Friday, January 21, 2011

More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow is Martin Amis' favorite author, he virtually worships him, so as an Amis fan, I will be reading some of Bellow's oeuvre. Bellow was born in Quebec, two years after his parents emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia, but spent most of his life in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976, soon after Humboldt's Gift was published. Bellow wrote this book (1987) in his eighties, Amis' review of the book appears in Visiting Mrs. Nabokov. Bellow's novels tend to be light on plot - Blades (Chicago Tribune) opines "conversation, not action, is character." He calls Bellow our preeminent "op-ed novelist" whose craft bears fruit in this tragicomedy of Eros. Bellow pokes fun at himself in the novel saying "I've got a scheme for pushing Flora Lewis off the op-ed page and taking her place" (p. 102).

The book takes place in an unnamed (better to say nameless) Midwest Rustbelt (pp. 146, 246) city, although there is a hint that it could be Indianapolis (p. 251). Much of the novel is narrated by the prolix intellectual Kenneth Trachtenberg, suffering from "partial deafness" (p. 47), who has an unnaturally intense reverence for his luftemensche maternal uncle, Benn Crader, botanist (Professor "Chlorophyll" (p. 26)). Ken has emigrated to the U.S. from Paris to be closer to his uncle, but there are early signs of this backfiring: "I had come to America to complete my education, to absorb certain essential powers from Uncle, and I learned presently that he was looking to me for assistance" (p. 92).

Ken is witness to another whose life is more colorful than his. "Adoration" is an understatement of Ken's feelings toward Benn. Ken on Benn "For me he had the "magics"" (p. 23). "Ours was a genuine, I'd say a devouring, friendship" (p. 26). "My only aim was to protect his goddam life" (p. 32). "In some sense he had become my father" (p. 34). The two are both Profs at the local university, Ken a Russian studies expert. Ken and Benn seem to be unable to overcome problems they are having with relationships, especially with strong and "aggressive" (p. 86) women. They are both the walking wounded of the sexual revolution. This is in contradistinction to the notorious philandering father Rudi Trachtenberg, born in "Valparaiso" (p. 24) and living the ex-pat life in Paris as an "outstanding cocksman" (p. 65). "He put on the kind of sex display you see in nature films" (p. 24). "Papa didn't end a ruined débauché...I'm the one with the damages" (p. 35). His sexual inferiority is a "phallic cross I've had to carry" (p. 189). For their part, Ken and Benn view love in a morose fashion: "Except in a melancholy connection, you seldom hear about love anymore" (p. 44).

Ken analyzes to the nth degree ("I was going too far in my speculation" (p. 80)) the passive Benn's misfortunes with women, especially a brief encounter with one Della Bedell, a neighbor, who seduces him (against his will, well he felt it would be unfair to her to resist) after luring him into her apartment to change a light bulb. Later, Benn plans to marry Caroline Bunge, while Ken is in Seattle meeting with his ex-girlfriend Treckie to discuss parenting of their daughter Nancy. Benn makes an "undignified escape" (p. 75) from Caroline by taking Ken on a trip to Kyoto, but the overt sexuality of a strip show sends the two packing back to the Midwest.

Benn's major love interest is the beautiful and wealthy Matilda Layamon. She was well educated with "more degrees than a thermometer" (p. 136). He marries her (albeit without Ken's permission!), Ken is "still sore because he cheated on me - broke the rules of our relationship" (p. 113). They occupy a 1911 Baroque apartment (the Roanoke) which plays prominently in the relation with Matilda. In Ken's words "it's a three-cornered match: Matilda, me and the Roanoke" (p. 154). Benn is drawn into a vortex of scheming around the recovery of a real estate fortune made by Benn's own uncle (Harold Vilitzer) at the expense of Benn's family homestead, ultimately the site of a 102-floor (p.200) skyscraper owned by a Japanese multinational, "Ecliptic Circle Electronics" (p. 44). In the end, Vilitzer dies from a heated discussion prompted by a force discussion with Benn on the topic of repatriating some of the funds to Benn and his sister Hilda. Benn sends his wife ahead to the funeral in Miami and books himself a trip to the North pole for his lichen studies. Ironically, Benn's trip to the North Pole removes him from the "magnetic attraction of anarchy" (p. 330).

Ken indicts the marriage to Matilda, citing Balzac "Balzac very specifically tells you that only children born to wealth make dangerous wives" (p. 48). In general Ken disapproves of Benn's women, calling him " a phoenix who runs after arsonists" (pp. 198-199, 334). And further assessing Benn's "betrayal" - "and Uncle Benn, hitherto eligible to be described as a dear man, even a good man, assisting to the degradation of Love. Love, the very essence of the Divine Spirit" (p. 277). Early in the book, Ken refers to "the fallen state in which our species finds itself" (p. 19). Ultimately, Benn blames himself for losing his connection to his inner self, symbolized by his failure to spot a fake azalea: ' "A stooge azalea - a stand-in, a ringer, an impostor, a dummy, a shill ! I was drawing support for weeks and weeks from the manufactured product. Every time I needed a fix, a contact, a flow, I turned to it. Me, Kenneth ! After all these years of unbroken rapport, to be taken in." He cried this out - I could see it - among all those washers and dryers. "The one thing I could always count on. My occupation, my instinct, mt connection...broken off" ' (p. 300).

Lest the reader forget, Ken has his own problems with women, including Treckie and Dita. He recognizes the analogues in his own life: "All this may appear to be about me. It really isn't; it's about Uncle Benn, the circumstances of his marriage to Matilda Layamon, the struggle with Harold Vilitzer that resulted from it. I bring it forward only as it relates to him. But of course I was affected by these thoughts on the sexual problem and I took part in all of this" (pp. 73-74).

Visiting his mother Hilda in a Somali refugee camp in Tug Wajale (p. 118), Ken laments his lack of success in getting her sympathy for his formulation that "The East has the ordeal of privation, the West has the ordeal of desire" (p. 100). "I suppose I shouldn't have brought my preoccupations to this land of famine and genocide" (p. 101).

Ken is endlessly doting on life's "pain schedule" (pp. 11, 100) where "the hardest items of all have to do with love" (p. 11). Benn's amatory ineptitude is worrisome to Ken. Ken believes Benn "was a sex-abused man" (p. 54), "a woman-battered man" (p. 55). "Benn was a plant artist who was not qualified to be a love artist" (p. 301). In response to a reporter's question about the effects of radiation on plant life, Benn says "I think more people die of heartbreak than of radiation" (pp. 87, 241, 315). On love, Benn says to Ken "Your views on love are pretty familiar to me - that everybody is on a separate system" to which Ken replies "The petit système à part" (p. 192). Back on the heartbreak theme "there are no mass movements against heartbreak, and no demonstrations against it in the streets" (p. 197).

Ken also keeps recalling the "long polar night" (pp. 20, 54) theme based on Admiral Byrd's memoir Alone, where those who withstand isolation in small groups for long periods of time really "find each other out...You are hemmed in on every side by your inadequacies" (p. 20). The narrator mentions the Russian labor camps in Kolyma (pp. 20, 100) and Magadan (p. 100) - could this have encouraged Amis to write his Koba the Dread ? Also Ken mentions that in Paris he "used to visit Boris Souvarine, the great biographer of Stalin" (p. 26). Ken keeps quoting the English poet Matthew Arnold "who wrote that he was thirty years old and his heart was three parts iced over" (pp. 72, 128, 278), an image from Ken's mentor in Paris, Yermelov (p. 72).

Benn muses on his own way of seeing the world: "It was Lena who had introduced me to the valuable idea that modes of seeing were matters of destiny, that what is sent forth by the seer affects what is seen. She liked to give the example of Whistler the painter when he was taken to task by a woman who said "I never see trees like that," He told her, "No, ma'am, but don't you wish you could?" (p. 305). Whistler's interlocutor deprives herself of rich and vital pictures of the world. This vignette appears in Owen Barfield's study in anthroposophy, Saving the Appearances (p. 24), a book which influenced Bellow in the writing of Humboldt's Gift.

Bellow's narrator turns a simple fable into a complex meditation. Ken ponders the meaning of life and opines "you have no reason to exist unless you believe you can make your life a turning point" (pp. 68, 188, 247). And later: "I was referring to my Project Turning Point - that, really, conscious existence might be justified only if it was devoted to the quest for a revelation, a massive reversal, an inspired universal change, a new direction, a desperately needed human turning point" (p. 315). ""Useful elucidation" was another weakness of mine" (p. 92). Just maybe all of Ken's thoughts "don't get us anywhere: our speculations are like a stationary bicycle. And this, too, was dawning on me. These proliferating thoughts have more affinity to insomnia than to mental progress. Oscillations of the mental substance is what they are, ever-increasing jitters" (p. 301) Towards the end of the book, regarding Benn's remorse of his uncle's death, Ken learns from Benn that "you can love a man without loving what he did to you" (p.323).

Bellow pokes fun at Ken's expense when Ken stumbles on a passage from German writer E.T.A. Hoffman that parodies Ken's concern for Benn's survival among the American philistines: " 'Oh, Ferdinand, dearest, beloved friend!...what will become of the arts in these rough, stormy times ? Will they not wither like delicate plants that in vain turn their tender heads towards the dark clouds behind which the sun disappeared ?...The children of Nature wallowed in lazy idleness, and the most beautiful gifts she offered them they trampled under foot in stupid wantonness...' " (p. 331).

Bellow defines his own fictional style "if you want to think in America, you also feel an obligation to provide a historical sketch to go with it, to authenticate or legitimize your thoughts. So it's one moment of flashing insight and then a quarter of an hour of pedantry and tiresome elaboration - academic gabble. Locke to Freud with stops at local stations like Bentham and Kierkegaard. One has to feel sorry for people in such an explanatory bind. Or else (a better alternative) one can develop an eye for the comical side of this" (pp. 190-191). Pifer (Saul Bellow: Against the Grain) opines that in this novel, Bellow may have reached a "turning point" not only in his own career but in the development of the realist novel: a point at which the "primordial person" rather than his alteration by "the conditioning forces," is of crucial interest. In Bellow's own fiction, in any case, it is the "secret" of the human being, his "hidden design," that the novelist's art is increasingly dedicated to unfolding.


  1. Hi: Thanks. Ive been reading MDH and loving it-underlining , notations on "paste-its", etc.
    I can relax -youve done a splendid job!... and with a thoroughness that beats mine.

  2. Signs and signage – road signs, movie marquees, newspaper headlines real and imaginary, municipal signs, electronic message boards, storefronts, etc. – function as important indicators of the shifts, changes, and developments in Angstrom’s consciousness as he grows older throughout the decades chronicled in Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series. Perhaps I should say Angstrom’s awareness of the signs, or, to be a bit more accurate, Updike’s descriptions of Angstrom’s awareness of the signs, rather than the signs themselves.