Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Bellarosa Connection by Saul Bellow

This is Bellow's 2nd paperback-only novella. The Bellarosa Connection (1989) derives it's name from Harry Fonstein, a Galician Jew living in Italy under Mussolini, who is rescued from the Nazis "Hollywood-style" (p. 28) charitably by the real life impresario and lyricist Billy Rose (1899-1966), but misheard his name. The story is told by a nameless narrator, who is a child of Russian Jews from NJ (p. 2) and founder of an institute which teaches memory skills, the Mnemosyne (after mnemonic)Institute in Philadelphia. Fonstein is related to the Narrator as the nephew of his Aunt Mildred. The central plot is of Harry and his wife's (Sorella) effort to bring closure to their ordeal by meeting their disinterested benefactor. Ultimately, Sorella (whom the narrator likens to Rembrandt's Saskia (painting) stalks Billy Rose in Jerusalem at the King David Hotel and attempts to "blackmail" (p. 52) him with secret information, unsuccessfully.

Until late in the novella, the narrator fails to understand the Fonstein's desire for closure. "I break my head trying to understand why it's so important for Fonstein. He's been turned down ? So he's been turned down" (p. 22). The narrator wants to wash his hands of his own heritage "I didn't want to think of the history and psychology of these abominations, death chambers and furnaces. Stars are nuclear furnaces too. Such things are utterly beyond me, a pointless exercise" (p. 29). His "advice to Fonstein - given mentally - was: Forget it. Go American" (p. 29). The narrator has an odd comment to the portly Sorella, suggesting she is the living incorporation of European Jews: "Maybe Sorella was trying to incorporate in fatty tissue some portion of what he had lost - members of his family" (p. 48).

When Sorella meets Billy in 1959 (p. 58), she has a packet of evidence from Billy's deceased assistant Deborah Hamet (called Horsecollar (p. 16) because of Yiddish word khomet), accusing Billy Rose of bribing "Robert Moses' people to put across my patriotic Aquacade at the Fair" (p. 55) among other misdeeds (see photo 1939 World's Fair Aquacade).

For those wondering what the message of the book really is, perhaps it can be gleaned by assimilation concerns. Sorella says "if you want my basic view, here it is : The Jews could survive everything that Europe threw at them. I mean the lucky remnant. But now comes the next test - America. Can they hold their ground, or will the U.S.A. be too much for them?" (p. 65).

The 2nd half of the book (p. 66) is all about the narrator and his own memory loss. Years later in contemplation of the Fonsteins he no longer needs to see them because he remembers them so well : "My much appreciated in-absentia friends, so handsomely installed in my consciousness" (p. 72). In a dream sequence (p. 89), the narrator finally understands the Fonstein's quest for closure. The final words of the book betray the shallow thinking of the narrator: "I chose instead to record everything I could remember of the Bellarosa Connection, and set it all down with a Mnemosyne flourish" (p. 102). This was merely a check on the vitality of his own mental powers, rather than an exercise in emotional memory.

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