The OF Blog: Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Saul Bellow, More Die of Heartbreak

I try to make clear to him the latest motives at work, and console him with insights more available to members of my generation.  I say, "Whatever troubles people run into, they look for the sexual remedy.  Whether it's business, a career problem, character difficulties, doubts about one's body, even metaphysics, they turn to sex as the analgesic."

"No, no, Kenneth, not an aspirin, no.  That makes it too trivial."

"All right, then; they do the act by which love would be transmitted if there were any."

"That's more like it."

"Furthermore, women are allowed to be more aggressive now.  But when they're rebuffed it's terrible for them.  It used to go the other way, women saying no to men.  The men became accustomed to it."

"I should have rebuffed her right away, without sampling.  What hurt her was that I sampled."

"She's set up to be made a fool of - the way she dresses, wears her hair, the way she speaks.  Not like a woman taking herself seriously.  How could you take her seriously?" (pp. 86-87)

Saul Bellow, 1975 Nobel Prize-winning author, is perhaps one of the greatest writers of the second half of the 20th century.  Several of his works, including The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1964), and Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970),  have won prestigious national literary prizes.  His works are full of memorable characters, such as the protagonist of The Victim, whose oft-tortured recollections of deeds not done and misdeeds committed serve as exemplary models of how to use characterization to reflect thematic concerns and vice versa.  His characters live, breathe, sweat, and often agonize, leaving readers to feel as though they are putting coins in the 25¢ peep show to view a confessional instead of a tawdry show.  Bellow's prose is outstanding and his dialogue in particular can be mesmerizing, as readers can easily find themselves reading pages-long conversations before realizing how much has been consumed.

In his later years, Bellow's output was a bit more sporadic.  While there would be several memorable moments in his latter works, these would not be as commonplace nor as easily integrated into the narrative as was the case in his earlier work.  Sometimes, the result would be something like 1987's More Die of Heartbreak, where the parts are greater than the whole.  Despite this, even Bellow's more flawed novels are worth reading and More Die of Heartbreak, despite its unbalanced narrative, certainly is a work that reveals certain insights (not all of which are welcome) that are worth considering.

The main story revolves around members of a Jewish family.  Kenneth, the narrator, has left his native France for New York in the belief that there is "action" in the US that he cannot find in France.  He comes to spend time with one of his uncles, Benn Crader, who is both a wanderer at heart and a renowned botanist.  The two share recollections regarding their lives, their aspirations, their disappointments, and interwoven amongst all this, the power that sexual relationships of all forms and fetishes, have had on their development.

More Die of Heartbreak is a very introspective novel.  It operates on several levels.  It can be viewed as a family novel, showing the familial bonds and how they are expressed.  It can also be read as a penetrating look into post-World War II Jewish-American life and the problems that faced that ethnic/religious group.  It is also a treatise of sorts on love and its effects on the human psyche.  It is also in some ways a parable about the dangers of longing and desire.

However, these different aspects of the novel often clash and weaken the overall effect.  In trying to explore these disparate elements, Bellow often fails to develop his characters as much as he had done with previous novels.  Kenneth and Uncle Benn often feel sketched out rather than fully rounded characters.  Their concerns regarding their relationships, while moving in places, is not as powerful due to this weaker sense of these characters being sympathetic.  Sometimes, too much was going on in particular scenes to suit the narrative goals.

This is not to say that More Die of Heartbreak is not a good novel.  It is at times a very moving novel, despite its many flaws.  Even during the scenes where it appears Bellow skirts too closely the invisible line between balanced and unbalanced narrative tense, he does still display a gift for putting words to fears that few authors have managed to do.  Take for instance the scene quoted above.   In just a few exchanges, not only does the reader get a greater sense where each character stands, but a lot of insight is provided in just those few comments.  Kenneth is perhaps in some ways even more jaded than his uncle; his heartache involves being rejected by the mother of his young child.  But his Uncle Benn is the one that is suffering the most; a former paramour has died of a heart attack, as revealed in this section just after the quote above ends.

It is this sense that beneath the questing for love, the desire for some confirmation that something is right in the universe, that underlies this novel's best scenes.  To continue quoting from the same conversation given above:

"Watch out, Uncle.  Don't exaggerate."

"I had the sex with her.  I know what I know."

"It was more hysteria than lovemaking.  And when you first told me about it, you were the one who made it sound preposterous."

"Well, yes.  Maybe I did.  If I didn't treat it as a joke it would be too awful to face...But now she's dead.  It gets me, Kenneth.  I see her suffocated by swollen longings.  Poor thing, her heart gave out."

"You didn't cause it."

"I might have prevented it, but it probably does no good to harp on it, either.  A newspaperman had men on the phone a few days ago.  Vulliam, my chairman, got rid of him by putting him onto me, and he wanted a statement about plant life and the radiation level increasing.  Also dioxin and other harmful wastes.  He was challenging about it.  Well - I agreed it was bad.  But in the end I said, 'It's terribly serious, of course, but I think more people die of heartbreak than of radiation." (p. 87)
Not only does this quote reference the novel's title, it also reveals far more of the characters than virtually any other passage.  While too often there was a sense of murky distance between the characters as personages and characters as thematic cyphers, here the two converge.  Heartbreak is shown both as an intellectual discussion, as Uncle Benn says to the newspaperman, but also is revealed to be a personal affliction that is haunting Uncle Benn.  From this point, nearly one-quarter into the novel, the story begins to develop, but with several hitches along the way.  The answer to the two protagonists' problems is intriguing and is mostly good, but it fails to resonate as much as it could have, due to the shortcomings cited above.  More Die of Heartbreak is a troubled, flawed novel, but despite this, or perhaps in part because of these flaws laid bare, it still contains powerful moments that make it a good, if not great, read and (eventually) re-read.

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