does speak the same language and who Dr. Adler is very wary of is the psychological poet Dr. Tamkin, a character that Wilhelm has entrusted with the last of his savings to invest in the commodities market. A man that has said ‘I am at my most efficient when I don’t need the fee. When I only love. Without a financial reward. I remove myself from the social influence. Especially money. The spiritual compensation is what I look for.’
For two people who are uncomfortable in a world of commerce it’s one of the paradoxes that they spend a good deal of the novel talking about money and investment, I also thought it funny that they’re investing in lard – for a book full of poetry is there anything more prosaic than lard?! Dr. Tamkin to me was one of those dangerous sprites, full of stories and wild claims of running with the Detroit Purple Gang and the Egyptian royal family, but who really knew anything about him? ‘is he trying to hypnotise or con me?‘ Wilhelm wonders. But in amongst his wild claims there are nuggets of truth that will serve Wilhelm well and the main one is obviously, seize the day
“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.’
Tamkin’s ‘here-and-now’ advice to start small and concentrate on the minutiae (the thread before the button!) is I think built into the writing. There’s a point at the commodities market when the tension is interrupted by this observation:
‘A long perfect ash formed on the end of the cigar, the white ghost of the leaf with all its veins and its fainter pungency. It was ignored, in its beauty, by the old man. For it was beautiful. Wilhelm he ignored as well.’
I love the way everything slows down for a moment while we think about something other than the price of lard, and I wonder is Wilhelm also part of the beauty?
But ironically for Wilhelm to seize the day, he needs to go back into an old memory. Roads and thoroughfares are often described as carnivals, full of every kind of life and its one particular day in Times Square that he remembers
‘He was going through an underground corridor, a place he had always hated and hated more than ever now. . . And in the dark tunnel, in the haste, heat, and darkness which disfigure and make freaks and fragments of nose and eyes and teeth, all of a sudden, unsought, a general love for all these imperfect and lurid-looking people burst out in Wilhelm’s breast. He loved them. one and all,. . . They were his brothers and sisters. He was imperfect and disfigured himself, but what difference did that make if he was united with them by this blaze of love?’
The difference now is that Wilhelm recognises that this memory is the clue that may lead him to find the balance between his inner self and the material external world. He needs to get back to the way he felt in that moment.
But now that he’s taken an enormous leap forward in understanding, he reverts to type and takes a few dozen steps back by returning to his father to ask for money and help and he takes a phone call from his wife. His father is disgusted by him and his wife bitterly rejects his desperation, neither are unbending or prepared to listen. And to an extent they do have a point. Wilhelm is very good at playing the victim, he dwells on his failures and fears and his need for approval is stifling. The only way he can help himself is to see the world through his own eyes – their rejection of him, without them or him knowing will be the catalyst he needs.
His day of reckoning ends in a crowd on Broadway, Tamkin has disappeared and Wilhelm thinking he sees him gets pulled along by the crowd into a church and a funeral. The sight of the dead stranger brings tears to Wilhelm’s eyes but the tears turn to sobs as ‘the great knot of ill and grief in his throat swelled upward and he gave in utterly and held his face and wept. He cried with all his heart.’ The waters of the earth rolling over him have been replaced by tears for a stranger that bring him freedom and understanding.
My Penguin copy of Seize the Day is only 117 pages long but is so full of carefully crafted motifs, themes and insight that I think it’s impossible to absorb it all in one reading. I love his humour amongst the angst and thought these words from Wilhelm after all Tamkin’s advice were very wise:
‘A person can become tired of looking himself over and trying to fix himself up.
You can spend the entire second half of your life recovering from the mistakes of the first half.’