By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

3. More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow, pp. 51-103

More Die of Heartbreak (Penguin Classics)From "Uncle and I made one long trip together..." through "... a private ceremony in the home of her parents, Dr. and Mrs. William Layamon."
Kenneth has gone to Seattle to try to persuade Treckie to marry him, and his uncle calls to ask him to join him on a flight to Japan. He scolds Kenneth for "Taking the usual beating from that dainty little woman. Bears you a child, and then bears you a grudge." But Benn is also taking a beating from a woman, Caroline Bunge: "a department store heiress from Cleveland whom Uncle had met on the seafront in Puerto Rico -- a setting suitable to promiscuity." Caroline "had the appearance of dignity, the composure and the accent of a woman who had been educated abroad in good schools, French and English. She talked Irish horses, jumping, fox hunting, whiskey" and "described her friendships with Jean Genet and Marguerite Duras."

She was attracted to Benn because he was "safe": "Women in my bracket are frightened to death of a von Bülow-type match." But Benn is not ready to marry Caroline, and when she precipitates the matter by having a pre-nup drawn up, hiring a limousine to take them to City Hall, and arranging for a navy chaplain to perform the service, Benn swiftly arranges for a flight to Kyoto. "So at the moment when Caroline was landing on the domestic side of the airport, Uncle entered the international terminal and hurried to the Japan Air Lines counter."

Kenneth's problems with Treckie are the exact opposite. He had been physically attracted to "her shape, short and firm" and the fact that she had "exactly the bosom -- top of its class -- that I preferred.... This sexual kid, I went for her, her small face and miniature smiles together with the full figure, her well-developed bosom. She was like a pale girl-aborigine." The only flaw he found was "that her legs were disfigured by bruises. Her shins were all black and blue," and she wouldn't tell him how she came by the disfigurements.

When Treckie becomes pregnant, he offers to marry her, but she refuses. She keeps her job at the Veterans Administration Hospital during the pregnancy, and in the seventh month he moves into her basement apartment in "a graduate-student slum." Even after the baby, a girl named Nancy, is born, she stays there, even though she "got dividend checks in the mail; she owned AT&T and other blue-chip stocks." Her mother is rich, but they were "on bad terms."

She tells Kenneth "raunchy stories" about the goings-on of the staff at the hospital. Once, she was waiting for the elevator, and when it opened it was dark, with two people having sex on the floor. She turned on the light "and saw that there were several frightened old veterans crowded into a corner of the cab." She regards it as characteristic of the civil service bureaucracy: "The premise is that at the very top of the power structure, in D.C., people are getting away with murder, making themselves government gifts worth hundreds of millions, so why shouldn't the rest of us fool around, play at work."

Kenneth persists in trying to get her to marry him but when the offer of a transfer to Seattle comes, she takes it. She tells him that he has his Uncle Benn, so he won't miss her and Nancy, and that, "You're a very self-sufficient person, with a life plan of his own," and he admits that she was right.
Unconsciously, my interests had developed along lines which, with maturity, revealed a design whose elements can be listed in the following résumé: (a) what Americans are; (b) what Russians are; (c) what Jews -- since I am one of them -- are; (d) what it signifies to say that one is (or is not!) a Citizen of Eternity. To name at random a number of such Citizens will reveal what the word "Eternity" signifies: Moses, Achilles, Odysseus, the Prophets, Socrates, Edgar in King Lear, Prospero, Pascal, Mozart, Pushkin, William Blake. These we think about and, if possible, make our souls by.... If Benn was not yet a Citizen, if Eternity was not ready to give him his second papers, he was as close to it as I had ever been able to come.
His father is not even a contender for Citizenship because "The premise of his eroticism was mortality. The sex-embrace was death-flavored. He translated Eternity as Death." When he tells his father that because Treckie had his child, "I figure that she somehow, somewhere, loves me," his father tells him "you've got your head up your ass, as Aristophanes would say."

We learn that Kenneth got his start in Russian studies from the first person who taught him the language in Paris, a M. Yermelov, who was a mystic who "studied Trismegistus, the Zohar, Eliphas Levi, Giordano Bruno, Paracelsus," and was critical of "the disturbed sexuality of the present age."

On the way to Japan, Kenneth reminds his uncle that he had warned him about Caroline Bunge, who "was  very handsome, but she spelled trouble. She was a big, graceful (old-style) lady, vampy, rich, ornate, slow-moving, a center-stage personality ... like a goddess from a Ziegfeld extravaganza." She was also crazy. "It may have been the lithium that made her remote. Being on mood pills was one hundred percent contemporary. If you aren't up-to-the-moment you aren't altogether real. But crazies are always contemporaries, as sandpipers always run ahead of the foam line on the beaches."
She had always been drawn to philosophy, she said [when she first met Benn in Puerto Rico], and she assumed that as a university professor he must be in earnest about metaphysics. For some time she had been puzzling over an important remark made by Buckminster Fuller. She was in the audience and had heared it herself. Fuller said, "God is a verb." She had taken this as a mantra for meditation. The Word was with God. The Word was God. Fuller insisted that Logos couldn't be a noun. He mentioned that in Faust it was said, "In the beginning was the Deed."
Uncle said, "Very good, provided that you know what you're doing."
Trying to find what drew his uncle to Caroline, Kenneth concludes that "she appealed to him by reason of her challenging remoteness." But he also suspects that her eccentricity had its appeal, that "perhaps Uncle reckoned that a woman who didn't know what she was doing would be less critical of a man unsure of himself," and finds some parallels in Russian literature: "Tolstoy's would-be saint, Father Sergius, who could resist the seductions of a society woman, succumbed later to a feeble-minded girl. Old Karamazov took advantage of a moronic woman and made her pregnant. Was this because he was drunk or because a witless creature had a peculiar power to excite him."

Caroline told Kenneth that she had taken LSD in the '60s, and "Uncle told me that Caroline didn't use the pill for birth prevention. Instead, she filled herself with tufts of paper -- facial tissues or torn pieces of paper table napkins. This began towards the end of dinner. As she sat at the other end of the table, she would almost absentmindedly begin to pick at the napkins." So when she called to tell him that she had arranged their marriage, "As soon as he rang off, it seemed to him an eternity before he could get a dial tone and obtain the code for a direct call to Kyoto."

Caroline, it seems, is not the first woman whom Benn has had to flee. A divorced woman named Della Bedell, who lived upstairs from him, came down one evening to ask if he would help her change a light bulb. She said she didn't like to bother the super so late -- it was 10 p.m. "He has to stand on an upholstered dining room chair. She suggests that he remove his shoes. In the end everything is removed." Della has been reading articles about women taking control of their sexuality, and when Benn tries to dodge any subsequent sexual encounters, she grows belligerent, leaving notes in his mailbox that say things like "What am I supposed to do with my sexuality?" So Benn "escapes to Brazil, where he lectures on morphology." But while he's away, she dies of cardiac arrest, leaving him racked with guilt. He tells Kenneth,
"A newspaperman had me on the phone a few days ago.... he wanted a statement about plant life and the radiation level increasing. Also dioxin and other harmful wastes.... 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.'"
Benn changes the subject to Treckie, as if to make the point that he and Kenneth are brothers in arms when it comes to women.

Later in the year, Kenneth visits his mother in East Africa and tries to get her to talk about her brother. He learns that "'he was a sexy little bastard,' and that mothers on Jefferson Street wouldn't let their little girls play with him," but that he had had some kind of nervous breakdown, "maybe even a schizophrenic episode" when he was seventeen. He had fallen in love with "the daughter of Cohen the tailor," but when she began to see someone else he went "out of his head with grief -- with sex misery. Benn was backward with girls, didn't understand how to conduct himself." His mother grows irritated with his exploration of the subject, especially in the midst of a land plagued with famine, but comments, "Your uncle doesn't know which side is up. He was lucky enough, as much as he deserved, with Lena. She was a decent woman, but by any real standard she was a frump. When she dies he made such a fuss, you would have thought she was some kind of saint. He should stick to his leaves. Or sap, or whatever his business is."

He thinks his mother blames her brother for luring him into the academic life. "She had wanted me to be a big shot. I should have been the Times's number one man in Paris, or chef de bureau for Le Monde in Washington, or NBC's head for Western Europe." She is also irritated with Kenneth about Treckie. "She didn't want me to be an homme à femmes like Dad, but did I have to be the direct opposite?" When he talks to her about his ideas, she wants him to focus instead on the misery in Somalia. "Instead, her only child had arrived to lecture her. In this regard he was like his pa, in whose list of pleasures lecturing came right after sex." She regrets that she let him study Russian with M. Yermelov: "He marked you for life."

Back in Japan, he and Benn are taken around Kyoto by the elderly Professor Komatsu, "a biophysicist who had given the world papers of real scientific power," but also writes poems about "his nanny, whom seventy-five years ago he had deeply loved and who passed away in 1912, when he was six or seven years old." They stop at one point to watch a group of women who are engaged in making houseposts, "scraping, washing, rubbing and polishing the wood." When Benn observes, "Woman who do this work might make wonderful wives," Komatsu laughs, but observes that "Americans who shop for docile wives here often are disappointed. After a year or so in the U.S. the ladies are Americanized. Roles are reversed. In a short while, Professor Crader, you might become the attendant, rubbing a supine wife where she commanded you."
The old Japanese professor said to me while Benn was walking ahead that Uncle had a special gift of observation. It might not be "scientific" in the accepted meaning of the term. There was something visionary about the distinctness with which "plants came before him." You could have a thought that was ultraclear, but there was a further stage, in which it was not merely ultraclear but became visible, as if it were drawn or painted before your inner eye.
One evening, some of the professor's younger colleagues take them to a strip club. But the experience -- of the disrobing women and the dispassionate men in the audience -- unsettles Benn.
Uncle was profoundly upset by a succession of sexual miseries. There was no good reason why Miss Yokohama and Miss Nagasaki should have thrown him so badly, caused him such pain that he determined to settle his life once and for all. About this he didn't level with me.... I can see why it might drive him crazy to discuss matrimony with Kenneth Trachtenberg. What I can't see is why he should have picked a woman like Matilda Layamon, if what he wanted was calme or ordre, let alone volupté

Anyway, at Christmas, while I was abroad, he married this lady in a private ceremony in the home of her parents, Dr. and Mrs. William Layamon.

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