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 eyes still had force enough to fix you with menace.
The goings-on in the book are quite improbable, but the reader is not left in peace to question them. What drives the book—and I mean drives—is not the machinations of the plot but the exultantly sour views of modernity, sexuality, women, the local and international scene, by the smartly omnipresent narrator, Kenneth Trachtenberg. Kenneth is an American born in Paris, deeply resentful and jealous of his joyfully promiscuous father. He is an assistant professor of Russian literature, a specialist in émigré religious writers. His only true family is Uncle Benn, whom he cherishes, constantly advises, and occasionally pities as the last of the just.
Despite the difference in their ages, Benn is a sort of saintly Alyosha Karamazov, and Kenneth his terribly wise, undeceivable brother Ivan. Benn-Alyosha proposes and Kenneth-Ivan disposes. Kenneth is an unstoppable know-it-all who pronounces on everything and anything that has gone wrong with modernity. He knows all that was dark and regressive in the Russian Revolution; he sees all that is wrong and getting worse in the “dynamics” of current America. Although he has no luck with women—Treckie, the mother of his little girl, prefers more aggressive types and refuses to marry him—Kenneth is sure that he knows what has gone wrong in our time between men and women:
The greater your achievements, the less satisfactory your personal and domestic life will be. The wives, children, brothers and other kin and assistants of our very Presidents are drunks, druggies, inverts, liars and psychopaths. I say little about secret relationships that sometimes come tragically to light and about what happens in the weeds behind the bill-boards…senators and other high officials who never can live down their Chappaquiddicks. The personal facts often are base.
Kenneth has moved to the Middle West to look after his innocent uncle and because America “is now where the action is.” Though he finds most of America soulless (especially in the light of his studies of William Blake and his Russian spirituels), he cannot help becoming part of what he belabors, America’s continuing disturbance. Because his old girl-friend Treckie lives with a man who leaves bruises on her legs, Kenneth flies thousands of miles to make his protest—he breaks up Treckie’s bathroom, and she watches with amusement. That is the unmistakably rowdy Bellow tough—a zest for primitive behavior that interrupts the talkfest.
What is wrong with the modern scene? With ourselves? A particular target of Kenneth’s wrath is “the contemporary democratized-plus-Third World” erotic mixture:
Millions of persons had been freed from labor, routine, vows, incest prohibitions, and the rest of that to invent freely, and all the ingenuity of mankind, or as M. Yermelov [his Russian teacher in Paris] used to say, intellect without soul, was turned loose—the will of the insane to suffer pouring into erotic channels.
Kenneth’s bias is anarcho-romantic-religious, in the style of his beloved William Blake and of his exiled far-out Russians—Soloviev, Rozanov, Ivanov. As you see, so you are. Some inherent moral bias makes us what we are. Our age is dark because man has been turned loose, wants, wants. What he particularly wants too much of is sex. The higher intellect Kenneth represents (to himself) is
Project Turning Point—…really, conscious existence might be justified only if it was devoted to the quest for a revelation, a massive reversal, an inspired universal change, a new direction, a desperately needed human turning point.
To his mother, a refugee worker in Somalia who fled her excessively sexy husband, Kenneth sums up the planet’s desperate condition along the axis Russia-America:
The meaning of the Revolution was that Russia had attempted to isolate itself from the ordeal of modern consciousness. It was a sealing off. Inside the sealed country, Stalin poured on the old death. In the West, the ordeal is of a new death. There aren’t any words for what happens to the soul in the free world. Never mind “rising entitlements,” never mind the luxury “life-style.” Our buried judgment knows better. All this is seen by remote centers of consciousness, which struggle against full wakefulness. Full wakefulness would make us face up to the new death, the peculiar ordeal of our side of the world. The opening of a true consciousness to what is actually occurring would be a purgatory.
Bellow has always been a crisis thinker—the crisis usually being in himself as his leading character, but reflecting permanent disorder in the outside world. His recent work presents a notable spiritualizing. Kenneth Trachtenberg’s unstoppable, unforgiving commentary insists on the decline of practically everything. Especially in America, which, as the center of the “world-climax,” shows history in an advanced Spenglerian downward phase. All is end of the century, end of the Enlightenment. “My modernity’s all used up,” the narrator admits in a recent Bellow short story.
But if you are wondering why the still young, unmarried Kenneth should be a wisdom figure to his Uncle Benn—why he is so hard on sex, so weary of women, so cynical about marriage: I have to say that the problem with the book is not Kenneth’s views but the fact that he is always sticking them in your eye. The problem is familiar: Bellow does not always know what to do with his own overwhelming authorial presence.
For me Bellow’s most satisfying (and I suspect enduring) books are those, like The Victim and Seize the Day, in which the central character is not so intelligent as Bellow. They are not even given a chance to be “intelligent,” for they are caught up in and must submit to very real events—the reverberations in New York of the Holocaust, in Seize the Day a greediness and ambitiousness beyond the capacities of Tommy Wilhelm. Although the leading characters in Herzog and Mr. Sammler’s Planet are extremely intelligent, their crises are genuine, imposed on them (again) by very real events. Like the bewildered Asa Leventhal in The Victim, tormented by a Gentile who accuses Leventhal of plotting to ruin him, they too might well ask the people tormenting them—“What’s your idea of who runs things?”
The dominating voice in More Die of Heartbreak would never think of asking this question of anyone but himself. Kenneth is it, Kenneth knows. What he is most knowing about is the failure of love—as cause or consequence—in relation to the degradation of the democratic dogma. “There are forces around us,” Kenneth assures the mother of his girl-friend Treckie, “which nullify reason. It doesn’t seem to have the social base it used to have.” With equal aplomb he explains that what women want of men is
part of this, part of that—a Sugar Ray physique, a Mastroianni charm, romantic courage like Malraux, scientific wizardry like Crick and Watson with the double helix, millions like Paul Getty, plus a Spinoza brain. You ask why this is relevant? Well, I had part of what Treckie wanted in her composite, but she needed more.
It never occurs to Kenneth that a pitiless observer like himself would drive any woman away. The freshness of youth, the young Bellow’s exhilaration in his powers, which gave such a tang to The Adventures of Augie March, has here been replaced by a consciousness more and more “religious.” As with so many brilliant people leaning in this direction, the spirit reflects not so much confidence in the Deity as it does total disgust with His creatures. William Blake would have been shocked by this rumination:
We human creatures should be at play before the Lord—the higher the play, the more pleasing to God. I doubt that it can interest Him much to watch the shits at their play. I don’t refer now to the Iago type but to people of ordinary stunted imaginative powers. The work of psychology is to explain and excuse these shits, but the Divine Spirit knows that the principal conditions are epistemological and metaphysical, and have to do with the prison, the hell of the closed circle.
Fortunately, there remains Bellow’s feel for lowlife. Chicago is an appropriate theater for him. In Chicago Bellow can still find, big as life and always as threatening, the residue of his old immigrant background. Of course Bellow has never foregone the authority of the “Great Books,” which the University of Chicago made sacred, and which has imposed “the tyranny of Greece” (as the English scholar E.M. Butler called it) on some extraordinarily bookish reactionaries at Chicago. A healthier influence on Bellow as novelist is Mayor Washington’s Chicago in all its ferocious race consciousness and political hatred. Chicago is a metropolis that a novelist can still try to take on as a whole. I associate Bellow’s talent for this with his acute environmental sense, his particular sensitiveness to physical features, starting with city landscape. Sadistic Dr. Layamon forces his son-in-law Benn to join hospital rounds:
Nothing but old ladies. He had saved them up for me. They were all hip cases, pinned hips, and they didn’t need more than a glance, so it was all very quick, double time, in and out of the room, just long enough to pull off the sheet and have a look. Funnily enough, the ladies didn’t mind how they were treated. Being exposed didn’t faze a single old person…. He was barging in and out of the rooms, pushing away the door and everything else, yanking off the covers. The ladies’ hair was dyed and set, they had on lipstick, other makeup, they wore lacy bed jackets, and then there were the stitched scars, and short thighs, and warm, shiny shins, the mound of Venus and the scanty hair—all those bald mounds.
Physically how we grate on each other. This, better than any talk, is the surest indication of what man has to endure in the fallen city. How quickly Benn’s supposed admiration of his wife’s beauty is replaced by disgust with her too-wide shoulders, her breasts too widely separated. In the end he skips off to the Arctic to study his beloved lichens, at the same time tricking Matilda into leaving for Brazil. So much for the “wise” ruefulness of the title phrase, “more die of heartbreak than of radiation.” This is a book fired by misogyny.
July 16, 1987