Sunday, January 1, 2012

Him With His Foot in His Mouth by Saul Bellow

Large sprawling novels are better suited to revealing the masterly writing of Saul Bellow than short stories. That being said, this collection that spans a decade before publication (1984) is well worth reading. There are many little gems to be found.

Him With His Foot in His Mouth (1982). This story is a draft letter (p. 4) of apology to a Miss Rose, a librarian at a New England college, for an unwarranted rude remark made to her many years ago by one Herschel Shawmut (p. 31), narrator. Miss Rose said that he looked like an archaeologist in his cap, and he replied that she looked "like something I just dug up" (p. 8). The letter introduces subjects far beyond the scope of the apology. He is living in British Columbia to avoid being sued for a financial swindle perpetrated by his brother Philip. An italicized "Personal Note" infers that this draft letter is more of an apologia to unnamed readers rather than an apology to Miss Rose. The blurred and rambling letter implies that the narrator merely wants to listen to himself: "The writing of this letter has been the occasion of important discoveries about myself" (p. 57).

What Kind of Day Did You Have (1984) is the story of Katrina Goliger, divorced, who is summoned to Buffalo from Evanston (Illinois) by her septuagenarian lover, Victor Wulpy, to share a plane ride back to Chicago. She sets aside her "self-respect" (p. 64) and drops all to make the trip. Victor is a "world-class intellectual" (p. 63) and expert in art, modelled after Bellow's friend Harold Rosenberg. Victor is still a sexual player and has "a silken scrotum that he might now and touching, leading out the longest hairs" (p. 73). Such a Bellow-ism !And more, Victor called her hands "her touch-cock fingers" (p. 104). Victor senses a Baudelairean phase of their relationship and quotes the Chanson d'Apres-midi from Fleurs du mal: "....tu connais la caresse Qui fait revivre les morts..."

Much of the story is tied up with a chance meeting with Larry Wrangel in Buffalo (then again in Detroit when snow forces an unscheduled landing), who challenges Victor (p. 115) on his dealings 30 years earlier with Pavel Tchelitchew, a neo-Romanticist painter (his famous "Hide and Seek" painting in photo). Katrina is "daunted" by Victor's "intellect, she casts herself in the role of his pupil, paying erotic tuition happily for the privilege of sharing his conversation" (p. 197). She wears ostrich-skin boots (p.88), a metaphor for her retreat from conventional life. She has "been trying to write a children's story about an elephant" (p. 86), that takes the elevator to the top floor of a department store, where toys are sold, but refuses to get back on to leave (p. 91), symbolic of her own "elevated" position with no egress. Upon returning home she exclaims to her daughters Soolie and Pearl "What kind of day did you have ?" (p. 161) a question that would be unanswerable were it addressed to her.

Best lines - "'He runs a Procrustean flophouse for bum ideas'" (p. 77) [Procrustes amputated limbs of travelers to conform to the length of bed in his inn]. "To read Beidell's mind you'd need a proctoscope" (p. 99). "Even Vespasian when he collected his toilet tax had to justify himself: Pecunia non olet. But we've come to a point where it's only money that doesn't stink" (p. 109.

Zetland: By a Character Witness (1974) is really about Bellow's childhood friend Isaac Rosenfeld, who died at age 38, which explains a rather abrupt ending. It is a story about how father (Max) and son (Zet) do not see eye to eye about what defines a successful career and how greener pastures do not always lie ahead. Best word - Schwärmerei, meaning excessive sentimentality.

A Silver Dish (1978) is the best short story in the book, based on the subtle games Bellow plays with the narration as well as the symbolism. It is about a 60 yr old (pp. 191, 203) son Woody Selbst and his octogenarian (p. 191) father Morris and the son's reluctant realization of how different they view the world. In the end he attends his father's funeral at age 83 (p. 221). Throughout the story, the narrator attempts to maintain a specious anonymity, but in his enthusiasm reveals that he is indeed Woody (the word "selbst" is self in German). The book opens with narration that betrays emotional involvement and then disjointedly becomes more distant ("Morris, his old man")(p. 192). At one point, the narrator jumps in and speaks in his own voice ("But Pop!")(p. 201). His omniscience becomes a charade.

The story subtly and suddenly recounts a story (p. 201) that took place 40 (pp. 193, 216) years ago. Woody consents to let his father ask Mrs. Skoglund for money (p. 202), she had been paying for his seminary education. To Woody, "Pop was elemental", He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it" (p. 206). "In regard to Pop, you thought of neither sincerity nor insincerity" (p. 206). Woody is the typical Bellovian protagonist who suffers internal dividedness. The story reaches its crescendo when Pop steals a silver dish from Skoglund. He stuffs it in his pants, inside his underpants. For Woody, "it was impossible to thrust his hand under Pop's belt to recover the dish" (213). Woody, at 2o, fails the Oedipal coming-of-age test, contemplating his father's paternal genitalia buried within the vaginal dish. Nevertheless, Woody tussles him to the ground, afraid "the old man was about to bite him" (p. 213), triggering the narrator's memory of a crocodile in the Nile eating a buffalo calf (p. 192) near the Murchison Falls in Uganda. Ultimately, Ms. Skoglund discovers missing heirloom and Woody is suspended from divinity school (p. 216). In effect "Pop had carried him back to his side of the line" (p. 217) forcing the dismissal.

Woody spent a lifetime emulating his father's bad ways, as Kiernan (Saul Bellow) observes: Pop was abandoned by his parents at age 12, Woody bankrolled his own desertion by 14. Pop cheated and stole as a young man, Woody stole bacon. Pop showed the moral indifference of a Mongolian bandit (p. 213), Woody treasures memory of smuggling hashish, pimping for prostitutes. Pop abandoned his wife and children for another man's wife, Woody keeps 3 residences for himself, wife, and mistress. But fundamentally, they were different. The last sentence betrays Woody's feelings towards his father "That was how he was" (p. 222), not the way Woody was.

Cousins (1984) is a short story that draws in the Bellovian themes of dividedness and alienation in a big way. It is very challenging, hard to imagine a full comprehension on a single reading, the reread is filled with epiphanies. One needs to understand the basis of Hegel's Lectures at Jena (1806) and drill down a bit on the Jesup Exploration of the Siberian Eskimos. Ijah Brodsky, the narrator, explains that "I don't practice law, don't play the piano. don't do any of the things I was famous for (with intramural fame)" (p. 265), although he emceed the famous-trials TV show (p. 227) for many years. He has two passions: He keeps "track of all the cousins" (p. 233) and reading the "reports of the Jesup Expedition" (p. 258).

There are a lot of moving parts in this story, but the pending incarceration of his crooked cousin Raphael (Tanky) Metzger is played off against the imminent death of his intellectual cousin Scholem Stavis. Tanky (he was built like a tank on his high school football team (p. 238). Ijah's parents' generation includes his mother Shana, father Red, Shana's brothers Mordechai (Motty) and Shimon. Tanky's sister Eunice contacts Ijah to help bail him out of a harsh prison sentence by writing the Judge.

Bellow lifts famous lines from Hegel's final lecture in Jena. He states that the "whole mass of ideas that have been current until now 'the very bonds of the world,' are dissolving and collapsing like a vision in a dream. A new emergence of Spirit is - or had better be - at hand" (p. 246). And where, with regard to the cousins, does that leave us?...I can't sail forth; I can't even extricate myself from the ties of Jewish cousinhood. It may be that the dissolution of the bonds of the world affects Jews in different ways" (p. 246). Ijah sees himself as an anachronism.

Keeping in mind that Bellow was an anthropology student at Northwestern, Ijad is obsessed with reading Boas' monographs on the 1906 Jesup Expedition to study the Koryak and Chukchee tribes in Siberia, as described by Waldemar Jochelson and Waldemar Bogoras. The narrator mentions these Russian Jews were political radicals (p. 252) that were exiled to Siberia in the 1890s (p. 253). Franz Boas (p. 255) at the American Museum of Natural History requested Moscow to set them free. This grant of freedom is in direct contrast to Tanky's request for release, and conjures images of human brotherhood. The studies revealed that the Chukchees buy protection from demons like mobsters pay tribute to the Mob (p. 253). Shamans (p. 253) offer the protection. Ijah sees himself as seerlike (p. 254), predicting "the revolution of the mullahs" in Iran.

Hegel gets mixed in to the discussion: "And whether we are preparing a new birth of spirit or the agonies of final dissolution...depends on what you think, feel, and will about such manifestations or apparitions, on the kabbalistic skill you develop in te interpretation of these contemporary formations. My intuition is that the Koryak and the Chukchee lead me in the right direction" (pp. 253-254). Ijah doubts that this world is on the brink of rebirth of spirit. Ijah now introduces his cousin Ezekiel (Seckel) who lectured in primitive languages at the state university. He learned dying languages of the Mohicans in Michigan. "He described himself as a Diffusionist. All culture was invented once, and spread from a single source" (p.256). His belief precludes optimism about the future, Seckel identifies with obsolescence. Ijah sees a universalism among peoples, as the Siberian tribes behaved in ways that defied their harsh environment rather than adapting to it. These trends apply to his Jewish cousinhood as well, as he is informed by anthropology as well as metaphysics.

In a beautiful passage, he reflects as a boy "how geography had been taught in the Chicago schools when I was a kid. We were issued a series of booklets: 'Our Little Japanese Cousins, 'Little Moroccan Cousins,' 'Our Little Russian Cousins,' 'Our Little Spanish Cousins.' I read all these gentle descriptions about little Ivan and tiny Conchita, and my eager heart opened to them. Why, we were close, we were one under it all....we were not guineas, dagos, krauts; we were cousins" (p. 292). Despite confrontation with horrifying chaos, the narrator emerges with profound insight on the universal nature of human beings.

The book closes with the pending death of Scholem Stavis, who is a brilliant philosopher, forced to drive a taxi. Ijah meets him at a taxi convention in Paris, and makes arrangements to honor his request to be buried in East Germany. He receives a letter from Eunice (p. 291) regarding Tanky's additional wishes, he tears the letter up and makes a moral choice to ignore this request and focus on Scholem. Ijah's final thoughts - "I had remembered, observed, studied the cousins, and these studies seemed to fix my own essence and to keep me as I had been. I had failed to include myself among them, and suddenly I was billed for this oversight" (p. 294). His studies have been a means of retaining his division and separateness.

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