The Bellarosa Connection
One of the many ways Alfred Hitchcock improved John Buchan’s novel for his movie The Thirty-Nine Steps was the introduction of “Mr. Memory.” Hitchcock had recalled such a virtuoso of memorization from a vaudeville act, and he turned that performer’s odd skill into a means by which complex defense formulae could be transmitted to England’s enemies. But Mr. Memory’s gift becomes a tragic blessing, like Cassandra’s compulsion to prophesy. Asked to recite the “classified” formulae, even on a vaudeville stage, he must prove his retentiveness. Only a bullet fired by his foreign employer stops him at the movie’s climax. Mr. Memory’s achievement was his undoing because his flow of information was automatic, recallable on cue; rendered up, as it had been committed to his memory, without regard to content. He was as replayable as a machine, and he died by the hypertrophy of one function.
The narrator in Saul Bellow’s new book is an updated Mr. Memory, someone who not only has a knack for memorizing but can teach it to others—especially to “members of the defense establishment” (just to make the debt to Hitchcock clear). This man has founded the Mnemosyne Institute, which apparently does for memorizing what Evelyn Wood claimed to do for reading, with an emphasis on rapidity, retention, and indifference toward the material being processed. The Mnemosyne business has brought its founder millions of dollars and a large empty house in Philadelphia, where he lives alone after his wife’s death and his son’s marriage. He regrets that remembering is a line of work from which he cannot retire. Part of his method has been “to learn to make your mind a blank,” but the mind will not stay blank. The only way to control unsummoned memories is by marshaling again entire chains of deliberate memories, automatically linked to the “themes” that were his mnemonic device for acquiring them in the first place. Thus when he starts one train of recollection, he must run through it by a necessity of his mind—the mind formed by exploiting his initial gift.
The memory chain that begins (and must therefore end) Bellow’s novel deals with his cousin and contemporary named Fonstein. Details about Fonstein have been stored in the birthday-card and Passover-greeting file—things one remembers to remember, even if one does nothing further about them. “But that’s what the Passover phenomenon is now—it never comes to pass.” The narrator had resented Fonstein when they first met. As a pampered American boy, the future Philadelphia millionaire felt guilty when his father brought home a cripple who had escaped from Italy’s Fascists and was already successful in America. “Surviving-Fonstein, with all the furies of Europe at his back, made me look bad.”
Fonstein’s wife, Sorella, was also someone to be avoided. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the persecutions in Europe oppressed the narrator, who did not want to remember so much painful detail (and cannot …