[Seven of the stories are covered here.]
13 March 2009
‘By the St Lawrence’
A memento mori in 10 or 11 pages. An ageing Canadian academic finds himself in the neighbourhood of his birth and goes for a slow-moving stroll. He remembers his family in general and one day in particular, when a cousin left him in the car outside a brothel, then bought him sweets which were, the boy understood, a sort of bribe. On the way home they see the innards of a man killed on the railway track. In the more recent past, the cousin, dying, remembers nothing of the day. The old man wonders why he remembers it so vividly, and imagines his own deformity through polio to be his body’s way of protecting his own vulnerable insides. He knows this is nonsense.
Why Canadian? There are two mentions of Canada’s Britishness: Britannia on a coin and a portrait of Victoria. But nobody in academia particularly knows he’s Canadian – he lives in New York – and he doesn’t even know where his relatives are buried. He’s drawn to the place because… because that’s what old men are drawn to. Nothing much else in his life matters much now anyway: his work on Brecht now bores him, there’s no mention of any wife or children, and he’s ready for death. It feels like a life ebbing away – so why does Bellow choose the surprisingly fast-moving waters of the St Lawrence as the story’s leitmotif? Nothing so crude as the speed of life’s passage, definitely. But, like the two cousins he’s visited in their old age, he’s not what he was. And, at his age, the question arises: was he anything, ever?
Bellow is Canadian. Did I know that? An academic in New York, a novelist in Chicago, and nobody knows they’re not Americans.
‘A Silver Dish’
What is it with middle-aged American (male) writers and their intimations of mortality? A week ago I was reading about the old man whose life is practically over. This week it’s the old man – the main character’s father – wasting away in hospital and trying to pluck out the intravenous drips. We also get the son shovelling earth on to his father’s coffin, just as we did in Roth’s Everyman, that I read a couple of months ago.
Not that I’m complaining. I think Bellow might be turning into my favourite author, and I’ve never read anything by him before. In this story we have the Sunday morning following the funeral used as a framing device for Woody’s memories of his no-good father and his own misery at his death. We get what seems to be a Bellow trademark: half-a-dozen pages somehow offering a fully fleshed-out life, with relatives, rivalries, religious practices – and with the man, now, a product of them all and yet not only that. Then, for ten pages, we get the story of a single incident. (Is this another trademark? We got a less fully evoked glimpse of a long-ago day in ‘By the St Lawrence’.)
The childhood incident of the staged sob-story Woody is forced to participate in, in which we see his father at his worst when he steals the silver dish, isn’t there to explain Woody’s love. It seems to be there to hold up for our examination the sheer unaccountability of it. The boy can see the father for what he is and yet – and this is what’s so clever – finds himself unable to argue against the older man’s in-the-marrow cynicism. He is, in the phrase that I don’t think is ever used in the story, his father’s son, able to have genuine religious feelings at the same time as he is rooted in the apparently streetwise pragmatism of Chicago in the 1930s. He always believes his father, even as he recognises how self-serving he is in everything he says and does. The older man portrays his selfishness as valuable lessons for his son – the son who, in adult life, likes things straight and honest. His father was straight, see? You knew exactly where you were with him. And he misses that.
One last thing: the voice. There’s a narrator, but he uses the sort of language, the no-nonsense, we all know what we’re talking about here, everyday phraseology of the ordinary Chicago Joe that Woody is. So Bellow never really does hold Woody up for examination; he just lets him live through a Sunday morning of wondering and remembering, and not quite being able to work how you end up grieving for a man who never did anything for anybody but himself.
‘The Bellarosa Connection’
Nobody said anything about these being short stories, and this one clocks in at 55 fairly substantial pages. There’s enough going on for a whole novel – sometimes I wonder if Bellow just tries things out and sees how long they take – but, somehow, it feels about right.
This time there isn’t a narrative voice in tune with the main character: Bellow lets Whatsisname speak for himself. He’s retired, he’s beginning to wonder about his life – there’s that theme again – and, we later find out, something has happened to make him think of someone he grew up with but hasn’t spoken to for 30 years. So we get the story of what he knows about Harry Fonstein and his wife Sorella. And, because Bellow likes to keep it physical, we soon know that these two married because nobody else (they supposed) would look at them: he’s got one leg much shorter than the other and she’s mountainously obese. And if the first two stories in the collection were a bit Jewish, this one is practically the Torah.
The narrator is Mr Mnemosyne, who has made his fortune from marketing his own memory, Fonstein is, or was, a refugee from fascist Europe. And ‘Bellarosa’ is Fonstein’s mis-hearing of the name of Billy Rose, the Broadway fixer who saves him and others. In later life the Fonsteins want to thank Billy, but he refuses point-blank. And, I suppose, that could have been the end of the story: Billy the hardboiled friend of criminals couldn’t help doing what was right, but he didn’t want to talk about it. It would work perfectly well as a snapshot of the strangeness of human nature.
But Bellow is a lot more ambitious here. Through a series of chance meetings we get a staged confrontation between Billy Rose and someone who wants to thank him. Fonstein isn’t the mover here – he’s given up trying to meet his rescuer – it’s his wife, who has enough material to blackmail him if she wanted to. Her size and her gender catch Billy Rose off guard – but she doesn’t get what she wants. Instead, the confrontation in the hotel room becomes a story she tells our narrator. He is impressed, and… and what? And he never sees the Fonsteins again, despite meaning to.
He never quite works out why he loses touch with them. In fact, in retirement in the big house he rattles around in, he finds a lot of his certainties unravelling. It’s another of Bellow’s themes: in old age, everything we’ve spent our lives chasing starts to seem a bit pointless. (He even says something to this effect, but more elegantly.)
We only piece together in the last few pages why he is telling us about the Fonsteins and the ‘Bellarosa Connection’. He can’t do anything else with it. A chance phone-call from an unknown rabbi means that he needs to contact the Fonsteins, and eventually he tracks them down. Or he tracks down the house-sitter, with whom he has a long and self-consciously clever conversation. But it’s the house-sitter who’s being clever: he only reveals that the Fonsteins recently died in a car crash when he can do it most effectively. The narrator realises he’s been taken for a ride: he misread the signals in exactly the way he was supposed to, confirming what he’s suspected for some time now: he isn’t as clever as he always thought he was.
So the story we’ve just read is the narrator’s best effort to do what he does best: remember. And analyse: he can even piece together the Fonsteins’ reasons for not getting in touch in the intervening years – because their son, a maths prodigy, has gone to the bad. But he can’t do anything about all the mistakes he’s made – which have left him lonely in his enormous house with nobody to share his story with. You could say it’s a dirty trick by Bellow to have his protagonist make contact with his old friends when it’s just too late. But the point is, surely, it’s always been too late for this man. That’s certainly the way he feels about his own life, anyway – where, as he puts it, he’s no more than the house-sitter in his own house, and his soul is no more than the house-sitter in his body. Whoa.
‘The Old System’
Ten pages into a 26-page story and, guess what: we’re with an old man near the end of the 20th Century remembering how things were done in his Jewish family in the middle years of it. And this one’s got a mountainous woman in it, too, and a dead paterfamilias, and people who choose to speak Yiddish as a kind of cultural marker. I think this is the last one I’ll read for a while.
I’m not quite sure why Bellow has the framing device of the old man remembering his cousins. The story is of Isaac, powerful in his masculine money-making way, and his sister Tina, the mountainous one, powerful in ways only women can be (like the Himalayan Sorella in the previous story), who won’t accept her brother for what he is, pretends he’s a fake and a cheat…. That’s middle-class Eastern Seaboard Jews for you.
Maybe Dr Braun, the old man, is necessary to give the story poignancy. Bellow keeps reminding us that all the characters in the story are dead – it even ends with a deathbed scene – because all these stories are about the effects of death on the living. And, as in all the stories, Bellow doesn’t provide any answers to the great questions, just airs the questions in interesting ways. Dr Braun is, well, left. ‘Why life, why death.’ So ends the penultimate paragraph. And, being a scientist, he tries out the problem in molecular and cosmological terms. No good. No surprise there, then.
One oddity about this story. As a seven-year-old, Braun has the experience of being comforted by the teenage Tina, which involves her presenting him, to seek refuge in Latinisms, with her hirsute genitalia. Later, her brother surveys one of the many women he has sex with, presenting her hairy arse to him. What is this? And has it anything do with the fact that the story was first published in Playboy? No idea – but it’s not a bad moment to comment on the determined maleness of Bellow’s world. There are women in it, sure, but they are an alien species and not to be messed with.
How disappointed am I that the 11th story in the collection, and the fifth one I’m reading, is structured in exactly the same way as all the others, even if some of the elements are new? An old man is somewhere, remembering his life. He pulls out one particular thread and we find out as much about another person as we do about the main character.
This time, as in (or not quite as in) ‘The Bellarosa Connection’, the narrator is writing. Again he’s doing it for a particular reason and he wants to get it right. But Mosby’s motive is all about style: the story he tells is designed as comic relief in what he considers a too-serious memoir. Inevitably, Bellow has us realise something about Mosby that he doesn’t realise himself: the comic relief is a much more sympathetic character than Mosby.
As in all the stories (all?) there are at least two time-lines: the short-term here-and-now, which takes as long as remembering takes; and the years of a remembered life – focusing particularly on a specific period or event. The now in this story is a Mexican morning, with a planned tourist visit at the end. (I’ll come back to that.) The life is the life of the self-satisfied Mosby, intimate of leaders and philosophers and dismissive of all of them. The comic story focuses on the hapless Lustgarten, victim of his own serial business failures in post-war Europe and always getting into scrapes. Mosby, with his WASP surname, takes the piss out of the Jew who’s just trying to make a living.
Mosby’s is another of Bellow’s empty lives. What’s the use of his memoirs? Even he can see they’re too unremittingly solemn – which is why he goes for the unfunny comedy of the Lustgarten story. What’s an author to do with somebody like this? Well, Mosby is in Mexico, and all Bellow has to do is get the tour guide to take him to visit some tombs. Mosby lapses into his regular fantasy: he’s been dead for years, having died in the road accident he thought he’d survived. He nearly suffocates in the tomb… but doesn’t, not quite. I get the feeling – and surely Bellow wants me to – that he might as well have died there. Or in the car-crash years ago. It’s the same old message: once you’re old and looking back, you realise it’s all crap.
One style note. The line between Bellow’s narrative voice and Mosby’s own is so thin it often disappears. In Mexico, usually, we get a third person narrative. But not always: we’re just as likely to be inside Mosby’s head as we see the view or anticipate the trip to come. And almost all the memoir is Mosby’s, presented verbatim. Or we get Mosby’s self-conscious critique of his own efforts as he writes. Or both at the same time. But it’s never confusing, and Bellow makes it seem effortless.
‘Him with His Foot in His Mouth’
First person. In Canada, in self-imposed exile to escape creditors, writing to a woman he casually insulted 35 years before. And it’s the most vertiginous narrative yet. Sure, the narrator writes with Bellow’s usual confident urbanity – but all the certainties he describes shear away from him until, only half-joking, he suggests he should move his bed in next to that of his dementia-ravaged mother.
How many threads are there in this story? He’s an academic, comfortable in the worlds of music history and all the arts. (Like Mosby, he’s happy to name-drop or refer casually to any aspect of high culture.) An old friend has written to remind him of how he gratuitously insulted a librarian 35 years previously – and that it was wicked and unjustifiable. Soon Bellow is taking us back across the decades in that way he has. We get a long description of the friend and the milieu they both lived in, the narrator’s later success as a populariser of serious music (Bellow’s characters are nearly always successful), his loving marriage and subsequent unhappy loss of his wife. Then the story changes direction, and we get the loss of his fortune to his conman brother and pit-bull sister-in-law.
And all the way through there’s the real subject of the story, the narrator’s – what? – tendency, urge, an almost clinical condition that makes him say terrible things to people almost (but not quite) at random. At one level, all 40-odd pages are a self-justification, and a self-abasement at the same time. At another level they make up another of Bellow’s retrospective contemplations of the meaning – or otherwise – of a life. This high-achieving Jewish boy from the means streets of Chicago is unsure of anything by the end. He’s completely alone, having alienated everybody in his new home as thoroughly as everybody else he’s ever met.
I like the vortex he describes, the sense of total disorientation he feels at the way the world has taken away the comforts it so arbitrarily conferred on him. And I like the way that this unworldly, unlikeable man is so good at describing the terror he feels as nothing he ever believed in – culture, law, family ties, shared memories – can do anything for him now. He’s lost.
‘Him With His Foot in His Mouth’ [Hang on, that can’t be right….]
Same formula, this time with a grandfather writing to his granddaughter about something that happened to him decades ago. In one respect it’s like ‘The Silver Dish’: he’s an adolescent in Chicago and most of the story focuses on a single incident. Along the way, obviously, we get to know about his Jewish family, particularly his father, and about somebody’s slow death. This time it’s the boy’s mother, and… and it’s horrible. Breast cancer, as well as eventually killing you, leaves you with ugly scar tissue on the way. And there’s physicality of other sorts: the look of a girl‘s corpse (his evening job is delivering wreaths), the boy’s brother-in-law’s untidy bigness and – this being a story first written for Esquire – the look (sensitive readers look away now) and smell of a woman’s vulva as she lies naked on a couch with her legs apart. Bellow’s is a man’s world, no question.
Where does this story take us? We think it’s going to be about sexual initiation – but it’s darker than that. We get inside a 17-year-old’s libidinous urges – not a good place to be – and inside the guilt he feels for having them. And inside the world of human traffic (of several sorts) in Depression-era Chicago. The last of these is what gives the story its kick: the woman tricks the boy into getting undressed, then throws his clothes out of the window for her accomplice to run off with. It could be funny, but it’s mortifying for the bookish kid whose mother is dying on the other side of the city. When he eventually gets home for his father to hand out the usual serving of physical punishment for being late, he’s grateful for God’s sake. Or for his mother’s sake: his father would have spared him if she’d died during the day.
And all the time we’re wondering what the hell he’s doing telling his granddaughter this stuff. This is me, and I’m not the lovely person you think I am. He uses almost these very words, but doesn’t say why. We know he’s morally confused – he spends frantic minutes in the freezing cold searching for pages from a torn-out section of a book he’s been finding helpful – and by the end we don’t really know what makes him tick. He’s had a view of the seamy side of the city, and – what? – it’s taught him something or other. And any girl reading it would be disgusted.
But, shit, it’s good on the realities of Chicago during a freezing winter in the 30s – just as Bellow is always good about the physical presence of the characters he sets out for our inspection (that’s how it feels, anyway) or the little motif that sums a place up. He takes us to a world that seems real, and I suppose this is one of the reasons why he’s such a highly respected author.
Looking back at the stories
But but but. Why does he keep showing us all these other characters in such detail? The stories are full of a particularly worldly vision of human commerce – even relationships are based on some kind of emotional transaction rather than on sissy stuff like love and affection – and it only ever takes you so far. Everybody else is other, a closed book, unknowable…. So Bellow’s men do their best with what they can grasp: people’s corporeal presence and how high they are in the particular pecking order that seems important at the time. It’s reality, powerfully described, but it’s bleak, and although we occasionally get psychological insights so powerful they can knock you down, sometimes the psychology just isn’t there. The father-son relationship in ’A Silver Dish’ is one of the powerful ones. But, for instance, the motivation of any of the female characters in the seven stories I’ve read is at best perfunctory, like the fat woman in ‘The Bellarosa Connection’, and at worst cartoonish like Mrs Pit-bull.
And what about structure? Why do so many of the stories have abrupt and arbitrary-seeming changes of gear – so that, for instance, a perfectly adequate story about a man who can’t keep his mouth shut balloons out like the Elephant Man’s head as Bellow charges off in the direction of the fraud perpetrated on him by a member of his own family? Most of these stories-within-stories would work well on their own… but Bellow has to have the framing device of the old man remembering. I don’t know why – unless, somehow, he’s turning into fiction the thing that seems most important to him in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Most of the main characters are older than Bellow as he writes, but not all (like the man in ‘the Silver Dish’, one of the stories I like unreservedly). And we all know how, once middle-aged people lose the buffer of the older generation… they start to think about the death-tinged stuff in these stories. Gulp.