Trachtenberg the Brain King

More Die Of Heartbreak

by Saul Bellow
William Morrow, 335 pp., $17.95

Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow; drawing by David Levine

The city in Saul Bellow’s new novel is a Midwest power center that is clearly Chicago but not named. Benn Crader, a peaceful, contemplative, eminent botanist, something of a “plant mystic,” unaccountably finds himself married to the overpoweringly handsome, rich, socially ambitious Matilda Layamon. She is at least twenty years his junior and a most unsuitable wife for a solitary scientist with a special interest in Arctic lichens. Although Benn admires her good looks in an obligatory way, lust for her is hardly the top thing on his mind. And oddly enough her massively wide shoulders and her breasts too widely separated stir up so much repugnance in this studious fellow that he is afraid of attacking her in his sleep.

Why did he marry her? It seems that his very innocence sort of pushed him into it. Matilda has an equally greedy but even more despotic father. He is a surgeon with powerful connections throughout the city, a hand in every pie, an overbearing manner, and a sadistic heart. Poor Benn and his late mother had been cheated of the full value of the land on which the house they lived in stood. Cheated by the mother’s brother, Harold Vilitzer, a Jewish mafioso who at eighty, with a pacemaker under his shirt, still terrifies everyone in the family, especially his son Fishl. Vilitzer made unguessable millions out of the Benn family land, which is now the site of the Electronic Tower skyscraper. This “stolen” property dominates the city, is always in view, cold yet somehow featureless. Matilda and her father have lured Benn into marriage so that he will share with them some of the millions they are pressing him to reclaim from Vilitzer. And yes, Benn’s fame as a botanist will get the right people to enter Matilda’s vast drawing room.

The plot is comically melodramatic, but it has a literary antecedent—Balzac’s favorite tale of frightful conspiracies within the family. Like the other master thinkers ritually named throughout the book—William Blake, Hamlet, Prospero, the exiled Russian religious thinkers Soloviev, Rozanov, Fyodorov, Ivanov—Balzac is a “guidance system.” He is not merely an influence on the book, he is a symbol of the kind of mind that works with heroic desperation against the corruption and iniquity of the modern world. Evil is represented by the Layamons, Vilitzer, the corrupt judge Amador Chetnik, who did Vilitzer’s legal dirty work in robbing Benn and his mother. All these people are summed up instantly by their looks:

Deeply tanned, [Vilitzer] had clever lumps in his face and his white hair was combed straight forward to the edge of the forehead, where it was curled under in the style of imperial Rome. Built like a coal-heaver in his youth, he remained chunky. What he lost in height went into his spread, and although he was said to be weakened by heart trouble, his blue…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.