I read a lot of Saul Bellow’s novels in my twenties. I can’t remember how I realised that he was not only a good writer but a literary one, an intellectual. I read Henderson the Rain King, The Adventures of Augie March, The Dean’s December, Mr Sammler’s Planet and Seize the Day (of which last, see below). I seem to have retained only fragments of those books, like the memory of the character in Mr Sammler’s Planet who smells all the time of excrement because of – typical Bellow phrase – “faecal carelessness”. While I knew I liked them, I never built up an idea of Bellow as a writer and, to tell the truth, I don’t think I appreciated them.
So I decided to go back to Bellow for a bit and read two of his novellas: The Bellarosa Connection, which is the subject of this post, and Seize the Day, for a second time, of which more in the one that follows.
The Bellarosa Connection is about one of Bellow’s recurrent themes, Jewishness and how Jews fit into America. It is a first person narrative about a man in later life who tries to make contact with an older couple whom he feels he wronged in some theoretical way that only makes sense if you think very deeply about events and how and why they matter. Which is really what the book is about. Not much happens, but much is analysed and considered.
The intense consideration of detail is occasionally slightly frustrating and a dullard reader like me can get impatient. But the book is very short and one is left with the recognition that this is a delicately crafted book, where drama is hinted at, not described. The language is fine and the style of the narrator is brilliantly sustained. A typical comment:
“When she crossed her legs and he noted the volume of her underthighs, an American observer like me could, and would, picture the entire woman unclothed, and depending on his experience of life and his acquaintance with art, he might attribute her type to an appropriate painter. In my mental picture of Sorella I chose Rembrandt’s Saskia over the nudes of Rubens.”
This educated yet slightly coarse mentality is a feature of the narrator’s personality, which is very subtly presented through the story.
This is an understated book but very well written indeed.