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.

Mother wants to watch Dallas on the television, but Shawmut entertains her instead by singing her snatches from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Disorientated by the present, Shawmut travels inwards and backwards and away, singing Pergolesi and thinking of ‘Siena six centuries ago’. Thoughts of old Europe restore his sense of reality. But his mother doesn’t understand him because she, like his brother, had ‘been true to the present American world and its liveliest material interests’.

For Ijah Brodsky, as for Herschel Shawmut, becoming an American means learning to forget. Brodsky, the narrator of ‘Cousins’, the last of the five stories, considers it wholly consistent of his cousin, Raphael (Tanky) Metzger, that he should take no interest in his relations or the past which joins him to them. That Ijah does, is something Ijah himself recognises as unusual, directly connected, perhaps, with his having ‘taken America up in the wrong way’. Tanky’s way of taking America up is to play with the big boys of organised crime. When Ijah is asked by Eunice Karger (Tanky’s sister) to use his connections in the law and intercede with the Federal judge on Tanky’s behalf (he’s on trial and stands to get 15 years), Ijah agrees, because if he lets Eunice down his ‘souvenirs’, those ‘exercises of memory’ so precious to his sense of self, would ‘stink’. ‘A good American makes propaganda for whatever existence has forced him to become.’ Ijah makes no propaganda for what he has become – a legal and political adviser to bankers on foreign loans. He prefers to interest himself in the lives and fortunes of his cousins: in Cousin Ezekiel (Seckel), a specialist in primitive languages and primitive cat’s cradles; in Cousin Motty (Uncle Mordecai) who was once perhaps Chicago’s best baker, now approaching ninety, ‘belted into an armchair’, ‘down to nature’; in Cousin Scholem (‘a Brodsky on his mother’s side’), a philosopher manqué who ended his career as a taxidriver and whose last wish is ‘to be buried at Torgau on the Elbe, close to the monument commemorating the defeat of the Nazi forces’. Unable to find the contemporaries he requires, Ijah Brodsky retires into family memories and concerns or, high above Chicago on the 51st floor of the First National Bank, pores for hours over two volumes of Siberian ethnography.

Works of art, books, memories, are precious escape routes for Bellow’s sensitive souls, for whom the present is a foreign country, the past a home. But there is a poignancy in their attempts to establish a sense of continuity with their European European origins (as opposed to their American European ones). As Jewish Americans they are doubly cut off from old Europe: as Americans by sheer distance and historical disjunction, as Jews by the fact of the holocaust. Like sailors who take their bearings from exploded stars, they locate themselves in the present by reference to points in a world which they no longer believe exists. The fragments of European civilisation they mentally hoard as amulets against the evil of the day are chosen for their curiousness, their potential as purely private occasions for dream. The urgency and esotericism of this is quite un-European. No European would call a baryton an ‘ancient’ instrument, as Brodsky does, as if referring to an Egyptian sistrum, or, like Shawmut, define his wife’s character in terms of the difference between a Grazerin and a Wienerin, as though this were a generally appreciated distinction. The lives of Bellow’s characters are more firmly anchored by memories of their American European past, by memories of Chicago in the first years of the century. It is Chicago, past and present, which anchors Bellow himself – fortune’s greatest gift to him as an imaginative writer.

‘The very image of the Americas’, as Lévi – Strauss has called it, Chicago has a history of staggering growth. In 1833 it was a mere settlement, two hundred people huddled on the shores of a lake half the size of England. By 1933 it had a population of four and a half million, four million of which had accrued over the previous fifty years. In 1920, when Saul Bellow was five, a third of the population of Chicago had been born abroad and there were 125,000 Jews. This chunk of Europe relocated five thousand miles westwards, reduplicating itself exponentially on the shores of Lake Michigan, has provided Saul Bellow with an unparalleled image for the human condition as a state of betweenness. And it has given him a story to tell, a substantial medium in which to work out his intellectual and imaginative concerns.

Wherever possible in the present collection of stories, characters revert to their Chicago past, and the passages of writing that result from these ‘exercises of memory’ are the most memorable in the book. Two stories in particular take old Chicago, old Jewish European Chicago, as their subject: ‘Zetland: By a Character Witness’ and ‘A Silver Dish’. The first of these is what it says: the portrait of a Chicago-born Russian Jew painted by a friend, an account of the early life of a brilliant, ebullient, generous-hearted young man (Proust’s Bloch came to mind) who, much to his father’s disgust, marries an equally expansive Macedonian girl, travels east to New York with her, and becomes a professional philosopher only to discover in the wearisome ecstasy of his married life and after reading Moby Dick that ‘the real business of his life was with comprehensive vision.’

In ‘A Silver Dish’, Woody Selbst, a 60-year-old Chicago businessman, a tile contractor, mourns the death of his father, his ‘Pop’, Maurice Selbst, and recalls in particular an incident, definitive in his relations with his father, when, one fierce winter day in the Depression, Pop roped him into a scheme to raise fifty bucks off a Christian Scandinavian widow, Mrs Skoglund. When Pop lifts a silver dish from Mrs Skoglund’s cabinet, Woody gets chucked out of the seminary where he is training to become a priest. What to the 14-year-old Woody seems like an outrageous lack of common morality in his father, he later recognises to have been a shrewd strategy to reclaim him from a life that was inappropriate. The trek across Chicago in the snowstorm, and the interior of Mrs Skoglund’s house, are among the most palpably real things in the whole book.

‘Soolie ... Pearl ... What kind of day did you have?’ asks Katrina Goliger of her two young daughters at the end of the longest story in this collection (it takes up a third of the book). Since the title of the story is ‘What kind of day did you have?’, the question, when it comes, near the very end, brings with it a feeling of something foretold and fulfilled, momentarily arresting the motion of the story and gathering it to a single point. The moment passes. ‘They answered nothing at all, but Krieggstein said, “We had a great outing at Burger King. They don’t fry like the other fast-food joints, they grill their meat.” ’ Katrina’s day has been long and she is tired. Not only has she flown to Buffalo and back, via Detroit, she has been to the borders of death. It was a trip she should never have taken, but Victor Wulpy called and she must obey. Victor, ‘a world-class intellectual, big in the art world’, is physically big as well, made in the ‘old Mediterranean’ mould. He is like one of Picasso’s old satyrs and in Katrina he has found a woman who recharges his failing sexual and physical powers. Katrina flies to Buffalo to recharge Victor in an hour of special need. Their day develops into a slow daytime nightmare, unfolding its ashen realities in the perspective of the ultimately unreal modern environment: the airport. Inside: VIP lounges, leather-boothed, half-lit restaurants serving inedible duck à l’orange, hermetically-sealed motel bedrooms. Outside it is unnaturally dark and the snowstorm rages.

In the context of this collection, Victor Wulpy is an unusual character, in that he does not voice Bellow’s own philosophy of life. Shawmut, Selbst, Zetland, Brodsky are all in their various ways apologists for the life of feeling, for the value of caring for others, for the need to try and behave humanly in inhuman circumstances. Wulpy, by contrast, does not lack ‘true modern severity’, as Brodsky calls it. ‘Victor was not the type to be interested in personality troubles,’ and that includes his own. His belligerence is his way of getting through. Inwardly, he is raging with sensitivity. Katrina knows this:

The Modern truth was severe ... Useless to deny dehumanisation. That was how Victor would talk, when he lay in bed like one of Picasso’s naked old satyrs. But you, spread beside him – the full woman, perhaps the fat woman, woman-smelling – you perhaps knew more about him than he knew himself.

‘Whatever is not plugged into the main action withers and is devoured by death.’ These stories are full of people who are at various stages of being unplugged. In ‘What kind of day did you have?’, especially, the barrier between life and death seems to have worn to a papery thinness. A strange sepia light drenches the picture, as though the power were about to fail. But everywhere in this book death is only just off the screen.

Formally, these are not stories in the conventional sense. They have structure, but not unified actions with beginnings, middles and ends (‘A Silver Dish’ comes nearest to this). Instead, they are contrived, cunningly, to give an impression of looseness, as though the sum total of what is included or excluded might have been added up differently. If in reading them we get the feeling that Bellow’s art is time and again to rework the same material, that, for example, his typical characters – Herzog, Citrine, Sammler, Corde, now joined by Shawmut, Wulpy, Selbst, Brodsky, Zetland – are all variant hypostases of a central Bellowian godhead, then this is wholly appropriate to what he is chiefly on about: the infinite permutability of the self, the sense in modern man that, as that great European precursor of the Bellowian consciousness – Ulrich, the man without qualities – put it, ‘one can nowhere discover any sufficient reason for everything’s having come out as it has. It might just as well have turned out differently.’