By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

2. More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow, pp. 28-50

More Die of Heartbreak (Penguin Classics)From "This is a sample of the topics discussed in our dining room...." through "... I didn't expect him to answer this."
Rudi Trachtenberg's social and sexual charisma is the reason why Kenneth decided to return to America. "Because he was out of the ordinary, a special case. He didn't have to 'make his soul,' like other people. His was made for him by special forces. I, with my 'soul in the making,' had to go to America for the purpose. This can't be very clear as yet, but it will be, I promise." But Rudi is baffled by his son's interest in his brother-in-law, whom he regards as "a schlump, an incompetent.... He missed out on Benn's largeness of mind."

We learn more about Kenneth's great-uncle, Harold Vilitzer, the "old-time pol and ward boss, a machine alderman, as crooked as they came." He is the younger brother of Kenneth's maternal grandmother, and has even been sued by Kenneth's mother, Hilda.
Vilitzer ... was the executor of Grandma Crader's estate. He bought her property from Benn and Mother through a dummy corporation and later sold it to Ecliptic Circle Electronics, which built the tallest skyscraper in the city on that site, almost as big as the Sears Tower in Chicago. From this deal he made an unguessable pile. Mother and Uncle Benn together got $300,000 out of it.... So to sue Harold was mad. There's no saying how many judges he owned. He played golf with the bagmen of those he didn't actually own.
Harold had begun his shady career during World War II by selling army surplus in Italy: "It became surplus as soon as he got his hands on it," Benn told Kenneth. He came back home and "Next thing we knew, he was in politics."

Kenneth became Benn's favorite family member because he "believed I was the only member of the family with whom he could communicate at an advanced level." Kenneth believes that it was because of his own partial deafness: "I wear my hair long to hide the hearing aid. The hard of hearing have to be twice as attentive; many read lips while listening, and such unusual concentration may be taken for agreement." When Benn and his wife Lena came to Europe, they would bring books for Kenneth: "at first, fairy tales, Leatherstocking, Mark Twain and Dickens. Then, as soon as I was  old enough, they started me on Balzac," whom both of them considered a guide to life." Kenneth observes that if Benn had read Cousin Pons "more closely he wouldn't have married Matilda Layamon. She was the only child of rich parents, and Balzac very specifically tells you that only children born to wealth make dangerous wives." In return, Kenneth introduced Benn to Russian writers, such as Nikolai Fyodorov, "whose position was that death lies behind all human problems. The earth is a graveyard and the one and only project of humanity is to reclaim it for life.... I led Uncle on to see what he would make of it. He read with glee, he ate it up."

But Kenneth remains puzzled by Benn's marriage to Matilda Layamon. During the period between his marriages "he had his hands full, dealing with ladies: flirtations, courtships, longings, obsessions, desertions, insults, lacerations, sexual bondage," and his compulsion to travel "had an erotic cause." And Benn was aware that marrying Matilda was an irrational thing to do. He was not looking for a homemaker, because he "rather liked" housekeeping: "He poured Vanish into his toilet. He preferred 409 to all other kitchen cleaners. He did his socks with Woolite. Jobs that drove other men wild, like peeling spuds, cleaning out the cheese grater, scrubbing scorched saucepans, doing the floors on his knees, didn't bother him at all." Kenneth observes that his uncle "was tuned very high and would play on himself because he was tuned, on such tense strings, performance was inevitable." So a casual conversation at a dinner party about vitamins will produce a lecture on cancer research, "free radicals," intestinal bacteria and high-fiber diet. "Sorry she asked, the lady waits for this excitable bore to end his lecture."
In my opinion he was a sex-abused man ... a woman-battered man.... I see ... the actual man, a big fellow, overweight, pale, with a Russian curvature of the back. He walks with a heavy poise. Above the midriff he is sedate. Then the round head, a full face, a pair of eyes in a curve resembling a figure eight laid on its side.

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