Seize the Day

ISBN: 0142437611
ISBN 13: 9780142437612
By: Saul Bellow Cynthia Ozick

Check Price Now


1001 1001 Books 1001 Import Classics Currently Reading Favorites Fiction Literature Novels To Read

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

David Berry

I can’t decide if Bellow’s choice of title was sincere or ironic. Carpe diem, Horace writes, quam minimum credula postero. Seize the day, put little faith in tomorrow. For Tommy Wilhelm, Bellow’s protagonist, his guide to the future is an occasionally insightful, often deceptive psychologist, Dr. Tamakin. Together, Wilhelm and Tamakin speculate on agricultural futures. (The spiritual emptiness of this profession reminds me of Faulkner’s Jason Compson). But betting on the future brings only ruin. Surely, Bellow was sincere in his allusive title. Then again, Horace instructs his reader to limit his hopes to today. Enjoy wine and friends, not lofty pursuits. Bellow, in contrast, affirms a fundamentally spiritual longing: What does it mean to be a man?Seize the Day is plainly autobiographical in many ways. Like Bellow, Wilhelm grapples with a broken marriage, estranged children, and a financially successful father disappointed in his progeny. He struggles to maintain a Jewish identity in his old Hollywood days, even changing his name. Wilhelm has literary inklings, remembering lines of John Milton’s “Lycidas.” Yet Wilhelm is different enough from his creator to take on his own life. He is not incisive; he cannot quite articulate his own suffering. Only at the novel’s end, at a stranger’s funeral, does he at last find expression—tears so flowing that the other mourners wonder what close relation he had to the deceased. Wilhelm needs Bellow to make sense of his inchoate grief.Though the novel spans only a single day, Bellow’s prose proceeds with sharp pace. He restrains aesthetic flourish in favor of description and dialogue, but when the flourish does appear, it is sublime. Near the depth of his fall, Wilhelm walks out onto Broadway to find “it was still bright afternoon and the gassy air was almost motionless under the leaden spokes of sunlight.” Sunlight inspires more trite, tired descriptions than almost any other occurrence, but only a fine writer indeed sees that to the truly forlorn, it is as heavy as lead. In this moment, Wilhelm (or is it Bellow) updates Walt Whitman’s New York democratic euphoria with modern anxiety:And the great, great crowd, the inexhaustible 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.Bellow, tally maker of the untallied. His sensitive man Wilhelm is left over, alienated from a world with mindless energy, a world run by money. (More than any other novelist I’ve read, Bellow understands what money means to men). Out of the masses of humanity, Wilhelm finds his epiphany in a dead stranger. The sane if sad thing to do is to pause and consider what awaits.

Fred Bubbers

Originally published in 1957, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day is considered one of the twentieth century’s finest works of fiction. It chronicles a single day in the life of one Tommy Wilhelm, a failed middle-aged actor, living on a precipice. Out of work, nearly broke, and estranged from his wife and children, he is haunted by all of the setbacks in his life and is searching for salvation in the form of an easy financial win that will solve all of his problems. On the advice of a mysterious psychologist, Dr. Tamkin, he has invested the last of his savings in the commodities market. Dr. Tamkin’s advice extends beyond investing and he provides advice to Wilhelm on how he should shed the burdens of his failed past and live in the here-and-now, in other words, to “Seize the Day.”Tamkin’s council and Wilhelm’s inability to shed his burdens only serve to heighten Wilhelm’s sense of failure. Wherever he seeks sympathy, whether it be his estranged wife who continues to make financial demands on him while refusing to divorce him or his father, a comfortably retired doctor, finds nothing but reminders of his failures.Born Wilhelm Adler, he changes his name to Tommy Wilhelm to further his acting career. His career never takes off and so he fails in his attempt to actually become Tommy Wilhelm, a failure he is constantly reminded of by his father who insists on addressing him as “Wilky,” his childhood name.Seize the Day is a distinctly American story. Whereas British fiction from Daniel Defoe on up through today’s Ian McEwan is preoccupied by social and economic class distinctions, American society prides itself on being free from class. No matter what station we are born into, we believe that through hard work, perseverance, and strength of character we can succeed. If we do not succeed, it is obviously due to some flaw in our character. American fiction has always explored the chasm that exists between that Great American Ideal (and mythology) and the stark reality that the Universe has no concept of fairness. American literary characters, unlike their British counterparts, are therefore imbued with a greater sense of anomie. While British heroes and heroines may struggle to overcome the rigid class distinctions in their society, and usually fail, there is at least the idea that there is a sense of order in the Universe, no matter how harsh it may be. American literary figures, from Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths to Fitzgerald’s James Gatz to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield to Miller’s Willy Loman, fight not against society but against nothingness.Years after writing Seize the Day, Bellow said in interviews that never liked Tommy Wilhelm very much. Indeed, Wilhelm is not particularly likable and the reader is likely to feel as much sympathy for him as the other characters in the novella. “Stop whining, be a man, get a job!” we want to say to him. And yet, the story is compelling and unconsciously reaches those hidden parts of our psyche that fear the stark nothingness, and leads us to the novella’s surprisingly cathartic conclusion.


A truly great book, so unusual in many ways, a book so totally about abysmal failure. It's hard to imagine that someone could write like this about the anti-hero protagonist, there's no sex or romance, just a broken marriage (wife and kids remain off-stage the entire book), no real action of any sort, just the almost surreal helplessness and the father-son conflict that seemed to me to be right out of Kafka, a book that scoffs at the American dream and deals in lard futures. The unforgettable Dr. Tamkin. And then there's Bellow's incredible prose that can go seamlessly from a learned, erudite philosophical style to the rhythm of slangy 1950s New York conversations.


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."

احمد هلال

الحمد لله رب العالمين- العلاقة بين الابن و أبيه ، قد تضطرب لاقدر الله ،و تسوء بسبب حمق الأبن و إصراره على سلوك طريق معين ، الكاتب الأمريكى سول بيلو رسم لوحة رائعة بروايته أغتنم الفرصة ، فالأب فى الرواية طبيب ناجح ولكن أبنه شاب يتنكب نصائح الأب فيترك الجامعة بحثا عن هليود فيفشل فى هليود ويخسر الجامعة و يخسر تقدير والده و يعمل مندوبا للمبيعات ويتزوج و لضعف شخصيته تستغله زوجته فتسنزفه و تنفصل عنه ولكنها تظل ترسل له الفواتير ، و يظل هو طوال فصول الرواية يستجدى عطف أبيه ، و يستدين منه الأموال بلا مقابل ، و لكن الأب يضجر من ولده فى النهاية، ونرى الأبن ولا حول ولاقوة إلا بالله ، تعيس فى كل شئ ، استطاع سول بيلو أن يشرح بسهولة بالغة الكثير من المشاعر الإنسانية التى تربط بين الأب الغاضب على ابنه و بين هذا الأبن الذى يخالف والده ويعود فى كل مرة بالخيبة و الخسران فيستجدى عطفه و أمواله..

Ali Nazifpour

I'm afraid I couldn't like this novel although I wanted to. Yes, the writing is fantastic, the humor is cutting, the psychology of the characters is perfect - however, what I'm missing here is the point, the plot, the actual novella. It seems like an opening rather than the complete work. OK, we know Tommy. His life sucks and he's a loser. Cool. So what? The novel never goes beyond a portrait of its protagonist and its supporting characters. And just when you expect the story to begin, for the novel to do SOMETHING with these characters, it ends. I think of many merits this novella has. But if I ask myself "what I would've missed if I never read it", I can't think of anything, so I won't consider it a good work of fiction.I also disagree with any existentialist reading of this novel. Wilhelm's problem, his father's problems, his wife's problems, and Tamkin's, are not the weight of being and such philosophical grand standings, it's that they are unlikable bags of dildos, that they are deplorable human beings with no real problems. It's the ultimate bourgeois whining novel, the fakest angst. It reminded me of the rich boys who cry over their overpriced coffee in cafes.My impression is that Bellow wanted this to be a satire, but it's not a successful one.

Dennis Littrell

Bellow, Saul. Seize the Day (1956)A short novel, representative of Bellow's work"Seize the day, put no trust in the morrow" is what Horace wrote at the end of his first book of Odes a couple of thousand years ago. And ever since, youth has been urged to make hay while the sun shines since the bird of time is on the wing--to toss in a couple more homilies. But what Saul Bellow has in mind here is entirely ironic since his sad protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm Adler has never seized the day at all, much to his unfeeling father's disgust.This then is a tale of failure (one of Bellow's recurring themes) and the shame and self-loathing that failure may bring; and yet there is a sense, or at least a hint--not of redemption of course--but of acceptance and understanding at the end of this short existential novel by the Nobel Prize winner.The way that Bellow's drowning, existential man experiences the funeral as this novel ends is the way we should all experience a funeral, that is, with the certain knowledge that the man lying dead in the coffin is, or will be, us.And we should cry copious tears and a great shudder should seize us and we should sob as before God with the full realization that our day too will come, and sooner than we think--which is what big, blond-haired, handsome Jewish "Wilkie" Adler does. And in that realization we know that he has seen the truth and we along with him. An existential truth of course.The structure of the novel, like James Joyce's Ulysses, begins and ends in the same day. Through flashbacks from Adler's nagging consciousness, the failures and disappointments of his life are recalled. When he was just a young man he foolishly thought because of his good looks and the assurance of a bogus talent scout that he might become a Hollywood star; and so he spurned college and instead went to the boulevard of broken dreams as it runs toward Santa Monica.And so began the failure and dissolution of his life. As Bellow tells it, Wilhelm has slipped and fallen into something like a watery abyss. He can't catch his breath. He is drowning. He reaches out to his father, who turns away from him. He reaches out to Dr. Tamkin, the mysterious stranger, the clever fox of a man who swindles him and then disappears into the crowd of the great metropolis. He reaches out to his wife, who will also not extend a helping hand. Meanwhile, the waters about him have grown, and he is lost.We are all lost, more or less, except those who delude themselves, who have their various schemes and delusions to distract them, is what Bellow seems to be saying. Those of us who have not seized the day, a day that is fleeting and subtle, indefinite and hard to grasp, become so much water-logged driftwood.With resemblances to Albert Camus' The Stranger and Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, Bellow's Wilhelm is the essence of the anti-hero, literature's dominate strain of the mid-twentieth century. Such men have no firm or deep beliefs. They exist for the day, like butterflies, tossed about by circumstance all the while wondering why, but without any ability to rise above their predicament, a predicament that is so ordinary, so banal, so patently unheroic to be that of Everyman.And what is the answer? For Bellow and Camus and Miller, the answer is the finality of death. A man lives, goes about craving--"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"--and for what and because of what? Like the tentmaker, Omar Khayyam, we wander willy-nilly without a clue, and then become so much dust in the wind.For life IS a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying in the end, nothing. All our labors are like those of Sisyphus pushing the stone up the hill only to watch it roll back down again.We cannot help but feel in reading this novel both a sense of empathy for the man who has failed, but at the same time, we might feel like his father and want to give him a kick and say, "Wilkie, get a grip on yourself. Quit making the same mistakes over and over again."But we know that for Wilhelm it is already too late. He cannot change his nature anymore than the leopard can change its spots. We sense the great hand of fate upon him, and we shudder. For in some respects--different respects of course--we could be him. And we straighten up our frame, we return to our duties and responsibilities, to our work and the rhythms of our lives secure in the knowledge that we are stronger that Wilhelm, that although the waves may toss us about, we will not sink. At least not yet.In reading this for the first time now half a century after it was written, I am struck with how different the zeitgeist is today. We have wildly successful heroes and larger-than-life murderous villains, and nowhere is there the existential man.This short work is a splendid representative of one of my favorite genres, the short, sharply focused American novel from the early or middle 20th century. Other--widely differing--examples are John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra, Nathanael West's Miss Lonely Hearts, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, John Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, to name a few. --a review by Dennis Littrell


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.


Before I get into Saul Bellow's little powerhouse of a novel, a word about introductions, forewords, and prefaces.Unless I finish a novel with a feeling of wonder, I rarely read the introduction. Any kind of foreword usually functions to inflate the page count, advertise the book (why, if I'm already reading a book, do I need to read an ad for it?), and attach some big shot author's name with the work at hand.However, there are those few introductions which function as great literature in their own right. Tom Wolfe, in his introduction to Bonfire of the Vanities (I have yet to read the book, but I have read the introduction at least three times), offers readers a lucid, hilarious, paradigm-shifting look at the history of style and content in the modern novel. David Eggers, in the Preface to A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, confronts every imagined complaint about his memoir and vehemently defends his choices, offering a blazing portrait of the self-consciousness that he goes on to explore in the book. And, in the intro to Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick effectively illuminates literature's unique power, and spotlights Bellow's work as a defining example of that force.She compares literature, with its descriptions and suggestions, to the pre-processed sights and sounds of television and cinema. She mourns the time when novels were a shared language in our culture, saying the following:"If literature can give new eyes to human beings, it is because the thing held in common is seperately imagined."A world where we all share a certain bibliography, with which we all interact in our own imaginations, is difficult to imagine. We just don't read that much anymore, and the volume of books being published scatters the few readers left to their own favored genres and authors.So, fellow readers, if we are to correct this problem, I suggest that we start with Seize the Day. I suggest this for a few reasons.First, the book is notably short. Barely over one hundred pages, it is compact in its time span, plot, and action. Second, its density is astounding. It packs in stunning, nuanced explorations of loyalty, generations, marriage, financial stress, cities, psychology, spirituality, and the quest for the soul. Third, on the tail end of the second, it presents us with a shared Truth which we seperately imagine: We each have a soul that transcends our circumstances.The book spends its time in the head of Tommy Wilhelm, a failed actor and an unemployed salesman, seperated from his family, living in an apartment near his retired father in New York. Wilhelm throws his money into one last gamble, trusting a purported psychologist and investing in lard.While the mind of a character has been a common setting for novels in recent years, Bellow's choice to paint the landscape of his character's inner life was an innovation in its time, and it still astounds and inspires in its result, despite the flood of followers.The final chapter, moving in response to Wilhelm's misfortunes and poor choices, plunges deep after the human soul, until it is out of sight.The way Wilhelm falls apart, the way he rages and fumes and fights and grieves, all suggests some presence beyond comprehension. Some guiding platonic reality that requires the complete obliteration of his pride, self-delusion, and wealth.Very little in the story goes the way we might hope. But when we leave Wilhelm's story, and we are filled with a new, deeper sense of hope that transcends the events of the book.So the book leaves us with a sense of assurance that there is a soul within the man, but it allows us to wonder at its nature and to wonder at our own souls as well.That, fellow readers, is an outcome well worth both our shared exploration and our individual imagination.


'Nature only knows one thing, and that’s the present. Present, present, eternal present, like a big, huge, giant wave – colossal, bright and beautiful, full of life and death, climbing into the sky, standing in the seas. You must go along with the actual, the Here-and-Now, the glory -’Following the success of his lengthy, 1953 National Book Award Winning novel The Adventures of Augie March, Nobel laureate Saul Bellow returned in 1956 with the very slender Seize the Day. Called ‘the most Russian novella written in America’ by critic James Wood ¹, one of Seize ‘s greatest successes is the enormous accumulation of ideas, social, spiritual and psychological commentary, and pure literary vitamins packed into this snack of a novel that rivals the depth of novels three to four times it’s length, not to mention the enrapturing prose that pulls this story along. Much like the Russian literary giants of whom Bellow highly regarded, Seize is intensely psychological as Bellow takes a page from Wilhelm Reich (whose first name is also that of Seize’s protagonist) with regards to character analysis and social commentary. This novel is ripe for classroom discussion and analysis, with carefully crafted metaphors and motifs that seem effortlessly blended into the narrative, similar to the way Dr. Tamkin builds his character mask through ‘hints, made dully as asides, grew by repetition into sensational claims.’ Bursting with insight and frosted in delicious prose, Bellow breaks down the socio-economic conditions of the 50’s,and their implications of the common man through an ostensive examination of Wilhelm Reich’s psychoanalytic theories.Much like Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, Seize the Day follows a Jewish protagonist, through the course of one day while simultaneously painting the larger portrait of the character’s life history. However, Seize the Day stands on it’s own taking the reader through an entirely different approach and resolution as a psychoanalysis of Tommy Wilhelm (formerly Wilhelm ‘Wilky’ Adler before adopting his stage name²). A bit of background on Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian psychoanalyst and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, is extremely beneficial towards understanding Bellow’s novel, as Reich’s theories and practices constitute the framework for the novel. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) In short, Reich’s psychoanalysis - beyond the standard Freudian constructs of figurative castration, Oedipal complex, etc. centered on a belief that ‘ neurosis is rooted in physical, sexual, and socio-economic conditions, and in particular in a lack of what he called "orgastic potency”’. The ‘orgastic potency’ refers to a theory that an orgasm is a healthy release of libido and creative powers fueled through love, which can become blocked by social conditions and other outside forces, thus creating an ‘orgastic impotency’ which directly causes neurosis and heath disorders (Reich believed Freud’s jaw cancer was unrelated to his tobacco use and was instead attributed to Freud ‘biting down’ of his [Freud’s] problems). This was the primary focus for character analysis, and lead to his practice of Vegetotherapy. Vegeotherapy was a form of psychotherapy consisting of the patient removing their ‘body armor’ – both figuratively and literally as the patient would conduct the therapy nude, and simulate extreme stress and emotions with the aim of responding to them and releasing all the built up emotional blockage (to achieve an emotional orgasm) ³.Following the ideas of Reich, Bellow probes the ‘neurosis’ of Wilhelm by setting him in financial ruin (socio-economic conditions), an estranged marriage brought on by his love affairs and belief that his wife is attempting to choke him off (castration), and at odds with his father (Oedipal complex – the more awkward aspects of this complex are only lightly touched upon, as when Wilhelm reflects upon his mothers death he feels a ‘great pull at the very center of his soul,’ yet ‘never identified what struck within him’). Wilhelm looks back on his past as a laundry list of failures, but shows hope for recovery by always believing that he can get a new start. This ‘new start’, in this case putting the last of his money into commodities with Dr. Tamkin on Tamkin’s ‘can’t fail’ get-rich-quick promises, seem less and less possible now that he is graying and in his 40s, and Bellow does not hesitate from depicting Wilhelm in a rather unflattering light as a slob, sloucher, pill-popper in denial, and rather whiney. Wilhelm does look at his past as a series of event leading him to his sad state, yet he does in part own up to his mistakes and does not shy away from accepting that it was his choices that brought him to those events. This ownership of his faults may be the only glimmer of potential recovery that Wilhelm displays from the start.The financial ruin of Wilhelm is a major focus of the novel, and should be addressed before proceeding into a discussion of the metaphorical vegeotherapy that Bellow conducts upon his protagonist. Reich was a outspoken Marxist and many of these anti-capitalistic beliefs take shape through both Tamkin and Wilhelm. ‘A man like you,’ Tamkin addresses Wilhelm in one of his many speeches, ‘humble for life, who wants to feel and live, has trouble – not wanting to exchange an ounce of soul for a pound of social power – he’ll never make it without help in a world like this.’ Both men see money as a vicious tool for keeping others down. It is the driving force of New York, according to them, and the world, and is always used as a weapon. Wilhelm feels castrated by his wife’s refusal to grant him a divorce and by her still living off his money, which she demands in increasing quantities. Wilhelm believes his own suffering is inflated due to the downward spiral of poverty and having others always riding on his back dragging him down. ‘A rich man may be free on an income of a million net. A poor man may be free because nobody cares what he does. But a fellow in my position has to sweat it out until he drops dead.’ He views the whole system as utterly threatening and damning. It is even discussed as a method for enslavement and cruelty throughout history in one of the many instances of evoking the Jewish plight and consciousness (It is clear why Roth cites Bellow as an important influence. Bellow manages to weave a religious motif through biblical imagery and brief touches on the Jewish culture that occasionally give a parable-like vibe to the novel). ‘People come to the market to kill,’ says Tamkin, ‘They say, ‘I’m going to make a killing.’ It’s not accidental. Only they haven’t got the genuine courage to kill, and they erect a symbol of it.’ Money is seen as an extension of the animalistic urges in man, seeing money as a force of destruction that blocks the creative forces of love. These animal instincts, an important aspect of Reich’s psychoanalysis, are described by Tamkin when he discusses that a man whom ‘marries sorrow’ will figuratively ‘howl’ from his window at night to express his pain of the world. Wilhelm briefly thinks upon his grandfather calling him by his Yiddish name, Velvel, a name meaning wolf, in another excellent example of Bellow tying the Jewish consciousness into this piece. Wilhelm’s vegeotherapy is essentially the entire days events. Every waking moment is either the pains of an old wound or a new stressor that builds and builds on him. The systematically recalls all his failures, all his fears, and dwells on all his faults as the day progresses until he is balled up in a knot of anxiety. Then, one by one, he sheds his bodily armor, casting off everyone he knows in a fit of emotional outpouring and indignant anger. Bellow plays with his water motif in a very interesting way here. Throughout the book are frequent allusions to water, many of them directed at Wilhelm’s apparent aversion to it (he uses an electric razor that doesn’t require him wetting his face, he doesn’t wash his hands, etc.). Wilhelm is often described as drowning in his problems. Tamkin is ridiculed by Dr. Adler for having a supposed invention of a underwater suit that would allow people to be protected underwater in case of nuclear attack, which makes for a wonderful metaphor for Wilhelm’s seeking shelter in Tamkin’s stock-market schemes to saving him from drowning in his financial woes. Despite the fears of water, Wilhelm’s orgasm is a flood of tears, and violent output of water as the curtain falls upon the novel. This watery orgasm poses an interesting analysis on the novel. Perhaps it is what we fear most, that which is the hardest, that we should actually take stock in. In other words, taking the easy way out to avoid the hard way is what causes problems. Wilhelm always ran to the next-big-thing, off to Hollywood or to the bed of a new woman, which brought him to his knees in life. Tamkin offered an easy way out, but should he really be trusted. Bellow creates an incredible trickster figure in Tamkin, ironically having him be a psychologist in a novel focusing on psychoanalysis. Tamkin is often described as speaking ‘hypnotically’, and Wilhelm often wonders if this is some sort of spell he is under from the flow of his words. ’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.’The short, punctuated pattern of speech creates a trancelike rhythm. He is like the snake in Eden tempting with an apple of knowledge promising better things. Bellow keeps the temptation sweeter by having Tamkin also express truth and Bellows ultimate message and moral – to love one another. The truth is tangled with the lies and deceit, just like real life where we must sort through all the messages we receive and decode the thread we should follow to salvation, personal success and stability, and which glimmering threads really lead us to damnation and ruin.For such a thin book, Bellow fills it chock full of literary glory. Seize the Day is like a quick left jab, but when it catches you on the chin you realize it is like a full forced right hook of a fist from any lesser writer. There is simply so much occurring on various levels in this novel and it is truly astonishing. Bellow leaves the reader with an empowering look at life, to seize the moments when they come and make the best of them, and to take ownership of our failures because ‘you can spend the entire second half of your life recovering from the mistakes of the first half.’ Seize the day, and seize this book.3.75/5‘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, he passionately loved them. 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?’¹ Besides often raving about Bellow (see sub), in Wood’s How Fiction Works, he speaks at length about a tiny paragraph and opens a sea of meaning from a small aside thrown in by Bellow. As the passage from Wood inspired me to read the novel, I’d like to include it here in full:Another example of the novelist writing over his character occurs (briefly) in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day. Tommy Wilhelm, the out-of-work salesman down on his luck, neither much of an aesthete nor an intellectual, is anxiously watching the board at a Manhattan commodity exchange. Next to him, an old hand named Mr. Rappaport is smoking a cigar. "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." It is a gorgeous, musical phrase, and characteristic of both Bellow and modern fictional narrative. The fiction slows down to draw our attention to a potentially neglected surface or texture—an example of a "descriptive pause," familiar to us when a novel halts its action and the author says, in effect, "Now I am going to tell you about the town of N., which was nestled in the Carpathian foothills," or "Jerome's house was a large dark castle, set in fifty thousand acres of rich grazing land." But at the same time it is a detail apparently seen not by the author—or not only by the author—but by a character. And this is what Bellow wobbles on; he admits an anxiety endemic to modern narrative, and which modern narrative tends to elide. The ash is noticed, and then Bellow comments: "It was ignored, in its beauty, by the old man. For it was beautiful. Wilhelm he ignored as well."Seize the pay is written in a very close third-person narration, a free indirect style that sees most of the action from Tommy's viewpoint. Bellow seems here to imply that Tommy notices the ash, because it was beautiful, and that Tommy, also ignored by the old man, is also in some way beautiful. But the fact that Bellow tells us this is surely a concession to our implied objection: How and why would Tommy notice this ash, and notice it so well, inthese fine words? To which Bellow replies, anxiously, in effect: "Well, you might have thought Tommy incapable of such finery, but he really did notice this fact of beauty; and that is because he is somewhat beautiful himself."a. Wood’s considered Bellow to be ‘ one, to my mind the greatest of American prose stylists in the 20th century - and thus one of the greatest in American fiction’. Wood also insisted that the novel be included in Bellow’s own syllabus for his [Bellow’s] literature course at Boston University so the students could ‘get a sense of the stature of the man who was their professor. Bellow modestly absented himself for that particular class, so that the students could freely concentrate on the writing.’ (Excerpt from Wood’s articleThe High-Minded Joker, a reflection on the life of Saul Bellow published by The Guardian, on April 8, 2005, three days after Bellow’s death.)² The adoption of his stage name plays beautifully into Bellow’s depiction of the Oedipal complex, as well as exposing the dualities inherent in his protagonist with regards to his ‘body armor’ and true self. ‘He had cast off his father’s name, and with it his father’s opinion of him. It was, and he knew it was, his bid for liberty. Adler being in his mind the title of his species, Tommy the freedom of the person. But Wilky was his inescapable self.’ This also allows for the naming of Dr. Tamkin to represent a surrogate father for Tommy Wilhelm, a false, faulty father for a false faulty self. The use of names in the novel is textbook Lit101 analysis and used to it’s full potential.³ Reich was declared schizophrenic by Sandor Rado, thought to be bipolar by his own daughter and was a staunch believer that Earth was secretly at war with UFOs. Despite his apparent open insanity, Reich’s ‘orgone accumulators’ – a device built to achieve the emotional orgasm of vegeotherapy, was popularly used by many big-name people, such as Sean Connery, J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac.‘Everyone on this side of the grave is the same distance from death’


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.

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.


Apolgies in advance for skipping over the plot summary, but here's what I think I learned from this book:1) Bellow, like Banville, is a master of characterization, the expression of character through movement, reaction, idiosyncrasies, etc. It's not just what they look like and what they're wearing (though this is important) it's what these things say about the character and how they're expressed through speech, interaction with others, moments of isolation, etc. It can't be all wooden descriptions of the external or the seething turmoil of the internal. If you want a reader to emotionally connect with your character you have to do both. Not just once or twice, but always. In a sense, Bellow is never not doing this and that's how the story advances. 2) The unlikable hero. Wilhelm is repugnant, utterly so. He fits the profile of a man about to hit bottom and though it's plain that he needs to embrace change he can't (or won't) until the collapse, which is inevitable, comes. Everyone around him acts consistently: his father finds him repugnant, the conman fleeces him, his estranged wife browbeats him -- as we would certainly do if we were in these positions. Wilhelm's personal habits are despicable, his weaknesses profound, he is incapable of change; however, his desire for it makes him somehow sympathetic. He wants what we all want: enough to get by on and to put our problems behind us, but instead of the high roads he takes the low, which ends up being a roundabout. He's doomed and Bellow makes us care. 3) When you truly inhabit a character, the chosen mode of expression becomes an almost arbitrary distinction. Ostensibly this is an third person, past tense, omniscient narrator deal, but Bellow uses first person present tense, second person direct address, even stream of consciousness in order to get inside his protagonist's head. Bellow's approach is "by any means necessary." Seize the Day is reminiscent of some of the Leopold Bloom sections of Ulysses, particularly toward the end where Wilhelm starts to recede, almost as if he is being absorbed into the city that he will probably leave. This is really a fascinating little book that I imagine I'll come back to again. As a writer who obsesses over the mechanics of story, Seize the Day is wonderfully instructive. Also, Cynthia Ozick's introduction is awfully impressive.

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.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *