Seize the Day was published in 1956. It was Saul Bellow’s fourth novel. It is often considered to be one of the great works of 20th century literature.
The novel’s protagonist is Tommy Wilhelm. Unemployed and lonely, Wilhelm is looking for success and a little sympathy. The story explores one day of his life as he tries to reconnect with the world and recover his lost dignity.
The mood of the story is dark and dismal. There is a kind of a hellish quality to Wilhelm’s world. Even before the story really begins we are already feeling his desperation,
‘Oh, God,’ Wilhelm prayed, ‘Let me out of my trouble. Let me out of my thoughts, and let me do something better with myself. For all the time I have wasted I am very sorry. Let me out of this clutch and into a different life. For I am all balled up. Have mercy.’
For the most part, Wilhelm considers himself to be a victim. He expects his father to sympathize with him. He views the obviously fraudulent Dr. Tamkin as a surrogate father and clings to him. He constantly blames everyone else, his father, his agent, his wife, his boss, even the world around him for the quagmire that is his life.
There are only three main characters that are ‘visible’ throughout the book, Tommy Wilhelm, his father Dr. Adler and Dr. Tamkin.
Wilhelm is immature. He is gullible. In many ways he is still more of a boy than a man.
His father, Dr. Adler, seen through Wilhelm’s eyes seems like a heard headed, unsympathetic and selfish man. But I felt that a lot of his harshness comes from Wilhelm’s distorted view of his father. It is true that Dr. Adler sees making money as the ultimate success and does not want to help his children financially. But that doesn’t necessarily make him a bad person. He just wants his children to grow up and not be dependent on him anymore. Sure, he is cold and even cruel at times but he is not what his son makes him out to be.
Dr. Tamkin is an enigmatic character. He is clearly a liar, a fraud and probably a thief. I don’t understand Wilhelm’s fascination with him. But I suppose he uses Dr. Tamkin as a stand-in for his father. Dr. Tamkin constantly spews out an assortment of philosophical musings. It is from one such musing that we get the title of the book,
Bringing people into the here-and-now. 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.
There are other key characters who are present in the narrative but we only hear of them through other people. Wilhelm’s wife, his sister, the talent scout Maurice Venice are such characters.
It is astonishing how Bellow paints an amazingly vivid picture of a man’s entire life in little more than a hundred pages. It takes real talent to do that.
At times I felt sorry for Wilhelm. I could actually feel his suffocation. But at the same time I know that he is, for the most part, solely responsible for making a mess of his life. All of his bad decisions have led him to where he is now and even Wilhelm himself knows that.
This is not a happy book and it doesn’t really have a happy ending. The ending is kind of ambiguous. In the end Wilhelm is forced to come face to face with himself. Self realization leads to him breaking down with grief. But even if Wilhelm is not exactly happy and he doesn’t find solutions to his problems, I think he finally stops running away from reality. That counts for something.
Though it is only a short novella it is definitely not a light read. I found Seize the Day to be quite satisfying. It may be a bit gloomy but this is perhaps literature at its best.
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