Reading: Bellow's Book of the Dead | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Bellow's Book of the Dead 

Since 1975 Saul Bellow has steadily lowered and darkened his tone, book by book, story by story. This new novel is his darkest, grimmest work of the decade.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

The first impression of a reader making his way through Saul Bellow's just-published novel, More Die of Heartbreak, is the kinship it bears, in style and tone, to the short story "Cousins" from 1984, Bellow's last published piece of fiction. The use of the simplest words, the tone of dead neutrality, indeed the conscious evocation of the oppressively banal, are extended here to novel length, and for a faithful Bellovian, accustomed to the buoyant expression of feeling, to experience this for over 300 pages is singularly disagreeable. It is obviously part of Bellow's strategy, however, a conscious choice, and the reasons are not hard to find. Since Humboldt's Gift in 1975, Bellow has steadily lowered and darkened his tone, book by book, story by story, and this newest production is his harshest, grimmest work of the decade. Bellow has sought to mitigate the experience with innumerable and often quite brilliant jokes; but the final experience is really quite rough.

As in most of his recent fiction, Bellow takes us to the American midwest in the sack of winter, with freezing winds, short hours of sunlight, and jagged, chilly relations among his characters. The scene is a midwestern metropolis, and though it is a carbon of Chicago, the novelist has chosen to universalize it by leaving the city unnamed. The lack of any clear identification adds to the obscurity and remoteness cultivated throughout.

The story will not be evident until you have advanced some 100 pages, since Bellow conveys as much by random facts and shades and tones as by telling a story. But the axis of the book is the relationship between Benn Crader, a university botanist of international reputation--a "plant clairvoyant"--and his nephew, Kenneth Trachtenberg, the first-person narrator who maintains a critical distance from the other characters. Employed by the same university as his uncle, Kenneth, 35, is an instructor in Russian literature with a particular interest in "St. Petersburg, 1913." Raised in Paris by a philandering father, Kenneth returned to the midwest to be with his Uncle Benn, whom he cherishes, and to be in the United States, the source of "the main action."

His uncle has just contracted a marriage with a completely unsuitable woman, Matilda Layamon, and without asking his nephew's opinion (or even informing him), although generally they have concealed little from each other. Beautiful, in her mid-30s, Matilda is a student of advanced French literature, but her culture is paper-thin; her academic studies are just another project she takes up and later abandons. The only child of Dr. and Mrs. Layamon, she is the morally corrupt child of a morally corrupt family and, as Bellow writes, "the fatal emblem of something."

The unwritten subtitle of the book might be The Miscarriage of the American Hope, or The Aborted Promise of Equality and Freedom. A recurring phrase throughout the novel is "post-historical man," by which Bellow means modern men and women who have been emancipated from killing toil in factories and fields, 14 hours a day, and left free to pursue whatever projects they can devise under these terms of leisure and prosperity. Hegel, the 19th-century student of new things laboring amidst the French Revolution, the end of feudalism, and the rise of democracy, is one of Bellow's authorities here.

Hegel is not a new subject for the author. In The Dean's December, Hegel is invoked to explain why we all belong to the prevailing historical current, with no exemptions permitted from any of the rampant rottenness and degradation. "The spirit of the times is in us by nature," one character observes in that novel, and his interlocutor adds that "this world as you experience it is your direct personal fate." For contemporary Americans the viral infection is money and sex.

I don't believe that the connection with Hegel ends with The Dean's December. In "Cousins," the question raised is whether the deterioration at hand is the prelude to a new human emancipation, freed from the burden of history, or will instead usher in the inferno of anarchy. "I absolutely agree with Hegel," comments Ijah Brodsky in that story, "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."

In this new novel Bellow cites with seeming approval Alexandre Kojeve, the great Hegel scholar with whom Kenneth shared dinners during his youth in Paris. "I was allowed to sit in for dessert," the young scholar says, "and listen to Kojeve talk about the end of history and how Man was released now to be happy--maybe. He could play around, if he liked, with Art and Love. He didn't have to negate the Given anymore." The "Given" is a life of physical labor, extracting food and shelter from the punitive, unyielding earth. We experience rather the conquest of nature, prosperity, and the emancipation of mankind for other things; but what other things? "The Americans are members of a virtually classless society," according to Kojeve, "appropriating whatever attracts them without overworking themselves. Money, goods, sports, toys and sexual candy are the forms of the payoff."

This is one of Bellow's central concerns--the progressive disappearance from life of everything that made it worth living, worth having. People play with deeply serious matters, like art, love, sex, unaware that unless taken with the utmost seriousness we risk destroying these things. In his quintessential description of Post-historical life, "What Kind of Day Did You Have?," a riveting novella from 1984, Bellow defines "proletarianization" as "people deprived of everything that formerly defined humanity to itself as human." No art, culture, religion, or philosophy; and in their place the ceaseless multiplication of technological toys and gimmicks, the veneration of science, the advance of abstraction, and "money, goods, sports, toys and sexual candy."

Matilda and her family effectively illustrate the post-historical condition. The family is wealthy, socially prominent, and utterly degraded. Dr. Layamon has acquired a fortune through his practice and investments, and money occupies far more of his time than medicine. Bellow is not, however, simply drawing the standard indictment of a materialist society; he has in mind rather the general human vacancy of the moment, the hard-edged practice of getting money, and then the dreamlike spectacle of spending it. Money should yield the freedom and leisure to pursue higher things, but in the Layamon household it leads to "schlock paintings" on the walls, vacuous public TV purporting to offer serious art and opinion, and inevitably, an unappeasable appetite for video movies, that rising Mount Everest of trash and tedium. The physician's wealth is completely severed from any semblance of cultural distinction. It would never occur to this family that the two might be connected, and so false kinds of art stand in for the authentic. In his pitiless description of this coarse physician, Bellow ridicules the hysteria surrounding high good health, strong fibers, and the rest of that rubbish.

So why does the eminent Professor Crader, with three decades of important scientific research and personal cultivation behind him, agree to enter the family, and they to accept him? Well, Uncle Benn, seeking a refuge from the ugliness of the current sexual scene, is naturally drawn to Matilda's beauty. "As in a stifling sexual Sicilian summer," Bellow writes, "you hurry into the cool church of marriage." Uncle Benn has "longings," and one of them is "to be bound to a woman in love and kindness."

But for Bellow love has always been an extremely perilous game, He refers twice in the novel to what Rousseau in the 18th century identified as le petit system a part. Once lovers anticipate "from afar their separation . . . they are already strangers," Rousseau writes. "Each sets up his own little separate system; and both, engrossed by the time when they will no longer be together, stay only reluctantly." For decades Bellow has dissected the calculations infecting romantic relations, as partners professing boundless love eye other possible mates, wondering continually if someone better, more suitable, more desirable might be found. Uncle Benn and Matilda get married "against a background of second thoughts."

So the professor enters this family, which repels him utterly, and by the end he finds even the lovely Matilda sexually repugnant. (The relationship resembles the perverse marriage of Swann and Odette in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, the masterpiece of that foremost student of the little private system from whom Bellow has learned so much.)

And what does the family see in the famous botanist? This might be called Part II of the narration. Years before, Harold Vilitzer--the name suggests vileness, villainy--Uncle Benn's own uncle and a retired politician now in his eighties, swindled the botanist and his sister in the settlement of a family estate. Family property had turned out to be the location for a gigantic skyscraper, Electronic Tower, and Harold, relying on clout, had pocketed tens of millions while the others got a few hundred thousand. A suit against the old man was lost because the presiding judge, Amador Chetnik, owed his job to Vilitzer.

But things have changed. The Justice Department is cleaning out the old thieves and allowing a new collection to move in, bringing indictments and throwing politicians in jail by the dozen. If Judge Chetnik agrees to testify against Vilitzer, a decade will be knocked off his jail term. The Layamons discover this piece of family history and believe they can turn it to their advantage, enriching their daughter without themselves losing a dime. They seek to persuade the dignified botanist to blackmail his uncle, who could then pay off the judge and Uncle Benn several millions.

Matilda in her turn hopes to superintend a prestigious salon, attracting eminent names to her home on the strength of her husband's scientific celebrity. Her own career interests have veered from academia to a brokerage house. Not the content of scholarship and art but rather their prestige is the draw for this young woman.

Talk about the little private system!

By the conclusion of the novel all of these aspirations have miscarried, utterly. Along the way Bellow explores how his richly gifted uncle, under the intoxication of love, mismanages his romantic life. Landing himself among the Layamons seems to be the culmination of several years of botched affairs, failures in romance, improper selections. "The garbage of personal life" is how Bellow describes the sexual peregrinations and failures of his characters.

The uncle is by no means alone. Most of the characters can claim professional success, but their private lives hardly bear retelling or observing. Kenneth himself has been abandoned, by a woman with whom he lived and loved, by whom he even had a daughter, who is now living in Seattle. Near the end of the book the two have a harsh confrontation involving property damage in the woman's apartment. Kenneth's parents no longer live together, the Layamon marriage is vacant, and Kenneth's one pale romantic attachment is to a young woman who tries to cure the pallor of her complexion by visiting a cut-rate dermatologist (who nearly wrecks her face). Hardly a character has managed his private life adequately. No one is dependable; each has his or her allotment of instability.

Questions about the erotic are always near the center of Bellow's mature fiction, and here they assume a grotesquely distorted form. In the last 20 years Bellow has traveled every which way on the sexual map, sounding the notes of stern disapproval in Mr. Sammler's Planet, exuberance in Humboldt's Gift, distinct queasiness in The Dean's December. For Victor Wulpy in "What Kind of Day," intercourse is a source of energy preserving him on this side of mortality. Here, sex is largely an object of obsessive, quaking interest often merging with the pornographic. There is a remarkable description of a sex show in Japan, with women baring their privates, the display causes a "static insanity" to descend on the house. Dr. Layamon betrays an abiding interest in the sex life of his daughter and Uncle Benn (Matilda in turn covertly tracks her father's money). Kenneth's father in Paris philanders hopelessly, and at the end of the novel "Governor Stewart" presides at a revolting parole board hearing that is almost a duplicate of the Cathy Webb-Gary Dotson affair. On the high altars of politics and PR and the public's thirst for sex entertainment, "Crime, Punishment, Justice, Authority, were satirized." Bellow identifies this as "the disintegration of human functions"; indeed, the breakdown of law and orderly government is a persistent theme.

"Your soul has its work cut out for you in this extraordinary country," muses Kenneth near the end. "You got spiritual headaches. You took sexual Tylenols for them. It wasn't an across-the-counter transaction. The price was infinitely greater than the easy suppositions of the open society led you to expect." But what is that price?

Bellow never explicitly says, but there are clues scattered about. The mother of Kenneth's former lover--and therefore the grandmother of his child--proposes marriage to the young man, commenting that after innumerable affairs human beings become synonymous, interchangeable--distinctions among them disappear. That's the Tolstoyan view; the Nietzschean is more complex. In what the Nietzscheans call the sexual economy, the moral and sexual impulses derive from the same root. Energy spent in pursuing erotic affairs deprives men and women of the identical quantum that might be devoted to the moral or spiritual; and after the debits and credits are entered there is no allowance for running a deficit.

A third possibility is that sexual desire has weakened strong individual forms. Characteristic of modern societies is a desire to fit in, to be part of a group and surrender individual life, and the readiness to engage others sexually appears to accelerate that dangerous process. One need only consider in this connection the sex-advice business and the public's willingness to exhibit and observe, with a deep avidity, the most intimate details of individual life. At any rate, the Tolstoyan would find nothing surprising in the progressive attenuation of all human bonds in America, nor the Nietzschean in our moral decline.

I haven't yet spoken of the consciously neutral, and even banal, tone that Bellow adopts. The characters experience life strongly but intermittently, and the tone of the book is consistently flat. Kenneth says he treasures relations with Uncle Benn, but nowhere will you find expressiveness, warmth, or affection between the two. (Compare the tone of their friendship with the initial warm, affectionate relations between the poet and Charlie Citrine in Humboldt's Gift.) Uncle Benn, seeking privacy for a phone call to his nephew, retreats to a laundry room in the Layamon high rise and recites the digits of the number to allow a return call: "Nine six two eight four oh five." Uncle Benn takes notes from Kenneth on the back of an envelope from the gas company. At a breakfast together, the two sit "at a typical restaurant table with inferior coffee and not quite enough space for four elbows, not to mention two cups, an ashtray, a ketchup bottle, a plastic container of sugar packets and pink nonfattening sweeteners." Occasional obscenities keep the reader at a distance, add a chill. Bellow's style for over 30 years has combined expressive slang with the language and thought of a disciplined intellectual, but here the slang is coarse and dull, flattening the narrative tone even more.

It is simply a dead world; dead, or dying. Human passions have all been sucked into money, sex, banking, engineering, electronics, science, and commerce. Dr. Layamon is said to be "two dimensional," and in the new Bellovian scene even people are removed to the object world. In The Dean's December, Albert Corde muses that we have become shadows to one another, and shadows within shadows; people view one another purely as instruments to advance their own goals, whether professional, financial, or erotic. How many take a genuine interest in others, allowing their purely human qualities to act as a sufficient reward for engagement? Professor Crader studies antarctic lichens, and Kenneth informs a friend, "Those Arctic lichens are frozen through and through. Ninety-five percent of their existence is solid ice. But at the slightest warming they revive and even grow a bit."

Soloviev, one of the Russian philosophers Bellow cites, says that human beings too live in a frozen world and should labor to thaw out their hearts. Is it any wonder that deadness and boredom, depression and dullness should emerge as the critical problems of a society that has progressively stripped human life of all its enchantments, its members removed to the object world, and replaced human intuition with the social sciences? Bellow is making an indirect plea here for sympathetic penetration and fullness of observation; those seeking examples would do well to consider Bellow's 40 years of composition. But the author knows perfectly well that his plea is helpless against the prevailing conviction that a man most effectively proves he is savvy and with-it by inspecting the conduct of others with the harshest, toughest, and least benevolent standards possible. Dr. Layamon seeks to destroy for Uncle Benn the "illusion" of love by showing the botanist elderly women, sick and decayed, lying in hospital beds. Celine would have warmly approved this nihilistic exhibition, and a point of view once belonging to the resolute debunkers of the avant-garde is eagerly taken up by the mass.

Bellow also pursues his grim, determined war with popular culture, which began with "Him With His Foot in His Mouth" in 1982 and shows no sign of abating. Contaminating movies, including Hitchcock's, are the object most of the time, since it's been decided that after Plato, Dante, and Shakespeare, we've been blessed with Woody Allen and Kurosawa. In "What Kind of Day," Bellow quotes with approval Wyndham Lewis's dictum that "the valuing of our arts is bound up with the valuing of our life, and vice versa." That argument is extended here, as Uncle Benn, forced by his new wife to watch Psycho, is told by his nephew, "Naturally you're aware that bad art can cripple a man." Significantly, the Layamon household devotes its leisure time to video movies like Godfather II.

This artificiality and human bankruptcy on the one hand; and on the other, the Jewish botanist's references to "the Children of Israel," the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, the truth of striving and the truth of receptivity. Swedenborg is invoked to encourage a redemption from "mere nature." A reporter quizzes Uncle Benn about plant exposure to contamination after Chernobyl, and the scientist answers that more have died of heartbreak than exposure to radiation. Material troubles divert us from the larger, immaterial afflictions worsening year by year. At the end of the novel, Kenneth suggests not thoughts but prayers. Prayers. Because the current moment is close to "St. Petersburg, 1913," when Stalinism loomed before Russia, bearing with it "satanic darkness, the abyss of the Antichrist, the horrible islands of gloom, granite and ice, the approaching Terrible judgment."

This novel is harsh, gritty, painful. Bellow has entered as deeply as he can into the crisis, sparing no one, least of all himself. Who speaks for the truth today? A disinterested, human truth, emancipated from the rubbish of politics and the press, the deadening social sciences, the crapsters everywhere? Now as before, a reader finishes a Bellow novel sensing that the author--rather old, now, but refusing to give in--has borne it all on his shoulders, painfully sifting questions with the utmost thought and care, directly facing the huge and the terrible. The novel before us is the work of a very great man, and a courageous one.

More Die of Heartbreak by Saul Bellow, William Morrow & Company, $17.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
August 26
Galleries & Museums
September 24

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories