February 14th, 2010

Seize the Day

February 2010 might not be a good time to reread Seize the Day. Unemployment is troubling everyone this month, and the book questions whether unemployment, or adversity in general, is simply chance, or do those who suffer adversity actually control their fate. The novel has an answer, but the answer is not easy to accept.

Rose leaflets

Seize the Day is a short (119 pages in the Penguin edition) and frequently praised novel by Saul Bellow. I finished reading it for the second time this morning. I don’t recall exactly when I first read it, but it must have been when I was high school in the sixties, some time after I read Herzog, but before I left for college. Although I don’t remember much from my first reading, it stayed with me as a disturbing and moving novel: one that I did not want to reread, but could not forget.


The book is easy to summarize. Tommy Wilhelm has lost his job and and has left his wife and two sons. He is almost out of money, the rent is due, his wife demands money, his father won’t lend him a cent. Impetuously, Tommy hands his last seven hundred 1956 dollars to Dr. Tamkin, a quack psychiatrist, to invest in the commodities market. On the fateful day of the novel, Tamkin loses Tommy’s money and leaves town. Chasing after Tamkin, Tommy stumbles into a funeral and breaks down into ecstatic tears. End.

For its shortness and simplicity, many people consider it to be Bellow’s best work. The characters are vivid, bizarre.


Tamkin, whose “bones were peculiarly formed, as though twisted twice where the ordinary human bone was turned only once, and his shoulders rose in pagoda-like points,” writes illiterate doggerel that he tries to pass as poetry and delivers psychological homilies whose only point is to goad Tommy into acquiring money for Tamkin to embezzle away.

Guy in the Newsstand

The guy in the newsstand “had poor eyes. They may have not been actually weak but they were poor in expression, with lacy lids that furled down at the corners.”

Maurice Venice

Tommy found Maurice Venice, the talent scout turned pimp who lured Tommy into a short and failing career as an actor in Hollywood, to be “huge and oxlike, so stout that his arms seemed caught from beneath in a grip of flesh and fat; it looked as if it must be positively painful. He had little hair. Yet he enjoyed a healthy complexion.”

Is Tommy Wilhelm a Dope?

The comic characters that surround Tommy are no help to him. Tommy’s father resolutely refuses to take on any of Tommy’s burdens, thus avoiding Tommy’s fate for himself. Tamkin urges Tommy to take risks, but when Tommy does risk his last bit of money with him, Tamkin promptly takes his own risk, grabs the money and runs. Is Tommy just a dope?

The Funeral

The answer comes at the funeral of a stranger. Tommy’s breakdown at the funeral does not offer a resolution and there is no clue that his problems will abate. His adversity, tragedy, even suffering, is inevitable and endless. Comic figures like Tommy’s father and Tamkin avoid suffering with ploys that avert disaster but they are no better prepared than Tommy when the dime drops.

The novel ends and we are amused, left thinking that when all the conniving Tamkins have been blown away by the futility of their squirming, Tommy will struggle on.

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