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, of course, forget it once Sorella has reeled it off). Though he cannot forget, he will not examine: “First those people murdered you, then they forced you to brood on their crimes.” If he must have memories, they will be of facts detached from meaning. What could a holocaust mean anyway? “Stars are nuclear furnaces too. Such things are utterly beyond me, a pointless exercise.”
But Sorella is a force as well as a purveyor of facts. She is fat on a superhuman scale. “She made you look twice at a doorway.” Bellow has always found something funny yet demonic about fat. The victim of life’s bad magics in Seize the Day (1956) goes finally broke by investing in the lard market. Character after character stoops to a destiny loaded in to his fleshy upper back. One person in “Cousins” (1984) has a face so puffy that it is all one “edema of deadly secrets.” Sorella, however, enters a new dimension of the obese, putting a strain on the imagination even while one looks at her. She has “gestures that only a two-hundred-pound woman can produce, because her delicacy rests on the mad overflow of her behind.”
The dramatic highpoint of the book, placed at its center, is the confrontation between this huge woman and the tiny American showman, Billy Rose of Broadway, the man whose Mafia connections allowed Fonstein and other Jews to slip out of Italy into boats heading for America. This underground activity was called “The Bellorosa Connection.” Fonstein, as he grows up, thinks the clue to his own American identity will be found in the secret grace disguised under Billy Rose’s outer vulgarity. But Rose refuses to see the product of his dark favor, repulsing every approach through an intermediary, and snubbing Fonstein when he approaches him in public. So Fonstein retires into proud reticence, the self-containment he had learned while crossing the ocean with refugees who had too many stories to tell, tales they had better not begin because it would be difficult to end or control the flow of things remembered. Fonstein’s own resigned attitude leaves Sorella and the narrator to wonder at tawdry Billy’s evasion of the consequences of what may have been his one series of good acts. “Too Jewish a moment,” the narrator suggests of Billy facing Fonstein.
But that is a moment that must happen, Sorella has determined. With her fierce intelligence, she collects from Rose’s secretary a damning file of his less creditable secrets, hoping to confront him with such “whitemail” and force him into an act of virtue. Her chance comes in Israel. She is visiting there; the narrator is present on Mnemosyne business; and Rose has brought over Isamu Noguchi to lay out his sculpture garden at the museum. It is not fair for a reviewer to say what happens when Sorella meets Billy, except that Sorella calls it “a one-hundred-percent American event.” But one can say that the narrator should have taken the opportunity to look at Sorella’s dossier on Rose. This is the central document of the story, the equivalent of Hitchcock’s “thirty-nine steps” of defense information, something a memory expert could have stored up for those hoping to explain the puzzle of Fonstein’s involvement with America. But this “Mr. Memory” prefers, as usual, not to burden himself with avoidable memories.
There is a falling off in the story’s pace after the scene in Israel, but there is clearly meant to be. The narrator loses track of the Fonsteins. He is called about a Fonstein relative needing help in Israel, tries to reach Sorella and her husband, finds they are dead, learns of their son’s American life, and is left trying to work out his memories of them without fresh information from Sorella. He had avoided the Fonsteins earlier because they put a strain on his method, which is to render items of information disjunct from any emotions that might gum up the operations of his memory. Besides, his rich Philadelphia wife did not consider the grotesque Sorella worthy, not a proper visitor to the house whose emptiness now mocks the narrator with its memorizable items of choice furniture. (His daughter-in-law on the other hand, finds the house too pretentious to like visiting it.) As he looks back on this sequence of memories, the narrator finds person after person not good enough for one situation, or too good for another. Experiences are too Jewish to be indulged, or too American to be taken seriously. Even an energy like Sorella’s becomes an embarrassment, something that can only be expended in nonfunctional cleverness, in a diplomacy as ingenious as it is futile.
The narrator is a fine comic invention because he is almost entirely ignorant of his own absurdity. He likes to talk of memory as the source of life, the key to identity; but he can merely observe, not explain, the fact that his institute catches on in Japan and Korea but not in Israel. Saint Augustine describes memory in Book X of his Confessions as cavernous but luminous, its chambers resonating from liquid pools and distant recesses. The Mnemosyne Man’s memory looks more like a switch-board with most of the lines unplugged. Connections between the generations, or collateral relatives, whole countries—or even between the different parts of one’s own life—are not maintained.
“Mr. Mnemosyne” is not simply a loser, like the hero of Seize the Day. But neither, thank God, is he one of Bellow’s Herzog-bores, one of those Big Thinkers he neglected to equip with big thoughts, the Chicago Spenglers railing at gangsters and the blacks. The discipline of shorter forms has often been good for Bellow (though not in his last novella, A Theft). And his irony is at its finest when, as in the short story collection Mosby’s Memoirs (1968), the consciousness being explored does not get the point of its own story. This new tale’s demon rememberer is bombarded by unwanted and unusable information, forced to register what he has no resource for affecting. Even the disjointures, personal and generational, between Americans and Israelis—starting with the freakish benefactions and neglect by Billy Rose—are not a political allegory so much as a sardonic reflection on the fact that ours is called the era of “modern communications.” All the narrator can do is look in dogged hope back to the conundrum of Sorella’s vividness breaking all conceivable bounds. As he nears his own grave, he keeps thinking of the woman who made one look twice at the size of doors.
October 12, 1989