Saul Bellow and The Power of Eros
Saul Bellow was born a hundred year ago yesterday in Quebec and died only ten years ago. I thought he was born in Montreal, but his birthplace was actually Lachine, a separate city when I grew up, but absorbed into the metropolis of Montreal thirteen years ago. Bellow has always been intimately identified with the City of Chicago, but Lachine, Quebec plays a wry, understated, irreverent and subversive role in the oddest places.
Over the weekend, I was given a gift of a hardcover edition of Bellow’s novella, The Actual (1997). It was sensitive, considerate and timely. Yesterday, on his hundredth birthday, I decided to read what turned out to be a roman à clef as a homage to a writer I loved who was one of the greatest novelists and essayists in America. I think he was the best of the post-war writers, even when Philip Roth enthralled me more. He won the National Award for Fiction for The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1963), and Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970). Humboldt’s Gift won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 just before he deservedly won the Nobel Prize for Literature. As far as I can tell, Henderson the Rain King (1959), one of my all time favourites, was the only one of big novels that failed to earn high recognition – which may say something about my discernment, except it was Saul’s favourite as well. I promised to re-read it this year, and I am sure I will enjoy it even more as I approach becoming an octogenarian. I am also curious about Bellow’s portrayal of Africa now that I have been to Africa many times, but had never been there when I first read the novel. Of course, from Bellow, I do not look forward to factual accuracy.
The Actual, like virtually all of his novels, is a study in personality and not just character, for character is the mutilated residue of a compromised life, but it takes personality to rediscover the truth of one’s natural inner being. Harry Trellman, a dealer in “restored” Chinese antiquarian art and artefacts, is the main protagonist. As he describes his own physical visage where the peculiarities of his early birth and upbringing had sunk into its structure, Harry had “a round head, hair worn as long as the orphanage allowed, a pair of fat black eyes, a wide mouth with a sizable lip. Wonderful materials for the insidious Fu Manchu book.” As an adult he became a Chinese linguist and went to the Far East for five years, the last two in Burma. There he made his small fortune and returned to his Chicago home even though in China and Burma, with his Asiatic features, he blended in, while those same features, pinned on a Chicago Jew, made him stand out.
Harry had discovered himself in China and recognized his skills at making a “deal”. But the novel is not about exile, but about the spiritual journey of return. The shaggy dog joke in the story about the reburial or re-internment of his childhood friend, Jay Wustrin, a sexaholic barely competent undistinguished lawyer who bested him in getting the hand of marriage of the teenage love of his life, Amy Wustrin, now the divorced widow of Jay, is vintage Bellow. The joke is that Jay, with all his superficiality and glitzy manipulation, is the only one to manage to return from the exile from which no one escapes; he had to be re-buried once he has made a joke of being really buried beside his hated mother-in-law.
Sigmund Adletsky, the Chicago trillionaire – Bellow was not very good at numbers; billionaire, shmillionaire, who cares? – had recruited Harry to his brains trust as a personal adviser and observer. Adletsky had handed over day-to-day control of his financial empire to his children. At 92, he was now living in exile, a prisoner in Chicago’s ultra-rich enclave, no better than Napoleon’s on Saint Helena. “Retirement is an illusion. Not a reward but a mantrap. The bankrupt underside of success. A shortcut to death.” Harry was his key to the small degree of freedom he had left.
In recoil from being noticed, Harry Trellman shrunk into an observer role, a commentator of the people and affairs of the day, rather than an active participant. And that is where Lachine, Quebec comes in, though it is not mentioned in the novel at all. It is an inside joke, one of the many hidden small gems in the story. They are not symbolic and weighed with deep meaning. They are just simple jokes to bring a chuckle and expand on the meaning of the short tale.
The reference is made indirectly. For one of the shadowy characters in the novel is a man named Cressy from Continental Bank, who is invited to a soirée at the home of Frances Jellicoe, a society hostess. It is at that dinner that Adletsky and Trellman first meet and discover in each other a keen sense of observation and an ability to reveal the back story behind the shadows dancing before them. Cressy is a man who will not have his picture taken beside Fritz Rourke, the drunken and noisy husband of Frances. Fritz, as is his habit, disgraces himself at the party. But Frances Jellicoe “will have her way” and insists on standing behind her husband however much of a wastrel he had become.
Cressy rejects Rourke. Frances insists that Cressy recognize him. The battle is joined. Trellman provides a linguistic aside for which Bellow is overly fond, (as I am in copying Bellow), and for which Sigmund Adletsky had no use. Trellman offers the informational sidebar that Cressy is a modification of Crécy, a French battlefield.
Lachine means China named evidently in 1667 to mock the aristocrat who owned the town, René-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle. De la Salle was one of the French explorers who spent his life unsuccessfully searching for a passage to Asia, hence the derisory nickname for these failed returnees. For Bellow, if the search was merely material, if the return was not a spiritual one, it was bound to be a failure; on the other hand, return meant coming back to a specific place and a special person. The spiritual return was embedded in the physical. Bellow was the master purveyor of the soul perceived in and through the flesh and clothes and hats and coats used to cover that flesh.
Lachine has quite another, more subversive role. The massacre of the six Jesuit priests by the Huron tribe has an iconic status in Ontario history. (A picture of the martyr’s shrine at Minden is the main feature inside my writing cabin up north, and the cabin is a replica of the martyr’s shrine itself.) So too is Lachine symbolic in history for another famous slaughter. In 1689, 1,500 Mohawk warriors burned Lachine to the ground in revenge for the devastation of Seneca lands inflicted by the White Man. So it should be no surprise that Bellow used the form of a novella to offer a civilized version of physical savagery and defacement.
Herzog starts off his novel, not with Plato’s version of the relationship between the surface nature of appearances and the truth that must be found beyond those appearances, but true to his own proposition (and superb literary style) that through appearances, it is hard to “discern the repertories of stratagems, deceits, personality rackets,” but that is precisely the task of the novelist, to wend one’s way warily through those appearances to unravel the puzzles and incongruencies that they present. And not to do so as a Freudian in quest of the secret source of the drama of everyday life rooted in the rivalry between id and superego that ravages the everyday experiences of the ego. The clues will not come from Freudian slips, but through careful observations of the appearances, of actions, of deliberations and plans. The therapist’s couch is too far from the battles to offer any help. How could a Freudian come to understand Two-Gun Cohen, Sun Yat-sen’s Jewish general who was also from Montreal?
In a 1962 essay called, “A Novelist-Critic Discusses the Role of Reality in the Creation of Fiction,” Bellow described one end of the spectrum in which an individual is incapable of discriminating between the products of the imagination and actual reality, for reality as a land of shadows is taken as no different than a shadow world taken as realty. In that essay, Bellow described a miner who spent his days searching for gold in Alaska, but who, one evening, ran up to a movie screen to batter down a villain with his shovel. Material objects, such as gold and wealth, were acceptable products of the imagination, but his limited imagination could only conceive of imaginative constructions as being real objects. At the other end of the spectrum are those whose imaginations are so rich that if they imagine an activity, it is as good as being performed and so, unlike the miner, they are condemned to impotence.
Art does not copy experience but exploits it. In the essay’s attack on the realistic novel, he lets Henry James and Virginia Woolf have it with all guns firing. He criticized both for their retreat too far from externals and from observation in favour of mental independence and sensibility. When thirty-five years later he wrote Actuality, it was still in terms of those principles – never too absorbed in the real and never insensitive to what is actually in front of you. But Americans are drawn to the factual as if it consisted of magnetized filings. Readers and writers in North America are excited by facts and drawn towards the documentary. But accuracy and likeness are not the proper measures for a novel as they were supposed to be for Dreiser and Zola. What would Bellow have to say about Reality TV? Unless the process of the fiction has to do with justice, fate and salvation, the quest for knowledge and insight from a novel will land you in the bankruptcy courts.
Look at Bellow’s portrait of Chicago to which the protagonist returns where he knows he cannot remain invisible. “The main threat [Bellow calls it a ‘liminal’ threat] in a place like Chicago is emptiness – human gaps and breaks, a sort of spiritual ozone that smells like bleach.” However, it is precisely this liminality, this role of the atmosphere of a place, that allows it to serve as an intermediate and transitional condition between failed efforts to disappear and successful, but crooked and indirect, ways to reappear.
The novella is almost, but not quite, plotless. Three plots, really vignettes, do link up – the recruitment and befriending of Harry Trellman by Sigmund Adlestky, the reburial of Jay, and the negotiations over a purchase of a luxurious duplex apartment on East Lake Shore Drive and its contents by Adletsky for his wife. The sellers are another rich but much lesser breed of Jewish wealth with a totally absurd and hilarious backstory that is not hidden at all, that of Bodo and the notorious Madge Heisinger. Madge tried to have her husband, Bodo, killed by a hit man and failed. When she got out of jail, Bodo remarried her. Madge tries to seduce Amy into a cockamamie scheme to make Adletsky pay a large inflated price for the furnishings. The portrait of these Jewish notable Chicagoans, these “’heavy-money Yids,’ representatives of the powers of darkness and the secret rulers of the world?” is hilarious. It is a rare feet to satirize both rich Jews and the stereotypes of rich Jews by anti-Semites at one and the same time.
Linking all of these stories is Harry Trellman’s unrequited love – not lust but deep love – for Amy Wustrin.
From looking on, who would know that Harry Trellman had, since high school when Amy and he briefly dated, had retained – and maintained – a deep and profound love for Amy, “a half a century of feeling invested in her, of fantasy, speculation, and absorption of imaginary conversation.” But it was not a love for a fantasy of the other, but for the flesh-and-blood moral actuality of the other. Adletsky noticed. And Adletsky acted at the age of 92 to force the two together over Jay’s grave to confess their long suppressed – though suppressed in not quite the correct word – actually, unrealized but recognized deep love for one another. Harry had always noticed. “I saw her fully feminine thighs, the gloss and smoothness of sexual maturity on the cheeks and in the brown gaze; she transmitted messages of which she may not even have been aware.” Harry Trellman was aware, was sensitive, but was frozen in the inaction of a resolute observer and an irresolute actor.
But with observing the other came an unspoken contempt for the other – for the Heisingers, for the Adleskys, for his best friend as a boy, Jay, and even for Amy. “These were all commonplace persons. I would never have let them think so, but it’s time to admit that I looked down on them. They were lacking in higher motives. (my italics) They were run-of-the-mill products of our mass democracy, with no distinctive contribution to make to the history of the species, satisfied to pile up money or seduce women, to copulate, thrive in the sack as the degenerate children of Eros, male but not manly, and living, the men and the women alike, on threadbare ideas, without beauty, without virtue, without the slightest independence of spirit.” The recognition of this contempt was the real path to return, to redemption and to salvation for the last few years of his life as he finally became aware, with hindsight, that for most people he “generally had a knife within reach.
It was Amy, not Harry, who, from the first “understood what first love can do. It strikes you at seventeen and, like infantile paralysis, though it works through the heart, not the spinal cord, it too can be crippling.” Even Adletsky recognized that Trellman’s “mystery was, at bottom, nothing but misery.” Adletsky had rediscovered compassion in his retirement and Harry Trellman had yet to follow his unrecognized mentor. It was not in the cards for Bellow to leave the trump cards in the hands of the detached ironist of life. In spite of some unnecessary and bothersome repetitions in reference to Adletsky’s retirement and Trellman’s own physiognomy, this is both an intelligent as well as richly imagined novella that celebrates both the thinking and the imaginative life.