Sensitive Sauls

Nicholas Spice

  • Him with his foot in his mouth, and Other Stories by Saul Bellow
    Alison Press/Secker, 294 pp, £8.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 436 03953 2

Thirty hours’ drive west of Chicago, out beyond the Dakotas, on the far side of Montana, you come to Red Lodge – a small cowboy town at the foot of the Rockies, special in nothing except a single neglected curiosity: an opera house, built on a modest scale in the grandest late 19th-century style. Boarded up and crumbling, quizzical caryatids (Fin-de-Siècle Viennese, half-laughing, half-weeping) silhouetted against the big blue sky, this diminutive Staatsoper tells the story of how prosperity, moving westwards, flared for a moment in Red Lodge, Montana, supporting European cultural pretensions at the far edge of the Great Plains. A sort of meta-relic of Western civilisation, the opera house in Red Lodge commemorates two lost worlds: Austria-Hungary in its last phase and modern America in its first. A concise, if forgotten emblem of Europe dislocated, uncoupled from its past, and shifted westwards – Europe disorientated.

The chief imaginative exponent of the disorientation of European consciousness in 20th-century America has been Saul Bellow, who stands in relation to this theme rather as Henry James did in relation to the impact of Europe on American consciousness. The mourning of old Europe (Europe before the slaughter) and old America (America before Burger King), and the attempt to establish a continuity between these manageable, familial worlds and an ungraspable, strange present, have been preoccupations in his work, and this new collection of stories, five of them, signals no change.

‘Him with his foot in his mouth’ is an apostrophe to an absent librarian by an elderly musicologist who, on a warm autumn afternoon 35 years before, had grievously and without motive insulted her. She had said ‘Oh, Dr Shawmut, in that cap you look like an archaeologist.’ He had said: ‘And you look like something I just dug up.’ Herschel Shawmut, alone now (Gerda, his wife, being dead), in winter, in Vancouver, awaiting extradition by the US authorities to stand trial for business irregularities, physically ailing and sorrowful even unto death, writes Miss Carla Rose a letter. What made him say such a thing, wantonly to wound defenceless, well-meaning, ugly Miss Rose? What strange hatred could have possessed Eddie Walish, his ‘friend’ in those former days, to anatomise his ‘inmost soul’ and deliver the fruits of his resentment 30 years later in a letter? What peculiar logic in his destiny has brought him, Herschel Shawmut, author of a best-selling Introduction to Music Appreciation and an authority on Pergolesi, to end his days in exile wanted by the law? Part of his complex, involuted answers to these questions seems to lie in the fact of his not quite belonging in America: ‘It’s been a case of disorientation, my dear ... To put it another way, my dreams of orientation or true vision taunt me by suggesting that the world in which I – together with others – live my life is a fabrication, an amusement park that, however, does not amuse.’ It does not amuse him (though it amuses us) that when he visits his senile old mother in an old people’s home, the potted plants are plastic:

I had trouble with the ferns. I disliked having to touch them to see if they were real. It was a reflection on my relation to reality that I couldn’t tell at a glance. But then Mother didn’t know me, either, which was a more complex matter than the ferns.

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