By Charles Matthews

Thursday, January 27, 2011

4. More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow, pp. 104-132

More Die of Heartbreak (Penguin Classics)From "I had gone to see my mother in East Africa ..." through "...Which side do you think I'm from?"
Benn's marriage took Kenneth completely by surprise: When his uncle drove him to the airport for his trip to see his mother in Africa, Benn had made no mention of Matilda, or even of the fact that he was seeing her, even though Kenneth had introduced him to her. Kenneth's feelings are hurt, and he behaves like a jilted girlfriend. "Somewhere, I'm still sore because he cheated on me -- broke the rules of our relationship."

Kenneth's mother is surprised by the marriage, too, but she uses it as an occasion to warn him against his "tendency to imitate" his uncle, telling him: "Treckie would not be a suitable wife. She belongs to the Ken Kesey acid culture and all that craziness which is now passé and doesn't yet realize it." But she rubs salt in his wound by saying that "now your uncle will need you much less than formerly." Kenneth is convinced that "Uncle had never needed me so badly as now."

Matilda had come to Paris to do research for her Ph.D. thesis, which is where Kenneth's mother had become acquainted with her. When she returned home, she made contact with Kenneth and through him with Benn.
She was now in her thirties, had never been married, was not too old to have children, and what she was looking for was a husband. It never entered my mind that Uncle Benn might be thought a candidate for matrimony by this glittering, nervous, French-Midwestern woman.
As it turned out, she was the one who asked Benn to keep their relationship secret. "I might be a dear person, and obviously Uncle doted on me, but nobody could deny that I was a bit on the weird side and notorious for the kinkiness of my theories. Even Mother had hinted (more than hinted) that I was somewhat unstable." Benn describes the places where he used to meet Matilda, and Kenneth recognizes them as "Places where you'd never run into me." Benn denies that he was responsible for that, so Kenneth puts the blame on Matilda.

Benn is staying with Matilda and her parents "in their duplex penthouse, at the peak of a newly constructed building in what passes in this town for a 'fine old neighborhood' -- a cluster of residential condominiums, many of them tawny pink." Kenneth is convinced that his "uncle had no business in such a location." They meet in Kenneth's room in one of the university dormitories, a "bare, devoid-of-comforts place."

Benn tells Kenneth that he is staying with the Layamons temporarily before he and Matilda leave for their honeymoon in Brazil. Kenneth reminds him that he "didn't like Brazil the first time," to which Benn replies, "You'd have to be pretty spoiled to reject such a big piece of the continent," and that Matilda wants to go "To escape the winter. To honeymoon in a warm climate." Kenneth adds, "'Also, to have you to herself for two or three months.' I didn't add: 'To cut me out.'" After they return, they will be moving into a co-op called the Roanoke, which Matilda's aunt left to her in her will. "The Roanoke! Sixteen Venetian palaces piled on top of one another in a towering heap," Kenneth says in astonishment tinged with distaste.
I took the trouble of recording Benn's conversations from his other life (the Layamon one) as he reported them to me, and I've kept the notes. At first he was reserved, intent on making an impression. With time, however, he began to go into greater detail, consistent with his habit of mind.... When he described the wedding ceremony to me, he mentioned that it had been performed near the Layamons' Christmas tree. Although dusted with plastic snow, the tree itself was real. It was a balsam fir, and to this bristling little plant he connected himself somehow. It was like a sister to the bridegroom, the nearest thing to a relative standing up at his wedding.... If while he and Matilda were being united by the judge Benn closed his eyes and swayed slightly, it was because his imagination was enlarging in his head the heavily cutinized epidermis of the needle leaves -- the stomata beneath the surface, the mesophyll, the trabecular projections, the resin canals, the procambium.
Kenneth asks if Vilitzer had been invited, and Benn admits that he was on the guest list though he didn't attend. But he reveals that the judge who performed the ceremony was also the judge, Amador Chetnik, who presided over the trial when Kenneth's mother sued Vilitzer. "At this, my legs dropped off the recliner and I sat upright and turned my head to hear better." He tells Benn that he hopes that the choice of "One of Vilitzer's stable of judges" wasn't his new father-in-law's idea of a joke. "Doctor is a sort of humorist," Benn replies. "He isn't a smooth type at all. But it may have a tactical meaning we can't see yet. Fence mending of some kind."

The Layamons, Benn says, are "definitely friendly" toward him. Mrs. Layamon is "only eight years my senior, about the same age as your mother. Instead of a son-in-law I might be her brother." Dr. Layamon has, in addition to the twelve-room penthouse, a house in Palm Springs, and plays golf with Bob Hope and Gerald Ford. Norman Lear had had them to dinner, and Layamon felt obliged to make a contribution to the American Civil Liberties Union, "As payola." The Layamons had expected Matilda to choose "a husband form any of these spheres. According to Doctor, she passed up a national network anchorman, then a fellow who was now on the federal appeals bench, plus a tax genius consulted by Richard Nixon. The list was fairly long.... Matilda just naturally drew men."

Dr. Layamon is convinced that she
had brains enough to be chief executive officer of a blue-chip corporation. With her mentality you could manage NASA. When Mondale announced for the presidency she sent him a campaign blueprint, and if he had been smart enough to put her in charge he might be in the White House now. Her head is like a computer bank, and all she ever used it for was to contrive more personal trouble, a migraine for her parents, lasting more than three decades. On the chance that there would be less trouble to get into in higher education, they sent her to the best institutions. As a result she has more degrees than a thermometer -- all useless, worth shit.
Layamon, Benn says, has a way of giving compliments and then undermining them. "He complimented Benn on his eminence in botany," and then would make some remark about what a shame it was that he hadn't had his teeth straightened. And in the restroom he inspected Benn's genitals while they were urinating. "His comment was: 'Fire-fighting equipment seems adequate, anyway.'" Matilda later told Benn that she had noticed how quickly her father had followed him to the men's room: "Genitals are a common fixation among doctors."

But Benn also insists, "I am happy with this woman."

No comments:

Post a Comment