“Seize the Day”

On one level it’s really difficult to ‘like’ Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day”. This isn’t because the book is badly written – quite the opposite! – but rather because of Tommy Wilhelm, its main character. Bellow has succeeded in drawing for us a remarkable picture of a serial loser, one with whom it is difficult to have any sympathy. Everything he touches – and has touched – crumbles beneath him; his is a life out of his control, unredeemable.

The book makes you ask generic questions: how many more people are there in the world like Tommy? How close is he to ending his own life? (though he’d probably mess that up too!) And how close could we have been to finding ourselves in a situation like him if certain things hadn’t gone our way? It makes you realise just how green your grass probably is…

My only gripe is with the title and the blurb on the back cover of my 2019 Penguin ‘Modern Classics’ edition. Not only does the title suggest positive opportunity, the blurb talks of “an unexpected, glorious moment of understanding, and one last hope”. There is nothing glorious about Tommy’s life, and no real “last hope” either. The fragment he clings to – not losing all his money on the stock market – we know from early on can only be a doomed endeavour. Bellow gives us a man who can succeed in nothing – and what a great portrait it is.

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