Seize the Day

Seize the Day (Penguin Classics)Seize the Day is a short book by Saul Bellow, describing a day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, a forty something loser (failed actor, ex-salesman, marriage-on-the-rocks, the works) living in a retirement community in New York. Desperate and in need of help, he turns to Dr. Tamkin – a shyster who may or may not be a Doctor – for advice. And advice he gets, loads of it, mixed in with weird tales of people Tamkin claims to have cured. Stories that Tommy has a hard time believing or disbelieving. (“Facts always are sensational,” Tamkin avers when confronted by disbelief)

I want to tell you about this boy and his dad. It’s highly absorbing. The father was a nudist. Everybody went naked in the house. Maybe the woman found men with clothes attractive. Her husband didn’t believe in cutting his hair, either. He practiced dentistry. In his office he wore riding pants and a pair of boots, and he wore a green eye-shade

Deliberately paced, and rich with the narrative detail that Bellow is known for, the tragicomedy is a great read. The book has a lot of symbolism, and seems to be a parable of sorts, but Bellow famously disdained the “pretentious” attribution of hidden meaning to literature, so I’ll lay off it. I’ll just say again that this is a very good book, and if you are looking for a quick introduction to Bellow this is it.

Seize the Day makes it three on three for my loser literature record – A Confederacy of Dunces, Shipping News and then this.

Cynthia Ozick in her introduction to the book writes about how Bellow turned the human face into an “characterological map.” While conventional wisdom teaches us that we should not judge a book by its cover, Bellow famously gave his characters physical traits that seemed to describe their personalities.

What a creature Tamkin was when he took of his hat! The indirect light showed the many complexities of his bald skull, his gull’s nose, his rather handsome eyebrows, his vain mustache, his deceiver’s brown eyes… His eyes were as brown as beaver fur and full of strange lines. The two large brown naked balls looked thoughtful – but were they? And honest – but was Dr. Tamkin honest?”

If physical traits perfectly describe character, then Amitabh Bachchan – oversized face, gangly and tall, very tall – would be an airhead. Wow,maybe Bellow was onto something. Let me see – Vijaykanth, with perennially bloodshot eyes, and a fondness for red costumes would be a … winner? Sorry, Mr. Bellow.

PS: Indian movies, on the other hand, turned names into characterological maps. Pauls and Peters always had ill-fitting goatees, and took orders from their boss to do bad things, while Ritas and Sonas wore glittering, pointy boobed costumes that showed off a lot of thigh (and there was a lot of thigh to show off) and danced badly. And Rahuls, … you know all this already. And you thought Bollywood was shallow?

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