Seize the Day

ISBN: 0670000914
ISBN 13: 9780670000913
By: Saul Bellow

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About this book

Deftly interweaving humor and pathos, Saul Bellow evokes in the climactic events of one day the full drama of one man's search to affirm his own worth and humanity.

Reader's Thoughts


Bellow is an author I have been meaning to get to for a long time now. Known for attention to detail and his intense characterization using physical attributes he is certainly one of the most respected authors of the 20th Century. Seize the Day is about one man's epiphany while mired in a life that just isn't measuring up to his and other's expectations. A failed actor, failed business man, failed husband, failed son and failed father our protagonist has not met much success despite his being a well-meaning individual. With a protagonist facing up to so many problems, Bellow gives himself a chance to philosophize on a lot of what ails the modern man. He offers some poignant commentary on the self-imposed suffering that so many people are afflicted with, and the inability of people to get past their problems and make progress in their lives. As the book builds to it's emotional and rather cathartic climax I think Bellow does a splendid job of supplying a real in depth look at why so many of us are unhappy.


Bellow is a master."On Broadway it was still bright afternoon and the gassy air was almost motionless under the leaden spokes of sunlight, and sawdust footprints lay about the doorways of butcher shops and fruit stores. And the great, great crowd, the inexhaustible current of millions of every race and kind pouring out, pressing round, of every age, of every genius, possessors of every human secret, antique and future, in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence - I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want. Faster, much faster than any man could make the tally."


This was one of those read-all-night situations...I remember the apartment, the color of the sky between the blinds of the living room, I remember it coming through like scalding hot water and incoherently babbling my impressions and associations to my baffled, bemused friends...


There was something about this book that felt much older than 1956. I didn't know much about it picking it up, just that the author wrote Augie March and that it was 118 pages. My internal guess was possibly the 20's—there's something classic about the writing, the lengthy description of cities' rich and their gossip and clothes and hobbies. There's a subtle Victorianness to it, which helped it not really belong to any single decade at all.This book is a case of having a strong protagonist with weak qualities, physically and mentally. Tommy Wilhelm is unstable, his life is falling apart and he has no one but himself to blame. He's aware and regretful, but too weak of willpower to let out what he really wants. Yet, throughout the book, I didn't want to throttle him and tell him what's-what like I want to do to most literary characters in similar predicaments, I felt more like giving him a hug and telling him it'd be okay. No one else deserves a hug like Tommy Wilhelm.Wilhelm's thoughts and flashbacks get the majority of the narrative, but Bellow's eye isn't turned only to Wilhelm. Even in as short of a page count this book has, Bellow leaves enough hints to build extensive lives for the people around Wilhelm. There's the minor characters (the dying man selling newspapers in the lobby who never brings up his illness, the old chicken merchant whose life was fulfilled when he was yelled at by Teddy Roosevelt) to the major ones, like Wilhelm's father and his complex relationship with his son, and the enigma that is Dr. Tamkin. All of these characters—even the potentially vengeful wife, even the sham publicity agent—are treated fairly, they all get their say and their chance of sympathy. Wilhelm suspects some of them of evildoing, but Bellow never makes them strawmen.The one area about the writing I didn't like was Bellow telling a little too much about what the characters were thinking at certain times. As Dr. Tamkin would spout his philosophies, Wilhelm would unpredictably think "Liar!" or "Oh, but it was true, and he knew it!", which was an obvious signpost to tell the reader what parts the author actually believes in and what he didn't. Clumsy, but nothing crippling or very frequent.There's something bigger, greater about Wilhelm that's crushing him, something that he can't fight. And whatever's afflicting Wilhelm didn't stop (or start) with him exclusively. I don't think Bellow has a real answer for what's doing it. Life can be cruel to good people, but unlike some other early/mid 20th century authors, he doesn't take a simple political route out ("It's capitalism" —Steinbeck/Sinclair/etc). It's not a cheery book, and it's not a call to action (regardless of what the title might make you think at first).There's nothing groundbreaking to the "life is cruel" motif, which is probably why this book is so undernoticed, but there is something worthy in the story's minimalist, sympathetic and effective delivery. All in so little pages, and in so little in-universe time (the story takes place from morning to early afternoon, although with several flashbacks). Seeing what Bellow can do with the minimalist, I look forward to seeing what he can do with the maximalist, an entire life saga—Augie March here I come.

Gabriel Nita

Trăiește-ți clipa este un roman redus ca dimensiuni, publicat de Saul Bellow în 1956. Titlul e o uriașă ironie, căci Wilhelm, personajul principal al cărții și cel căruia îi e adresat acest îndemn, nu are nici un motiv să se bucure de viață. E un personaj tragic-comic, cu trăsăturile și destinul desenate în tușe atât de groase încât încet-încet începe să devină, din ridicol, simpatic cititorului.Pe scurt:(view spoiler)[Eșuat în mediocritate după ce în tinerețe căuta gloria la Hollywood (fără nici o șansă, din start), Wilhelm trece prin criza vârstei de mijloc: renunță la slujbă, unde nu obținuse promovarea promisă, își părăsește familia pentru amantă, caută să obțină divorțul, se mută în același hotel ca și bătrânul său tată, un doctor renumit și bogat. Nimic însă nu îi iese cum se aștepta. Nu găsește un alt serviciu, soția nu semnează actele de divorț, amanta îl părăsește, banii i se împuținează pe zi ce trece. Se simte prins într-o capcană din care nu are soluție de ieșire. Caută ajutorul și mai ales îmbărbătarea tatălui său, însă în zadar. Încearcă să joace la Bursă, încredințându-și ultimii bani unui personaj dubios, doar pentru a-i pierde și pe aceștia. Tot romanul e doar descrierea pierderii iluziilor sale, sfâșiate una câte una de realitate, până când lui Wilhelm nu îi mai rămâne decât să își plângă singur de milă. Ajuns din întâmplare în fața unui cortegiu funerar, îl podidește un plâns teribil, spre consternarea familiei decedatului. (hide spoiler)]Cum ziceam, deși personajul e construit sub zodia ridicolului, de la înfățișare și ticuri până la relația cu tatăl ori cu nevasta sa, unul refuzându-i cu duritate cererile de bani, cealaltă pretinzându-i tot mai mulți și mai mulți, Wilhelm începe să devină simpatic. Un motiv e mila pe care o simți văzând cât de mult simte nevoia de aprobare și de dragoste din partea tatălui său și cum e respins de acesta. Un altul ar fi că toate încercările prin care trece sunt profund comune, situații generice prin care oricine poate trece. Dar mai există și un al treilea motiv: toate deciziile greșite ale lui Wilhelm nu sunt luate din ignoranță, ci în ciuda faptului că el intuiește că sunt greșite. Și totuși continuă să facă tot ceea ce judecata îl avertizează că nu ar trebui. De aici latura sa tragică: personajul este prizonier încercării disperate de a își schimba soarta. Cu cât pierde, cu atât mizează mai mult în speranța că norocul în sfârșit i se va schimba. Dar la ruleta destinului unora norocul nu li se schimbă niciodată.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>


"...since there were depths in Wilhelm not unsuspected by himself, he received a suggestion from some remote element in his thoughts that the business of life, the real business -- to carry his peculiar burden, to feel shame and impotence, to taste these quelled tears -- the only important business, the highest business was being done. Maybe the making of mistakes expressed the very purpose of his life and the essence of his being here. Maybe he was supposed to make them and suffer from them on this earth. And though he had raised himself above Mr. Perls and his father because they adored money, still they were called to act energetically and this was better than to yell and cry, pray and beg, poke and blunder and go by fits and starts and fall upon the thorns of life. And finally sink beneath that watery floor -- would that be tough luck, or would it be good riddance?"


The little novella ‘Seize the Day’ is rightly called a masterpiece. Like a modern Greek tragedy, we have in Tommy Wilhelm a protagonist who is facing the world closing in on him. Instead of shutting down, giving in or giving up, he feels very deeply. What he ask for is just a bare minimum of human understanding, of compassionSadly, his father, who is fiercely aloof, can’t provide this and regards him as a loser. He ex-wife demands even more alimony. He is swindled out of the little cash he has by a fast talking merchant of success.Having nowhere to turn, he absentmindedly joins a funeral possession, and upon seeing the body in the coffin, breaks down sobbing for all of us. A memorable conclusion.

Harold Griffin

I loved this book and commend it to someone interested in sampling Bellow. Unlike "Herzog"and the formidable "Adventures of Augie March," the rich and engaging prose in this small novella is easily accessible. "Seize" is populated by only a few, but all memorable, characters. I'm not sure I would have loved this as a younger dino (say in my early Pennsylvanian period), but this year it resonates. Tommy Wilhelm was born Wilhelm ("Wilky") Adler, but changed his name when he tried and failed at a minor Hollywood career. He is a magnet for and the embodiment of financial and personal failure. Living with his father in a Broadway hotel, his hopes have dwindled. He is estranged from his wife, and his father, a doctor, is sufficiently embittered by Tommy's persistent failures and sufficiently close to the grave himself to be unwilling to spend any money to bail his son out of personal financial disaster. Thus, Tommy's hopes have come to rest on the infirm base of the dubious Dr. Tamkin, a quack psychologist, who adjures Tommy to "seize the day" by trusting in Tamkin's expertise in the commodities market (precisely an investment in lard: Lard love a quack!). Tommy himself suspects that Dr. Tamkin is a charlatan, but hopes that this time will be different and that there can be a happy ending. Can there? No spoilers here, except to say that the novel ends in an unforgettable explosion of grief and tears at a stranger's funeral.Like Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," the events of "Seize the Day" take place on Broadway NYC. Cynthia Ozick in 1996 likened the two works to the Twin Towers. Ironically both these literary works, little in size, will bring memorable pleasure and sadness long after the vanished skyscrapers are finally replaced.


I'm on a bit of a novella reading binge at the moment, in preparation for a class I'm teaching next fall. And if this temporary obsession brings me to more books like SEIZE THE DAY, maybe it will become a lasting obsession. Reading Saul Bellow is dangerous business for a writer because unless you are one of about five living authors I can think of, your sentences will never be as beautiful as Saul Bellow's. In fact it might be best just to say that out loud before sitting down to write. As in "I am going to sit down to write now, and my sentences will never be as beautiful as Saul Bellow's." Then, at peace with that truth, you can begin to type. I'm tempted to use an example here of one of the half-paragraph stunners that Bellow traffics in. Instead I'll list three one-sentence paragraphs that left me breathless. "He breathed in the sugar of the pure morning.He heard the long phrases of the birds,No enemy wanted his life." A little context might help explain why those lines hit with such force. So much of this book is in the churning consciousness of Tommy Wilhelm, and in his his Socratic dialogues with one of my favorite literary charlatans, Dr. Tamkin. Wilhelm worries. He worries about his worries. He seeks the smallest trace of affirmation from his fellow man. All the while he seems to revel in the misery he causes himself. Then he notices something about the world around him. "Light as a locust, a helicopter bringing in mail from Newark Airport to La Guardia sprang over the city in a long leap." Or: "In full tumult the great afternoon current raced for Columbus Circle, where the mouth of midtown stood open and the skyscrapers gave back the yellow fire of the sun." The world outside seems like a place of overwhelming beauty and overwhelming motion. Somewhere Wilhelm can no longer find his place. We follow him as he journeys through a remarkably small part of this world, attempting to gain control of the present, but never quite able to touch it. It's a book that comes in great waves of talk, feeling, and the raw unconscious. An effective way to capture a true unraveling. A short potent dose of novella.


While Seize the Day is the first Saul Bellow book I have read, it sure as hell won't be my last! The book is set in a New York hotel off Broadway in the 1950s, (contemporaneous with when it was published) following the struggles of Tommy Wilhelm, a man in his mid forties who is the youngest member of the residence, the rest being Jews over the age of 70, including Tommy's own respected doctor father. Tommy has been a failure at everything; first acting, then his marriage, and most recently, his salesman job. Now, he can't even afford to make rent, and casts his lot in with the shadowy, possibly corrupt Doctor Tamkin. (Who might not even be a doctor!) Remarkably, in just 114 pages, Bellow creates a vivid, tangible world. While he is describing a by-gone era, I can recognize many of the individuals and personalities. Even minor characters feel distinctly alive. And his depth in portraying the thoughts and feelings of characters is incredible. Tommy is at once pathetic and sympathetic, a reflection of the weakness and broken dreams we all carry inside of ourselves. And yet, he is a fully realized character on his own, too. One reservation I had before starting the novel was whether it would be a dry character study and little else. I shouldn't have. Seize the Day is exciting, engaging, and sometimes even funny in a tragicomic manner. Every sentence feels significant. And the ending is the perfect, adequate conclusion to the tale of Tommy Wilhelm and his failures. This is an outstanding, all-time great book, and I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone.


I liked this book. It is about a man in his 40s whose life is falling apart and who is facing failure, and his relationship with his successful father who is a proud, well-respected doctor consumed with the idea of death in his old age. The entire (though short) book takes place in one day. I thought the book was very well-written and that Bellow really got at the psychological depth of these two people and their relationship with his insane attention to the most telling but minute details of their interactions and thoughts. I can't say that it was a particularly memorable book or that it blew me away, but I really like Bellow's writing style and it makes me curious to read his other books.


Tommy Wilhelm is disliked by his wife, who refuses to divorce him, and his father, who refuses to aid him finically and starves him of any type of affection. His stressful financial situation leaves him in a panic, and he turns to Dr. Tamkin as his last resort. Dr. Tamkin is a wily man, no one knows if he is a doctor, and if there is there is any truth behind his exaggerated stories. Wilhelm wants to be freed from his chaotic life, and continually asks his father, Dr. Adler, for assistance. Only to be disappointed, his father rejects him, and replies, "Wilky, it's entirely your own fault" (46). Dr. Adler is a selfish man. Outwardly, he appears to be a successful, kind, and confident. This is just the opposite when in conversations with his son. He tells Wilhelm that he wants, "nobody on my back. Get off!" (51). He is truly disgusted by his son. His thoughts of Wilhelm are only of aversion. Saul Bellow undoubtedly captures the hateful father-son relationship. Throughout the book Dr. Tamkin has a philosophical tone, making him, in my opinion, the most interesting character. I enjoyed reading his conversation with Wilhelm about a person having two souls, "the real soul and a pretender soul" (66). I didn't like the abrupt ending. It was too sudden and arbitrary. An interesting philosophical read.


A deeply psychological novel, Seize the Day follows the middle-aged man in the life of a single day in New York City. "Psychological"... "single day"... Bellow's ante into the pool of single-day novels, alongside Joyce's Ulysses and Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, is a much slimmer volume than its fellow one-day wonders, but carries perhaps no less of a whollop. The story follows Tommy Wilhelm, a middle-aged man, a failed actor, a failed salesman, a husband whose wife refuses him a divorce but takes his money all the same, and a son who - despite his proximity and frequency of visits with his father, remains philosophically and emotionally estranged. The story is loaded with irony, but in the ironical mass there are small nuggets of truth: strange and wonderful insights into what it means to be alive. According to Herzog: Unexpected intrusions of beauty. That is what life is. And Seize the Day is studded with unexpected intrusions of beauty.For a thorough and well-written discussion of the psychoanalytical edge of this very psychological novella, I defer to s.penkavich's great review of this book. Bellow is a highly psychological writer, in Herzog he re-invents the Hamlet dilemma of betrayal (Herzog's wife Madeline standing in for Gertrude, his friend Gersbach for Claudius), and in Seize the Day we see a textbook case of suppressed emotion (as spenk points out: a lack of 'orgastic' release). The novella opens with this supression: When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought and there was a certain amount of evidence to back him up. He conceals his troubles, but his troubles build and boil, wrack and rage beneath the surface, tear him away from the core outward. Wilhelm has self-proclaimedly 'reached the end of his rope' - he is in dire financial straits: unable to pay his rent for the month or support his demanding wife, he is without current employment, having dropped out of school to pursue of pipedream in Hollywood, then quit his job at the Rojax Corporation, where he worked as a salesman, when they divided up his territory. He has failed time and time again, and is won over by glamorous, but meretricious, opportunities which he pursues full-heartedly and abandons wallet-emptied. What strikes me as the reader is Wilhelm's imaginative vigor for what is new. Like the lovably-stupid Bouvard and Pécuchet, he endlessly pursues "new starts" - the consequence being that he remains in every endeavor a disappointed novice. At each junction of failure he faces the choice to 'crawl back' or to free-fall and hope to catch at a new opportunity before he reaches the ever-rising bottom: he chooses the later. It is a strange failure of human pride which prods us toward our own unhappiness. Our pride eludes us except for grand successes: each success raising and raising the bar, but only a small slip is enough for our pride to drop away beneath us. For Wilhelm, he has never, or rarely, experienced success, and each failure causes him to retreat more and more into himself, to hide away his failures in the shallow recesses of his remaining dignity. His socio-economic pressure compounds his troubles: his free-falls become more and more worrisome as he has less and less financial padding to cushion his imminent ruin.The most interesting and perplexing character of the novella, however, is Dr. Tamkin: Wilhelm's dubious and mysterious savior. A man of many tall tales, exaggerations, and flat-out lies, Tamkin offers Wilhelm the opportunity to invest in futures with him, guaranteeing him exorbitant profits. He is apparently a psychologist, an expert in hypnosis, an inventive man, but ultimately a shady figure, and likely a crook. He proselytizes his "seize the day" perspective, which borders on ironically religious, to Wilhelm, and frequently psychoanalyzes him to Wilhelm's dismay. The theme of time-perspective is prevalent throughout the novella, and reminded me of this article in the Wall Street Journal which discussed how time-perspective affected our moods. According to the parlance of "time-perspective therapy" it would seem that Wilhelm has a strongly past-negative, and perhaps present-fatalist outlook on his life. He is very much mired with regrets of his past: of his choice to leave school to pursue acting, his choice to get married, his choice to leave his wife, his choice to leave his job, etc. He is constantly reminded of these failures throughout his day and lacks a healthy outlet for relieving his burden: his father will not discuss his son's failures or give him the sympathy which Wilhelm so badly desires, his wife will not talk to him, and he has little else in the way of human contacts. What is ironic in Tamkin's plea for Wilhelm to "seize the day" and live in the "here-and-now" is that the great failures of Wilhelm's life have been made under just that operating mentality. Despite his belabored decision processes, his choices are ultimately made in gut-reactions to opportunities. He follows his instantaneous feelings and momentous emotions, and they continually lead him to undesired paths which he fails to follow through on.The background of futures trading strikes a particular key in the time-perspective theme. Futures contracts, to be technical, are purchased agreements to exchange goods at a future date, at a predetermined price. When they say that they have purchased contracts for "December rye" they mean that they have purchased the right to sell some quantity of rye-commodity, at some date in December, at the fixed price of the contract (the price fluctuates over time before narrowing in on the exact value as the day of exchange approaches). Wilhelm, whose view of the future is wary if not pessimistic, is in a state of constant agitation throughout the day: he fears the movement in prices and feels impotent but attached to his remaining small savings. He feels that Tamkin is swindling him, but due to his own ignorance and his invested hope in the potential "easy-money" he does not withdraw his savings. Wilhelm is always looking for some easy escape from his condition; he feels that his life thus-far has been very difficult and that at some point he must receive some manna-like relief. Tamkin, he believes, could be that relief, though his hope and his skepticism are constantly at odds throughout the day as he is fed psychology, platitudes, and unbelievable stories.The final release of Wilhelm's pent-up emotions, at the funeral of an unknown young man (perhaps about the age of Wilhelm himself, hence the excess of emotion), is his ultimate emotional release, but leaves the reader wondering about his still-precarious position. His savings have been decimated, his father has cast him out and refused to help him, Tamkin has disappeared, and he remains jobless with the growing demands of his wife and children. He tells himself that he will return to Olive (his mistress) and invests in her his next "new start" - but a new start which does not renew him, does not renew the reader's faith that he will succeed or even get by. His position remains impossible. Seize the Day is not Bellow's greatest novel, but it is an excellent exercise in the novella format, which from the beginning introduces a tension and unease which pervades the 118 pages.

Jay Gertzman

What is the remedy for the universal self-interest that strangles what is supposed to be democracy? It is exemplified by the humble wise man in Malamud’s The Assistant, the image of light in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, the wandering Jew in Scholem Asch’s The Nazarene, and the failed actor in Bellow’s Seize the Day. This response is the intuition of salvation conferred by a religiosity that depends on Jesus and the Jewish roots of his mysticism. Malamud said he “tried to see the Jew as universal man.” Alan Ginsberg, in the tear-filled process of writing of his mother’s madness and death in Kaddish, had a similar mystic, possibly Hasidic, insight, realizing “a great majesty and tenderness to life, a kind of instantaneous universal joy at creation.” In Seize the Day, Tommy Wilhelm is close enough to the end of his rope to see sympathy with other people as the saving torture it is. His estranged wife and his father turn their backs on his weepy, morally indignant pleading. His father (Dr. Adler; Tommy had adopted a stage name) uses odd imagery. He will not let his son become his “cross. I’ll see you dead, Wilky, by Christ, before I let you do that to me.” He thus justifies his self-insulation from pity. Leave that for Jesus. Tommy, a schlemiel out of Singer yarn, gets hooked up with Tamkin, a luftmensch (pointed shoulders, “claw-like” finger nails, pigeon toes, “deceiver’s brown eyes”), a noonday demon like those who take over Singer’s stories, or the golems, dybbuks, and soul-eating Liliths of Ozick’s tales (see “The Pagan Rabbi”), and those of a later writer, Steve Stern.Tamkin, kibitzing, tells Tommy everyone has two souls, a “pretender soul” who guides a poor schmuck into the thickets of worldly comfort, and the “true” one, originating in the Hasidic concept of the “true world.” In Tommy, the pretender soul is prostrate in defeat. His true soul, therefore, is all exposed. As Bellow put it in Herzog, Tommy faces “submission to the fate of being human.” This Jewish nudnick has become an avatar of Christ. I wonder if this novella (1956) did not inspire J D Salinger a few years later, when Zooey tells Franny that the average torpid, unwell person listening to their quiz-kid radio show is "the fat lady" and "Christ himself."


Astonishingly powerful novella structured around a day in the life of an actor manqué as he deals with a shrewish ex-wife, an untrustworthy "psychiatrist" who entangles him in the stock market, an icy father who (understandably) has grown tired of helping his middle-aged son out of financial binds, and with assorted feelings of acedia, alienation and desperation. In a brief number of pages, Bellow builds a very convincing miniature panorama of a single man adrift in an urban and emotional wasteland, with the protagonist's increasing distress becoming uncomfortably palpable as the day wears down. The book is not a total downer, though: there is snappy humor throughout, along with a sense of zestful wonder at the miracle of simply being alive (hey, don't roll your eyes!). The true knockout comes at the end: a conclusion that is as stirring and cathartic as any other that comes to mind.

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