Book Review: Seize The Day // Saul Bellow

Seize The Day (1956) follows a desperate day in the life of Wilhelm Adler, or Tommy Wilhelm, as he prefers to be called. Financially ruined yet forced to pay alimony to his wife from whom he is separated, and now living in the Gloriana Hotel along with his father, who views him as a failure, it is fair to say that Wilhelm’s life has fallen apart. In a last-ditch attempt to alleviate his money problems, he has given power of attorney to Dr. Tamkin, a shady, pseudo-psychologist. Wilhelm spends the day going from the hotel to the stock market, where he nervously awaits the results on the price of lard after rashly investing in it under the doctor’s advice. Through frequent jumps to key moments from Wilhelm’s past, we learn about his previous misfortunes and how they have shaped his present.

What Bellow’s protagonist longs for from his old father is kindness and understanding, as well as money, but the old man is not one for empathy and coldly and unmercifully asserts that his son should be the one to solve his own problems. Dr. Tamkin acts as a kind of spiritual adviser and encourages him to ‘seize the day’, but any actions Wilhelm carries out in the present are only impulsive and borne out of desperation. Despite having doubts about the doctor, he is swayed and manipulated by the man’s words because they often encapsulate the suffering he experiences.

‘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.’

Saul Bellow

By creating a character who has chased fame and glamour only for his dreams to be shattered, Bellow appears to be suggesting that the American dream is a fallacy. Wilhelm’s descent into social and economic instability, caused by the collapse of his marriage and resignation from his job, makes him very much part of the American Nightmare. With regrets from his past firmly weighing on his conscience, he is swallowed up by a hostile and unforgiving New York and living under the shadow of his successful and respected father, while also being unable to free himself from the unreasonable demands of a woman he is unable to divorce.

Seize The Day is not of the same calibre as some of Bellow’s longer works like The Adventures of Augie March and The Victim, but it is nevertheless a finely structured and executed novella. Although the protagonist is a sympathetic character, we learn enough about him to see that he is not entirely guiltless for the way his life has turned out; Wilhelm’s poor decision-making and his propensity to be blindly led by others are largely to blame for his troubles. The tragedy of his situation is undoubtedly heightened by his tormented inner thoughts, and his feelings of helplessness and loneliness are very relevant today in our increasingly modernised and frenetic world.

For every successful and content person there is also a Wilhelm: someone who is struggling to cope under the pressures of life and is desperate for some sort of release, either from a change in fortune or from the compassion of another human being. What this person often fails to realise, just as Wilhelm does, is that if they are even in a small way responsible for their difficulties then they themselves also have the power to fix them.

Words by Callum McGee

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