International Tale

John Banville

  • A Theft by Saul Bellow
    Penguin, 128 pp, £3.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 14 011969 8

At the very start of this brief fiction the author blazons the name of his heroine – Clara Velde – like a declaration of intent. Bellow always opens bravely, plunging his readers into the midst of things, and if the bravery sometimes strikes us as mere bravado (as for example, with Augie March’s ‘I am an American ...’), the headlong stride of the style, its weight and energy, sweep us forward unresisting. Here, however, the clarion call of Ms Velde’s name gives pause. It is very American, yet it is not quite contemporary. We seem to hear in it an echo of an earlier New York scene, of the jewelled and grandly brocaded America of the late 19th century. In short, the reigning spirit here might be that of Henry James.

This is a surprise. It is a long time, forty years or so, since Saul Bellow abandoned the Flaubertian tradition and decided to break out, to let rip (‘I am an American ...’). The result was an extraordinary gain in vigour. What other novelist in our time has produced work to equal in sheer strength such books as The Adventures of Augie March, or Herzog, or (his masterpiece, for my money) Humboldt’s Gift? In art, of course, every gain entails a loss: in cutting the ‘European’ link in favour of being an echt American, Bellow risked surrendering to formlessness. His novels tend to go at full tilt, like a man in a heavy overcoat thrashing hip-deep through water, until they run out of energy and just stop, winded, and sometimes far from shore.

A Theft, however, has the coherence and tension of a furled flower. It is packed with colour and wit, and a fervent gaiety. The tendentiousness and hectoring tones of some of his later fiction are absent, as are the faintly crackpot obsessions. It is less a moral than an ethical tale (how should one live?), and comes down firmly, as Bellow always does, on the side of lived life and, that rarest of all things these days, common decency.

The story is organised, with craft and much craftiness, in a binary series. Situations and predicaments repeat themselves over time with small but telling variations; this system is never merely mechanical, but is managed with lightness and grace. The constant throughout the action is a Jamesian ‘little thing’, an emerald engagement ring which is bought and presented, lost, found, stolen and returned; like the golden bowl or the spoils of Poynton, it increases steadily in significance, turning from a trinket into a talisman ‘involved with Clara’s very grip on existence’. She has ‘come to base her stability entirely’ on the ring – though she does also refer to it dismissively as ‘this love-toy emerald, personal sentimentality’.

Clara is big, blonde, large-headed, ‘a rawboned American woman ... from the sticks’, the daughter of Indiana farm people and small-town store-owners, brought up on the Bible and old-time religion; it is one of the book’s sly jokes that this famously ‘Jewish’ novelist should take as his protagonist a corn-fed shiksa from the Bible Belt. She has more familiar Bellovian marks, however: she has ‘studied Greek at Bloomington and Elizabethan-Jacobean literature at Wellesley’; she has tried suicide once and is to try it again; by the age of 40 she had set up a thriving journalistic agency specialising in high fashion, and later sold it to an international publishing company and is now one of the company’s high-powered executives, the ‘tsarina of fashion writing’. She has three children, and is on her fourth unsatisfactory husband.

Perhaps it will seem paradoxical to say that Clara is a wonderfully compelling character who is not wholly convincing (this is not unusual, I find, in Saul Bellow’s books). She is, it would seem, just too many things, a kind of portmanteau into which Bellow, impatient as ever, has bundled assorted bits and pieces of his latest preoccupations. And although she is recognisably female, there is something about her bigness, her drivenness, that seems to warrant a hormone-test. At times she is suspiciously like one of Bellow’s male heroes in drag.

The fourth husband is Wilder Velde, a political speech-writer and fixer, ‘big and handsome, indolent, defiantly incompetent’, who spends most of his days sitting about in their Park Avenue apartment reading thrillers. Husband three (one and two hardly figure at all) was a rich Italian, now half-paralysed from a stroke and living out his days in Venetian misery and splendour. Clara’s real, only and continuing love, however, is for Ithiel ‘Teddy’ Regler, the man who bought her the engagement ring twenty years ago, but whom she did not marry.

Teddy Regler is the most immediately interesting character in the novella. He is a Henry Kissinger type, but handsomer, and certainly more attractive than the shuttle diplomatist ever showed himself to be. Bellow has always been fascinated by the great world of politics and money. While other writers – Gore Vidal, let’s say – look on this world with a mixture of envy and disgust, it is obvious that Bellow loves to get up close to the sources of power and feel the glow on his face and see the sparks fly. If he is part social philosopher who knows his Vico and his Max Weber, there is another, ineradicable part of him that that is for ever the fast-talking, street-wise Chicagoan still with the smell of the stockyards in his nostrils. Regler (Clara describes him as ‘somewhere between a Spanish grandee and a Mennonite’) is one of Bellow’s international men, the geopolitical fireman that the author himself, one suspects, half wishes he had been. In times past Regler has advised administrations on, among other things, nuclear strategy, and would, we are given to understand, have gone all the way to the top, to be a Richard Perle or a Paul Nitze (though likely to have been more liberal than either) if he had stuck at it. However, ‘Ithiel didn’t make a big public career, he wasn’t a team player.’ All the same, he still walks the corridors of power: ‘He took on such assignments as pleased the operator in him, the behind-the-scenes Teddy Regler: in the Persian Gulf, with a Japanese whiskey firm looking for a South American market, with the Italian police tracking terrorists. None of these activities compromised his Washington reputation for dependability. He testified before Congressional investigative committees as an expert witness.’ One can positively hear the authorial rubbing of hands.

It is the figure of Teddy Regler which lifts the story into the realm of the ‘international tale’. He descends into these pages out of the rarefied strata of first-class travel, still trailing a whiff of the brandy-and-leather air of grand hotels and the well-appointed houses of the great and powerful. He has had his troubles (a terrible wife has stripped him of his possessions, leaving him only a bare marriage-bed), but he is still the rock of good sense and sympathetic advice onto which Clara flings herself when the sea of troubles threatens to engulf her: ‘The more hidden his activities, the better she felt about him. Power, danger, secrecy made him even sexier. No loose talk. A woman could feel safe with a man like Ithiel.’

The current difficulties that Clara brings to him for his expert consideration have arisen from the matter of her Austrian au pair girl, Gina Wegman. Gina comes from a highly respectable background – her father is a banker – and she is very good with children, especially Lucy, the eldest, ‘a stout little girl needing help’: yet from the start Clara recognises in her a young woman eager for experience – and where better to find that than in New York, or Gogmagogsville, as Bible-reared Clara calls the place. And sure enough, Gina quickly takes up with a ghetto boy, a Haitian of great good looks and dubious morals. Clara warns her of the dangers of such a liaison, yet cannot help but recall that once, angry at Teddy Regler, she herself acquired a young lover, a French-speaker too, but this one from France, who was anything but a model companion for a good Midwestern girl; and there is another boy, from farther back, who every year still sends her a Christmas card, from his cell in Attica.

As we expect, and as Clara expects, Gina’s young man steals the emerald engagement ring. Even here, however, Clara’s indignation is tempered by the knowledge that in such matters she is herself not entirely lily-white. At this point the layers of moral ambiguity built into the book are worthy of the Master himself. First of all, the jeweller from whom the ring was purchased undervalued the emerald, as Clara discovers when she comes to insure it; it is not Clara’s fault, of course, that the jeweller made a mistake, but, on the other hand, she does nothing to right the balance. Then she misplaces the ring and claims the $15,000 insurance money, but a year later, when the ring turns up again, she does not inform the insurance company, and keeps the money. Here the irony of the singular in the title A Theft becomes apparent.

Gina, confronted with her boyfriend’s crime, leaves the apartment and disappears. Clara, on Teddy Regler’s advice, hires a private detective to track her down – not for the purpose of visiting retribution on her, but because Clara has grown fond of the girl, and worries for her safety. The private eye discovers that Gina has moved in with her Haitian. While Clara is trying to make contact with her, the ring mysteriously reappears in Clara’s bedroom: how did it get there, past all that expensive security equipment? The answer is a surprise (a twist in the tail!), one which lifts Gina, and Clara, and Clara’s children, onto a higher plane of interest, and intensifies them as characters wrestling with life’s commonplace yet immensely subtle moral dilemmas.

A Theft is not perfect; it does not have the seamless, enamelled finish that James would have given to it. Although there is less loose writing here than in many of the full-length novels, an occasional idiosyncrasy leaves one blinking. Yet Bellow is such a strong, such a lively writer that what in others would be carelessness can seem carefree in him. Even at their most knockabout, his novels make wonderful talk, provide wonderful lines: a tough old lawyer is ‘like Santa Claus with an empty sack who comes down your chimney to steal everything in the house’: or this passed on from Alexander Zinoviev commenting on glasnost and the crushing of the dissidents: ‘After you’ve gotten rid of your enemies, you’re ready to abolish capital punishment.’ As always with Bellow, the people here have a tangible presence, a thereness; one feels they existed before the book began, and that they will go on after it ends. This verisimilitude is not exactly fashionable today, but Bellow has a healthy contempt for fashions – haute couture in fiction is not for him.

This is a ‘late’ work, and there is a touch of autumn in it: the leaves tremble and glow, and a porcelain-blue sky shows through the branches, but the going is deceptive underfoot, and there is a distinct chill in the air. ‘These people’ – Haitians and other ghetto-dwellers – ‘came up from the tropical slums to outsmart New York, and with all the rules crumbling here as elsewhere, so that nobody could any longer be clear in his mind about anything, they could do it’ – who is speaking here, one wonders uneasily: is it just the ‘hereditary peasant’ in Clara, or is it Saul Bellow the social observer turning bitter?

Clara, no doubt about it, is a tough American who will brook no nonsense from a world that is half silly and half savage. Even her most generous impulses have a pearl of harshness at their core. She attempts to bring Gina and Teddy Regler together, partly out of a desire to rescue the past and fulfil the promise that she and Teddy missed, but also because her Sino-American confidante, Laura Wong (shades of Fanny Assingham and her numerous avatars), has set her own sights on Teddy. It all ends in tears, but they are different from the ones poor Tommy Wilhelm could not contain at the close of a previous novella, Seize the day (1956). Wilhelm weeps for the sadness and brevity of life, Clara for something altogether different; and her tears seem a celebration.