By Charles Matthews

Friday, January 28, 2011

5. More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow, pp. 132-163

More Die of Heartbreak (Penguin Classics)From "The problem was not with opulence and luxury ..." through "... The rest follows from this."
Mrs. Layamon, Benn tells Kenneth, has a "sanctum" in which she "tapes poetry for people in nursing homes." It also contains a splendid azalea, which to Benn's regret is off-limits to him. Matilda, he says, sleeps late and wakes "snappish, morose," which is a bit of a trial for him, "liveliest when he woke up." She also dislikes his friendliness with the servants. But Benn, familiar with the alien through his work with plants, takes it in stride, Kenneth observes:
For all I know, he viewed her as a sheaf of ferns bound up in the satin edging of the  eiderdown, and expanding at the top, fronds of long hair coming down over shut eyes. But then he hadn't married a plant. Matilda might remind you of a fern or a lily of the field, and maybe the plant element was strong in her -- the trouble she had waking suggested a struggle between the two natures -- but she did wake, however reluctantly, and came out at last in her gorgeous housecoat, a brocade of Far Eastern design. 
For Benn, one major problem with staying at the Layamons is the looming presence of the Electronic Tower that sat now on the neighborhood where he was raised and is a constant reminder of his being cheated by Vilitzer. Mrs. Layamon referred to the tower as an "important piece of modern beauty," but Benn keeps his silence about his opinion of it. He does venture a comment that the house that the tower replaced had two very fine mulberry trees. "Expressive looks passed among the Layamons. Uncle was aware of these but interpreted them as signs of boredom. There he was definitely wrong, as we shall see."

Matilda and her mother busy themselves "with bridal registry choices, deciding between Lalique and Baccarat and also linens and kitchenware. A more experienced housekeeper than either of them, Benn had ideas of his own about pots and pans and dishwashers.... However, he wasn't consulted, nor did he try to put in his two cents." He even goes shopping with Matilda and keeps his mouth shut when she buys a dishwasher, even though he knows that for a hundred dollars more they could get one "a thousand times better."

Kenneth comes to dinner one evening at the Layamons to watch his uncle "in the role of the botanical professor bridegroom and son-in-law -- Dr. Chlorophyll." He is able to see for himself the view of the Electronic Tower: "It drew close in the night, a mass of lighted windows bigger than the Titanic, and the fiery masts like a sign to the children of Israel."

Benn goes to the Roanoke to measure the rooms in the apartment Matilda had inherited from her aunt, and confirms Kenneth's "Venetian palace comparison." The rooms had been shut up for a year and "smelled like sickrooms." He wanted to ask Matilda if her aunt had "been incontinent? Did she keep cats or dogs?" But he doesn't. "All I could say was that it was pretty lavish." She does strike the right note when him when she points out that "the windows look straight into the treetops" -- a stand of sycamores.
A true plant man diffused his personal essence into leaves, internal tissues, and sent himself from the root-clutched soil to the highest extremities. As if talking to himself he spoke of forces from the center of the planet, akin to grief, driving green impulses to the surface and into the sun, which act was applauded by the leaves. I'm not sure he actually knew what he was saying. He trusted me enough to ramble, to put unaccountable thoughts, inadmissible notions, into words. 
But Benn's main concern about the apartment is the expense of remodeling and furnishing it. When he ventures to suggest an economy, she replies, "'No, dear.' ... This 'dear,' the 'dear' of contradiction, was laid down like a cement block." He comes to realize that "the Roanoke wasn't simply an apartment. You couldn't just live in it. If you tried, you'd decay.... You had to give parties here -- dinners, private concerts -- otherwise the surroundings would have a disembodying effect on you and pretty soon you'd be a spook, haunting the pantry." Matilda envisions it as a place for a salon: "Visitors passing through, people like Dobrynin, Kissinger, Marilyn Horne, ballet dancers, Günter Grass -- on the road, and no better place to kill an evening -- would discover a civilized haven."

Again, the expense troubles Benn: "This fifteen-room leviathan will swallow my whole salary, and then some." Matilda tells him not to worry:
"Naturally I've considered this from all sides," she said, smiling. "I thought it would appeal more to the Don Quixote in you."

Benn said, "Quixote was a bachelor."

"I meant that the irrationality of it might appeal to you." 
He suggests that they could "fix up the front, the showy part, and you and I can live in the rear," but that, too, is dismissed by Matilda. He tells Kenneth, "It's a three-cornered match: Matilda, me and the Roanoke. I hadn't realized that. Well, how could anybody, beforehand?" But to ease his concern about finances, she sets up a lunch with her father to talk about them.

Kenneth considers "the facts as I then knew them: A beautiful woman unites herself with a world-famous botanist. He may think it will serve his needs. No, all the while she has been thinking what she can do with him." And before Benn's lunch with Dr. Layamon, he suggests that his uncle ask about the judge who performed the wedding ceremony. Benn promises to do so.

The lunch takes place at a pretentious restaurant "on the seventy-fifth floor of one of the newest high-rises." The doctor indulges in medical talk, including the way he counsels aging patients on impotence, which provokes Benn to ask, "Okay, William, why are you telling me about hormones or inflating the genital? You think I'm going to make you some medical confession?" But he learns that the doctor already knows what he needs to know about him: "we ran a little check on you, purely private and absolutely discreet." The news is somewhat unsettling. As if to compensate, the doctor tells him that when Matilda was born, "we physicians had to puzzle over the baby. Was it a boy or a girl?" Benn assures him "she's a woman through and through."

Finally, Benn gets around to asking Kenneth's question: "I want to know why you brought in that Chetnik man to perform the ceremony." He's "an old family friend," Layamon replies, and when Benn says, "He was the judge in our case against Vilitzer," Layamon says he was aware of that, too. Finally, the doctor reveals that he was expecting the question. He had persuaded Matilda to have the judge do the ceremony, and after more back-and-forth on the matter, including a revelation that Amador Chetnik is "changing loyalties," Layamon comes out with the truth:
"Well, as you will have figured, with a brain like yours, the object is to recover money from Uncle Harold. That's the overall game plan."

"For the purpose of refitting the Roanoke palazzo?"

"Right! And then some."
A U.S. attorney is investigating Chetnik, who is ready to name Vilitzer in exchange for leniency. Layamon wants Benn to approach his uncle to discuss terms. If the attorney can put Vilitzer in jail, that will advance his political aims: "a clear path to the U.S. Senate. Or you become governor and you're even mentioned for the presidency." So if Benn threatens to reopen his case against Vilitzer, the threat of investigation will provide some leverage for Vilitzer to settle. It all becomes clear to Benn: "And with Amador Chetnik, now going in reverse, coaching us on the legal side. Yes, I get it. And this was why you asked the judge to unite Matilda and me."

But Benn also insists, "I don't want to harm Vilitzer -- he's my uncle. Sure he's been rough. Still, he's my uncle -- he's Mama's brother." Layamon retorts, "The main consideration is justice. You were gypped out of millions. And it turns out that your new family is protecting your rights, and by rights you should be set up in a place like the Roanoke." He tells Benn that he should ask Vilitzer for five million dollars, "ready to come down to three. I'd estimate his total net worth at a hundred million." Layamon says he should do it for Matilda, who "wants a brilliant position for herself, no more than a woman like that is entitled to." And he can't do it on his salary.
"If you're going to share the bed of this delicious girl of high breeding and wallow in it, you'll have o find the money it takes. And it so happens that the single most valuable piece of real estate in this town was your property until five years ago, when you were screwed out of it, chum. We think you can be made whole. So here goes."

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