By Charles Matthews

Monday, January 24, 2011

1. More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow, pp. 1-28

More Die of Heartbreak (Penguin Classics)Through  "... which absolute knowledge, only now possible, might view all Being."
The narrator, who we will learn is Kenneth Trachtenberg, wants to tell us about his maternal uncle, Benn Crader, "the well-known botanist." Kenneth was brought up in France, which his uncle likes to emphasize as a point of difference between the two of them: "I haven't got your culture. In the Midwest, minds are slower." Dealing with his uncle also makes Kenneth realize "how greatly I resembled my father -- the gestures, the tones, the amiable superiority, the assurance capable of closing all gaps, of filling all of planetary space, for that matter. To discover whom I sounded like shook me up."

His uncle is a specialist in plant anatomy and morphology, and through him Kenneth "became acquainted with some exact-science types whose eccentricities had the color of prerogatives." He is a large man -- Kenneth's father used to say he "was built like a Russian church" -- and "one of those Russian Jews (by origin) who have the classic Russian face, short-nosed, blue-eyed, with light thinning hair." Kenneth is himself an assistant professor of Russian literature at the same university where his uncle teaches.

"After fifteen years as a widower-bachelor," Uncle Benn remarries to a woman who "was more beautiful than the first, more difficult, more of a torment." Kenneth is upset by this: "I had been away, visiting my parents abroad, and he had taken advantage of my absence to marry this lady without prior consultation. He damn well knew that he should have discussed it with me. We had that kind of relationship." Kenneth already knew the second wife, Matilda Layamon.

Benn had done botanical work in Antarctica, studying lichens, and "was a magical person to me when I was a kid, and somehow he remained one. To my father he was the goofy scientist." He was also interested in "herpes, AIDS and other venereal diseases.... I mention this clinical interest because it foreshadows Uncle's later preoccupation with the demon of sexuality. He tried to take refuge from that in marriage." For Kenneth, his uncle "had the magics, and his glamour only increased when Papa put him down."

Kenneth's father, Rudi Trachtenberg "was an American Francophile, originally from Valparaiso, Indiana, determined to be a Parisian." He was also "a hit with women." Kenneth resembles his father: slender, narrow-faced, black-haired and "dolichocephalic" -- having a long head. "I've been told that I look a lot like the actor John Carradine." His parents were upset when Kenneth took a job at his uncle's university in the Middle West: "My mother and my uncle were natives of this city, my immigrant grandparents are buried here, my great-uncle Vilitzer was a top operator in the Democratic machine. Such an American place."

Kenneth's parents are separated. "You can't budge Rudi Trachtenberg from Paris and its companionable streets. He has a circle of pals, and then there are the women, four decades of women -- a benevolent society, a fan club, a veterans' organization." His mother belongs to "a group of medical volunteers stationed near Djibouti."

Both Kenneth and Benn are travelers, especially Benn. "When Lena, his first wife, died fifteen years ago he began to circle to world." He is famous among his colleagues for his ability to "name all the parts of teh storage organ of a given plant down to the hairlets. He did this at lunch around the globe, in the Celebes or Bogotá, while a textbook was handed back and forth across the table. He was more complete than the text!"

Kenneth is concerned about Benn's traveling: "My aim was to protect his goddam life. He was on a dangerous course. Whenever a 747 went down I checked the passenger list."
Not good, to be a man in his thirties betraying such dependency. Maybe Uncle was crisscrossing the intercontinental skies and pacing the great airports of the world in order to do the thinking he couldn't do sitting still. Maybe he was also running away from me." 

Benn is childless, whereas Kenneth has a daughter by a woman named Treckie, whom he never married, and who now lives in Seattle.

Kenneth thinks, "In some sense he had become my father." Rudi is "a one-time event, like the Fall, or Noah's Ark. As a conversationalist he was limited, but his repertory was terrific for his purposes" because he had met FDR, Harry Hopkins, Churchill and Montgomery aboard a destroyer, and in Paris had met Malraux and Sartre who "accused my father of being an American spy because he spoke French too well. I don't want to get started on my father, but he is indispensable for any understanding of my attachment to my mother's brother.... If he had taken Proust to dinner, Father would have given him memorable entertainment."

Kenneth envies his father's way with women: "ladies were never the same after they had met Rudi Trachtenberg, whereas when they parted with me they were completely themselves, as before.... Why wouldn't the mother of my daughter marry me? Would she have refused my father?"

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