More die of heartbreak 
by Saul Bellow.
Alison Press/Secker, 335 pp., £10.95, October 1987, 0 436 03962 1
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According to Oscar Wilde, before Dickens there were no fogs, and before Turner no sunsets. Wilde is merely exaggerating a truth, practising the art of aphorism, drawing our attention to this precept: we need art so that we can see what we are seeing. On his way to the Hebrides, Dr Johnson pulled down the blind on what a future generation of writers would take for their subject-matter – wild, ‘romantic’ nature. Johnson, had he lived, would not have seen the point of Wordsworth’s ‘single sheep, and the one blasted tree, / And the bleak music of that old stone wall’. But if art enables and liberates its audience, it can also disable and enslave the subsequent generation of writers. In To Jerusalem and Back, Saul Bellow notes that ‘in every generation we recognise a leader race of masterminds whose ideas (“class-struggle”, “Oedipus complex”, “identity crisis”) come down over us like butterfly nets.’ This insight applies to artists as well as thinkers.

After Dickens, as it were, the weather took a turn for the worse, as Virginia Woolf recorded in Orlando: ‘The great cloud which hung, not only over London, but over the whole of the British Isles on the first day of the 19th century stayed, or rather, did not stay, for it was buffeted about constantly by blustering gales, long enough to have extraordinary consequences upon those who lived beneath its shadow. A change seemed to have come over the climate of England.’ In the 20th century, similar restrictions obtain. Rex Warner recalls how, as Oxford undergraduates, he and Auden used to walk by canals and gasworks because they were ‘already sanctified by a phrase in The Waste Land’. Eliot had altered the landscape and it was to be some time before, so to speak, Auden could write in praise of limestone. Meanwhile, Auden’s coevals were blindly exploring his idiosyncratic geography of deserted leadmines and overshot waterwheels – and wondering why their own environments felt so drab and unpromising as possible subject-matter. Hopkins had the answer to this predicament: admire and do otherwise – a recipe, however, which is more easily assented to than followed.

The classic account of imprisonment by admiration is Ted Solotaroff’s essay, ‘Silence, Exile and Cunning’ (1970), which antedates Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence by three years. There, Solotaroff shows how the aspiring writer’s mind, locked in the cell of its preconceptions, receives visits from real life, but for the most part gets down to serving the sentence. Flaubert was the model, for Solotaroff and Bellow (‘In writing The Victim I accepted a Flaubertian standard’). In the years of virtual silence, Solotaroff, ‘trying to give the words that quiet, impassive gleam through the ordinary of Flaubert’s “Un Coeur Simple” ... would spend months revising a ten-page story so that it might come out like the poem Yeats dreamed of, “as cold and beautiful as the dawn”. These values of “art” persisted, and in the five years after I left Ann Arbor, I wrote exactly seven stories. In terms of experience, they were probably the richest years of my life: I was engrossed in a young, deep, complex, and stormy marriage; we lived mostly in the Village but also in Berkeley and in Maine; I worked in innumerable restaurants and a few gambling houses and racetracks as a waiter or bartender; I was also a psychiatric attendant, a temporary office worker, an eradicator of gooseberry bushes in the Sierras, and an assistant to a Japanese gardener; I twice started graduate school, read a great deal, and even taught myself Latin and German. Virtually none of this went into my writing.’

‘Instead,’ Solotaroff ruefully recalls, ‘I laboured on my few ironic tales of empty lives.’ Most writers, when they begin to write, are actually taking dictation from their immediate great predecessors. Someone fully-formed like Kipling, with a new subject – India – and a new style to go with it, is a rare event. For the rest, while the pantheon casts a long, blighting shadow, some writer nearer in time, or less weighty, may provide the liberation from Literature. Eliot, in ‘To Criticise the Critic’, explains that ‘just as the modern poet who influenced me was not Baudelaire but Jules Laforgue, so the dramatic poets were Marlowe and Webster and Tourneur and Middleton and Ford, not Shakespeare. A poet of the supreme greatness of Shakespeare can hardly influence, he can only be imitated: and the difference between influence and imitation is that influence can fecundate, whereas imitation – especially unconscious imitation – can only sterilise.’ Seamus Heaney has recorded the importance of Ted Hughes to him as an example: ‘suddenly, the matter of contemporary poetry was the material of my own life.’ Athol Fugard has acknowledged a similar debt to Camus. After apprentice work which struggled to accommodate South African material in the dramatic forms supplied by Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets, Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, Fugard found what he needed in Camus’s treatment of Algeria: ‘when I first encountered the articulation of that almost pagan, sensual life lived out in the sun, next to a sea, with warm rocks being, in a sense, the ultimate reality, it struck a resonance in me that persists to this day.’ The key word here is surely ‘articulation’, when it is linked to something fundamentally inarticulate – a landscape and an associated way of life.

For Bellow, as for Nabokov, even more than Nabokov, articulation was caught up in one categorical imperative – Speak, memory. In The Victim and Dangling Man, Bellow is paying his dues to Modernism, serving his time. ‘Ironic tales of empty lives’, they are crafted, careful and slightly comatose – except for one page of Dangling Man in which Bellow stumbles on what is to be his subject. That is, autobiography, the long clear packed morning of life, evoked in street-wise, high-minded, headlong prose. The hero is cleaning his wife’s shoes: ‘it was doing something I had done as a child. In Montreal, on such afternoons as this, I often asked permission to spread a paper on the sitting-room floor and shine all the shoes in the house, including Aunt Dina’s with their long tongues and scores of eyelets. When I thrust my arm into one of her shoes it reached well above the elbow and I could feel the brush against my arm through the soft leather.’ When Bellow reaches ‘their long tongues’, the prose suddenly stirs and Joseph is taken back to St Dominique Street and a series of memories whose vividness is their only justification, ending with: ‘two quarrelling drunkards, one of whom walked away bleeding, drops falling from his head like the first slow drops of a heavy rain in summer, a crooked line of drops left on the pavement as he walked’. Cleaning shoes: for any admirer of Bellow, this moment links directly with the end of Herzog, where the style is less constrained, more ejaculatory and excitable:

Moses could remember a time when Willie, too, had been demonstrative, passionate, explosive, given to bursts of rage, flinging objects to the ground. Just a moment – what was it, now, that he had thrown down? A brush! That was it! The broad old Russian shoe brush. Will slammed it to the floor so hard the veneer backing fell off, and beneath were the stitches, ancient waxed thread, maybe even sinew.

This little miracle of particularity, and many others like it, is what we read Bellow for. As Herzog puts it, ‘he sometimes imagined he was an industry that manufactured personal history.’ This personal history is the placenta which has nourished so many of Bellow’s novels, keeping up an endless supply of rich details. Nothing is too small for him to notice. In Humboldt’s Gift, it might be a clothesline, ‘old and dark grey’: ‘It had burst open and was giving up its white pith.’ Or it might be a locker room, where ‘hair pieces like Skye terriers waited for their masters’; or a courtroom, where a lawyer called Cannibal Pinsker has ‘a large yellow cravat that lay on his shirt like a cheese omelette’; or an old man’s trouser fly, three feet long. As a writer, Bellow sees. He sees the bare toes of Pierre Thaxter ‘pressed together like Smyrna figs’. But what he has seen, in the past, is, if anything, more vivid: at the Division Street Turkish baths, everything remains as it was, and Franush ‘crawls up like a red salamander with a stick to tip the latch of the furnace, which is too hot to touch, and then on all fours, with testicles swinging on a long sinew and the clean anus staring out, he backs away groping for the bucket. He pitches in the water and the boulders flash and sizzle.’

Bellow is not one of those purely imaginative writers like Golding or Ian McEwan who invent copiously and logically from first premises. You cannot imagine him wondering what it is like to be an ape married to a young woman writer who is having trouble with her second novel after the success of the first. Or wondering what might transpire if a group of boys was placed on an island without adult supervision. Bellow uses experience, his own life. And so has gone a stage beyond Solotaroff. No surprise, then, to see The Adventures of Augie March cited as a key text in ‘Silence, Exile and Cunning’ – cited because it embraced American experience instead of taking up an alienated posture. Something in Solotaroff’s analysis makes this seem like a tactic, almost a lucky break, a trend that he, Solotaroff, didn’t spot early enough. Certainly, unlike Solotaroff, virtually everything of Bellow’s life in its formative years suddenly gets into his writing with The Adventures of Augie March. There and in the best subsequent fiction, Bellow’s writing is earthed in the American city. St Dominique Street, Napoleon Street, Jefferson Street – Bellow gives his imaginative source several different names, but it is always the street where he lives: ‘here was a wider range of feelings than he had ever again been able to find ... What was wrong with Napoleon Street? thought Herzog. All he ever wanted was there.’

With this subject comes a distinctively American voice, capable of using a slang word like ‘slugger’ as well as ‘fancy’ words like ‘tergiversate’. But the Ivy League intonation was always there in Bellow. The slang arrives with Augie March, and although the full title acknowledges Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it is a reasonable supposition that Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye gave Bellow the example he needed of a fluent and formidable vernacular. Certainly, it is difficult to read a sentence like ‘But I enjoyed Caroline’s company, I have to admit’ without being reminded of Salinger even now. And to say that this is merely American is to miss the point. Before Salinger, it was American, but it was not American literature.

In Herzog, there is a heart-stopping description of Valentine Gersbach losing his leg in a childhood accident:

‘Seven years old, in Saratoga Springs, running after the balloon man; he blew his little fifel. When I took that short cut through the freight yards, crawling under the cars. Lucky the brake-man found me as soon as the wheel took off my leg. Wrapped me in his coat and rushed me to the hospital. When I came to, my nose was bleeding. Alone in the room ... I leaned over,’ Gersbach went on, as if relating a miracle. ‘A drop of blood fell on the floor, and as it splashed I saw a little mouse under the bed who seemed to be staring at the splash. It backed away, it moved its tail and whiskers. And the room was just full of bright sunlight ... It was a little world underneath the bed. Then I realised that my leg was gone.’

This brilliantly haphazard, grammatically spontaneous narrative, by the man who has stolen Herzog’s wife, receives this accolade from Herzog: ‘each man has his own batch of poems.’ And these poems of experience are repeated, recited by everyone, again and again: ‘there were stories about himself, too, that Moses had told a hundred times, so he couldn’t complain of Gersbach’s repetitiveness.’ This weakness is a trait which Madeleine, his wife, satirises: ‘Yes, I know, your darling mother wore flour sacks.’ And his mistress, Ramona, is familiar with Gersbach’s leg-action: ‘As you told me. Like a gondolier.’ As Herzog, so Bellow. The novels have their share of repetition. Augie and Herzog both remember having their hair washed with a bar of Castile soap – by a mother who made sheets out of Ceresota sacks. In Dangling Man, ‘I warmed myself at a salamander flaming in an oil drum near a news-stand.’ In Augie March, ‘down the cold alleys flames tore from the salamander cans of people selling chestnuts.’ In Augie March, his girlfriend’s father wears ‘a white drill suit and a helmet with a nipple at the top’. In Henderson the Rain King, Henderson has a ‘helmet with its nipple at the top’. In Seize the day, Mr Rappaport’s ear cartilage is ‘twisted like a cabbage heart’, while in Humboldt’s Gift a Pole called Casey has ears that are ‘amazingly crinkled, like Chinese cabbage’. Corde, in The Dean’s December, feels betrayed by some cyclamens which have bloomed in a crematorium, but, since he likes these flowers, he may have to effect a reconciliation with them: ‘the irrationality of this did not disturb him. If this was how he was, this was how he was.’ Herzog opens his narrative similarly phlegmatic: ‘If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.’

In fact, though they are quite numerous, these repetitions can usually be discounted because Bellow’s memory-hoard is so fecund. There is always plenty that is new, like ‘the long hard rays of tendons’ on the backs of Mrs Renling’s hands, or Gorman the gangster putting away his gun: ‘he was reaching inside his sleeve with a lifted shoulder, almost like a woman pulling up an inside strap.’ Likewise the drawbacks of Bellow’s fast-talking prose, which, though generally effective, can sometimes produce redundancies worthy of a freak show: ‘Wilhelm let out a long, hard breath and raised the brows of his round and somewhat circular eyes.’ Yet, set beside Bellow’s wonderful dialogue, glittering with redundancy and anacoluthon, does the odd failure matter? Isn’t it a necessary risk which can produce this: ‘I know about suffering – we’re on the same identical network’; or ‘Daisy didn’t married yet?’ Yes, we say, yes.

And then again, we say no. The new novel, More die of heartbreak, is ruined by repetitions and echoes of earlier work, since there is scarcely any redeeming specificity to compensate, nor any form to speak of. It is a dismally thin performance. The characters are the merest tokens: Benn Crader is an Arnoldian representative of pure culture, a natural contemplative, whose botanical interests are pure rather than applied science; his fate is to be mangled in the machinery of modern sexual desire. In physical terms, he has a humped back like a wing-case and eyes that look like the mathematical symbol for infinity. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? The central ideas are laughable and garnished with reading which, in other Bellow novels, might generate strenuous discussion, but here amounts to little more than perfunctory citations from a Russian literature binge. Kenneth Trachtenberg, the narrator, teaches Russian literature – hence the garland of dusty immortelles he hangs on his cousin, Fishl: ‘he was flavoured with essences belonging to that period of Rosanov, Meyerhold, the late Chekhov, Mandelstam and Bely.’ With as little potential meaning, you might say that someone now was flavoured with the essences belonging to, for example, Peter Ackroyd, Anita Brookner, William Boyd, Anthony Burgess and Peter Hall. This is typical, alas.

First repetition: Kenneth has left Paris, even though his father has promised to introduce him to the ‘agent who had forced Tsvetaeva’s husband to work for the GPU’. Kenneth prefers the Midwest because ‘that’s where the action is now – the real modern action.’ In The Dean’s December, Albert Corde had written ‘a few pieces on the poetess Tsvetaeva as she was remembered by the Russian colony in Paris. How her husband, whom she loved deeply, became a member of the GPU and was forced to take part in killings’. Corde, too, left Paris for the Midwest because ‘America is where the real action is.’ Kenneth, however, has an additional motive: he wants to remain in close contact with his uncle, Benn Crader, the world-class botanist, who wishes to remarry – or, in the Swedenborgian lingo of the novel, desires an exchange of souls in love. This, of course, involves sexual needs and, in that sphere, Crader has to compete in a world where women have a composite ideal of the male: ‘candid women will tell you, I’d like some of this and some of that – a little Muhammad Ali for straight sex, some Kissinger for savvy, Cary Grant for looks, Jack Nicholson for entertainment, plus André Malraux or some Jew for brains. Commonest fantasy there is.’ So common, in fact, that it has already been given an outing in Mr Sammler’s Planet: ‘he fetched back, for example, a statement by Angela Gruner, blurted out after several drinks when she was laughing, gay, and evidently feeling free (to the point of brutality) with old Uncle Sammler. “A Jew brain, a black cock, a Nordic beauty,” she had said, “is what a woman wants.” Putting together the ideal man.’

Of course, in these trying times, there are external considerations, too. Aids, for instance, though that is ‘an elaborate terrifying organic figure’ (apparently) for some inner spiritual malaise. In the same way, lead poisoning in The Dean’s December ‘stands for something else that we all sense’. As for sex, it is, for most people, a cure for all problems: ‘they turn to sex as the analgesic.’ In The Dean’s December, Corde’s sister makes ‘an aspirin marriage’. All the same, at first it seems possible that Crader will make it work with his much younger, beautiful bride, Matilda Layamon. After all, perhaps Crader’s insight into plants can be transferred to human beings:

he was wrapped in nature. The whole vegetable kingdom was his garment – his robe, his coat – and that to me meant fundamental liberty from low-grade human meanness, it meant universality. Still, Uncle’s garment was incomplete. It didn’t quite button.

Neither did the garment of Von Humboldt Fleisher in Humboldt’s Gift and look what happened to him – heart failure in a flophouse. ‘Humboldt wanted to drape the world in radiance, but he didn’t have enough material. His attempt ended at the belly. Below hung the shaggy nudity we know so well.’ Shaggy nudity is a feature of More die of heartbreak, where we learn that ‘this literalness, from a sexual standpoint, is lethal. When it becomes a matter of limbs, members and organs, Eros faces annihilation.’ Not a lot has changed, in that case, from The Dean’s December: there ‘the horror is in the literalness – the genital literalness of the delusion. That’s what gives the curse its finality. The literalness of bodies and their members – outsides without insides.’ ‘Insides’, in both novels, means the soul, rather than viscera. Maybe Crader can escape literalness, since he is ‘an outstanding “noticer” (there is such a type).’ The parenthesis can be confirmed by anyone who has read The Dean’s December because there Corde is just such a type: ‘He looked out, noticing. What a man he was for noticing! Continually attentive to his surroundings.’ Either character, given this faculty, might have noticed that Bellow’s use of Baron Hulot, from Cousine Bette, had already been used as an instance of indestructible desire in The Dean’s December and Humboldt’s Gift. Or that Forster’s aphorism ‘How do I know what I think till I see what I say?’ had already appeared (uncredited) in Humboldt’s Gift, admittedly in a different form: ‘Still, I don’t seem to know what I think till I see what I say.’ An outstanding noticer might have noticed, too, that Dita Schwartz’s ‘hive of bandages’, following her facial surgery, is a repeat from Augie March, where a brawler appears in court wearing ‘a bloody beehive of bandages, totter-headed’.

Dita Schwartz, incidentally, shows how inattentive and incompetent Bellow has become in this novel: she is twice mentioned by name before she is properly introduced. On page 113, Kenneth’s mother refers enigmatically to ‘a young woman named Dita Schwartz’, who is ‘evidently glad to listen’ to Kenneth for the sake of her education. On page 121, Crader refers to ‘your friend Dita Schwartz’. But it isn’t until page 173 that the reader is given any data to go with this name. Her role in the novel is to be the ideal woman, with the drawback of a poor complexion. In every way except the physical, she is perfect for Kenneth. She admires his Russian name-dropping and, as only a course student can, she audits him. He, however, is still infatuated with Treckie, the mother of his daughter, but not his wife. Kenneth is considerate and she prefers to be brutalised in bed and, as a result, has shins which are bruised like the markings on peacock feathers. As Herzog remarks, ‘nothing can be done about the sexual preferences of women. That’s ancient wisdom. Nor of men.’ Kenneth is fixated by Treckie’s body which is that of a child-woman.

Crader, on the other hand, has married a woman, who, though beautiful, doesn’t suit him. Matilda’s shoulders are too wide and her breasts are too far apart. Lest these seem trivial considerations, little imperfections that a mature personality might come to love, Bellow is forced to draft in the Swedenborgian system of correspondences. If everything is a sign, these imperfections presumably show that Matilda, for all her beauty, is too like her father – is, in point of fact, a bloke. How else can one explain her father’s revelation that, when she was born, it was difficult to tell what sex she was? Crader is in no doubt: physically, she’s a woman. But, we are meant to infer, only venture beyond the literal and she’s a bloke, for Crader much like Norman Bates masquerading as his mother in Psycho, a film which Crader finds worryingly pertinent.

By now you may have some notion of how wacky More die of heartbreak is. Common sense seems to have deserted Bellow utterly. A strip show in Kyoto provokes Kenneth to reflect, as the women dilate themselves manually: ‘Miss Osaka and Miss Nara put it in front of you, as literal as it was possible to be, and the more literal it was, the more mystery there seemed to be in it ... All these botanists, engineers, inventors of miraculous visual instruments from electron microsopes to equipment that sent back pictures of the moons of Saturn, cared for nothing but these slow openings.’ Bellow’s conclusion seems to be that the precious life of the mind is ultimately in thrall to an orifice. Which is another version of Kenneth’s belief that ‘the quality people are always knee-deep in the garbage of “personal life”.’ Now this nexus of assertions is comic. I don’t myself find it surprising that engineers, botanists, inventors of electron microscopes, or (for that matter) winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, should take a look if a woman chooses to open her vagina for them. Bellow appears to have an exaggerated idea of the dignity of his own mind.

The central theme of the novel is equally nutty in its presentation. It is that more die of heartbreak than are killed by radiation. In the East, there are prison sentences, camps, mental and physical abuse; in Africa, there is famine; in the West, there is heartbreak. Bellow allows his characters to ironise the dichotomy, but it is clear that the purpose of the novel is ultimately to endorse it. Thus, Kenneth’s mother, working with refugees in Somalia, herself a refugee from her husband’s philandering, parodies the position by setting her husband against the work-camp at Kolyma: ‘suddenly Dad was paraded in front of us with all his chicks in various stages of undress. That was an ordeal!’ The truth is that suffering is manifold and it is very stupid to make meaningless comparisons. Why say more die of heartbreak than of radiation when there are no statistics for either? Unless, of course, you want to trail your coat, or take off into the unprovable – the latter being an area of which Bellow has always been over-fond. Sometimes the famous resonance just sounds hollow, and it can be irritating when he pretends to be the last believer in the soul.

One of the worst features of More die of heartbreak is its gabbiness, which is not unrelated to the rhetorical sauce he ladles out so generously. There is built into the novel a kind of negative commentary of asides and reminders which supply reasons why no one should bother to read it: ‘I will remember that I am not here to lecture on history but to relate the strange turns in the life of my uncle Benn’; ‘so it’s one moment of flashing insight and then a quarter of an hour of pedantry and tiresome elaboration’; ‘but let me not be sidetracked again’; ‘excuse the language; I’m in a hurry and I can’t stop to pick and choose among the available terms.’ This digressive garrulity, this formlessness, one might argue, is of no importance in Bellow because his work has always repudiated form. In a Paris Review interview, he said:

I could not, with such an instrument as I developed in the first two books, express a variety of things I knew intimately. Those books, though useful, did not give me a form in which I felt comfortable. A writer should be able to express himself easily, naturally, copiously in a form which frees his mind, his energies. Why should he hobble himself with formalities? With a borrowed sensibility? With the desire to be ‘correct’?

In Augie March, Bellow’s greatest novel, form is accordingly dismissed on the first page. The narrator declares for spontaneity: he will ‘go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted.’ And yet, in the midst of Dickensian detail (‘loud-breathing and wind-breaking’, Winnie the dog ‘lay near the old lady’s stool on a cushion embroidered with a Berber aiming a rifle at a lion’), there is a formal polarity to which everything refers. On the one hand, there is the wised-up pragmatic-realist stance of Grandma Lausch, which is responsible for the disposing of the retarded Georgie into a home: ‘And now he realised that we would leave him and he began to do with his soul, that is, to let out his moan, worse for us than tears, though many grades below the pitch of weeping. Then Mama slumped down and gave in utterly. It was when she had the bristles of his special head between her hands and was kissing him that she began to cry.’ On the other hand, there are the impracticalities of pure feeling, of idealism, which at first are embodied by brother Simon, on whom ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays for many years had an influence we were not in a position to afford.’ Even the eagle in Mexico conforms to the pattern – by turning out, after all, to be less than one hundred per cent ruthless; ‘well, it was hard to take from wild nature, that there should be humanity mixed with it.’ Augie himself is poised between the two poles, though there is no doubt that his final destination will be in the camp of those with feelings.

In Humboldt’s Gift, the polarity around which the novel is organised is ‘rot or burn.’ Humboldt, Cantabile, are the obvious exemplars of frenetic activity to which Citrine is attracted, but Citrine’s brother, Ulick, an ostensible digression, is also part of the pattern:

You know what I found the other day? The deed to the family burial plots in Waldheim. There are two graves left. You wouldn’t want to buy mine, would you? I’m not going to lie around. I’m having myself cremated. I need action. I’d rather go into the atmosphere. Look for me in the weather reports.

Here, Bellow has literalised Humboldt’s philosophy of life:

if life is not intoxicating, it’s nothing. Here it’s burn or rot. The USA is a romantic country. If you want to be sober, Charlie, it’s only because you’re a maverick and you’ll try anything.

At the centre of Humboldt’s Gift is a long exposition of, in effect, Lambert Strether’s advice to Little Bilham in The Ambassadors (‘Live as much as you can, young man. It’s a mistake not to’): ‘Or as William James put it, human beings really lived when they lived at the top of their energies. Something like the Wille zur Macht. Suppose then you began with the proposition that boredom was a kind of pain caused by unused powers, the pain of wasted possibilities or talents, and was accompanied by expectations of the optimum utilisation of capacities.’

As you might by now expect, in More die of heartbreak, this last idea is brought out of retirement. The sexually hyper-active Rudi Trachtenberg, we are told, ‘is responding to a talent, and a talent will cause your death if you try to hide it.’ Notice how the idea is now overstated, how a possibly flashing insight has become a merely flashy insight.

This is a haunted novel. The dim ghosts of better books are everywhere. For Picasso, the ultimate failure was not to copy others, but to copy himself. More die of heartbreak is pure Parnassian. At its end, Crader, his marriage in ruins, flees to the frozen wastes of the symbolic Arctic, and it is The Dean’s December which can supply the most lucid gloss on his behaviour: ‘these badgering perplexities, intricacies of equilibrium, sick hopes, riddling evils, sadistic calculations – you might do worse than to return to that strict zero-blue and simple ice.’ Like, more or less, Arnold’s scholar-gipsy taking a rain-check on ‘this strange disease of modern life’.

In one important particular, Bellow hasn’t copied himself. His real territory – Napoleon Street, for short – has been pushed out of the picture. When Benn Crader, like any Bellow protagonist, wants to reminisce about his youth on Jefferson Street (now replaced by the Ecliptic Circle Electronic Tower), he is discouraged by his bride: ‘she doesn’t care for that far-away-and-long-ago stuff’; ‘she doesn’t care for your imaginative background music.’ There is a great deal of intuition of souls in this book, which perhaps provides one with an excuse for looking at More die of heartbreak in the same way oneself. Superficially, the novel exactly fits Citrine’s description of ‘the insignificant Picasso sculpture with its struts and its sheet metal, no wings, no victory, only a token, a reminder, only the idea of a work of art’. This latest effort is without a soul, mainly because it is all about the soul, the soul and ideas. Real life is somewhere else – as it must be for Bellow after the elevation of the Nobel Prize. Unconsciously, he has dramatised his predicament in Uncle Benn Crader, who stands in his rich duplex, feeling uncomfortable, miles above Jefferson Street, listening to the moans of the sycamores far below. Only Uncle Harold Vilitzer comes alive – not smoking, but mashing up twenty cigars a day, still tough in temperament, but physically as hollow as a wicker basket. ‘Only the pacemaker unit under his shirt had any weight.’ Not that Vilitzer compares with Lollie Fewter, a minor character in Augie March on whom the young Bellow lavished his brimming gifts: ‘young Lollie Fewter who was fresh up from the coal fields, that girl with her green eyes from which she didn’t try to keep the hotness, and her freckled bust presented to the gathering of men she came among with her waxing rags and the soft shake of her gait’. The whole of More die of heartbreak isn’t worth that one hectic, ungrammatical, accurate sentence, utterly unforced in its plenitude.

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Vol. 9 No. 22 · 10 December 1987

SIR: Craig Raine’s review of Saul Bellow’s More die of heartbreak (LRB, 12 November) is an interesting sighting of the fully padded verbosceros, an animal whose natural habitat, the literary bitch parlours of London, Oxford and occasionally Cambridge, has, unusually for our age, expanded recently, to encompass the pages of yours and other similar magazines. The dung or spoor by which this animal can be tracked are to be found at very frequent intervals as they pursue their meandering, myopic, irritable course across the virgin paper. These droppings are produced in the form of names, frequently of other writers past or present, which even the highly corrosive bile of the animal has been unable to break down, and thus it drops. The dunging rate exhibited by Mr Raine’s example (one dropping per 1.72 column inches, mean average) is quite astonishing, even for this species. I suggest, sir, that measures should speedily be taken, either to improve the diet of the animal in question or to drive it to some less prominent’ pasture. Slurry of this kind should not be spread over the pages of your magazine.

Martin Wilkinson
Clunton, Shropshire

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