By Charles Matthews

Sunday, January 30, 2011

7. More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow, pp. 192-210

More Die of Heartbreak (Penguin Classics)From "Choosing a bright day ..." through "... its rear fumes giving me a diesel headache."
Kenneth and his uncle visit the observation deck on the hundred-and-second story of the Electronic Tower. They are high above the site of Benn's old neighborhood, but he's not inclined to comment on that: "The single remark Benn did pass was about his father's death, somewhere under us, twenty years ago."

And for a time, Kenneth, too, is detached from his uncle's current concerns. He has received a note from Treckie's mother, Tanya Sterling, who will be in town and wants to see him. Figuring he'd better consult Treckie before this encounter, he telephones her in Seattle, but a man answers. "With interpretive skills sharpened by suspicion and jealousy, I judged that the fellow was in the middle of his supper, and Treckie was called away from the gas range." He also deduces that "the man was well established there.... I never had been invited to a meal by Treckie in Seattle." He avoids questioning her about the man, however, and asks instead about her mother's invitation. Tanya, she tells him, has just returned from five years in Costa Rica ("She was playing out a romance with some Robert Vesco type the government hasn't been able to extradite") and paid her a visit in Seattle. Treckie has no problem with his meeting with her, so he calls the Marriott and leaves a message for Tanya.

Meanwhile, he is taking care of Dita Schwartz. "Owing to an adolescent case of acne, her face was uneven with scar tissue and deeply white," so she has located a dermatologist "who made her a price to remove the top layers of dead skin right in his office, under a local anesthetic." He picks up Dita at the man's office, and finds her swathed in bandages and beginning to faint with pain as the anesthetic wears off. "The torments and martyrdoms to which women submit their bodies, the violent attacks they make on their own long-hated faults or imagined deformities! Gladly assaulting themselves. The desperate remedy. The poor grinding their faces."

So for the several weeks of Dita's recovery, Kenneth plays nursemaid and housekeeper for Dita. "In the end, Dita didn't have a new face. The extreme pallor went away; the coarse weave, however, remained. It mattered less now, for if the experiment didn't succeed, there was a broader relationship between us, we were on a more intimate footing."

He meets Treckie's mother in the bar at the Marriott. "Mrs. Sterling was a youthful woman, relatively. She immediately said, 'I was a child bride,' a statement in which there was an implied carryover. She was still a sexual woman." She tells him that she had lost touch with Treckie during her stay in Costa Rica, and hadn't even known she had a granddaughter until she visited her. When he tells her he had spoken to Treckie after receiving her note, she asks if Treckie told him about Ronald, the man who lives with her. She calls him "a bruiser type" and "disagreeable," a former ski instructor who now sells snowmobiles, and indicates that Treckie would be better off with Kenneth.

Tanya begins to remind him of Caroline Bunge, his uncle's unstable friend. "Both had a considerable experience of men. Together they had probably seen more nude males than the U.S. surgeon general." And he reflects on his ignorance of contemporary sexual mores.
I might have learned something from Gide, Proust and others whom as a Parisian adolescent I had read as a matter of course. But not even Proust had covered the ground as the ground now was: The sexual tastes of the aristocracy, the misbehavior and hanky-panky of the haute bourgeoisie, the animal embraces of the proletarians and the peasantry (see Zola's Germinal, and so forth), were not in the same class with the contemporary democratized-plus-Third-World erotic mixture. Millions of persons had been freed from labor, routine, vows, incest prohibitions, and the rest of that to invent freely, and all the ingenuity of mankind, or as M. Yermelov used to say, intellect without soul, was turned loose -- the will of the insane to suffer pouring into erotic channels. You could well believe that  divine master plan for the evolution of love had miscarried, that the angels in their innocence had got the signals mixed up and inculcated all the wrong impulses into mankind.
And now Tanya makes a startling proposition: He should sue for custody of his daughter, and to strengthen his case they should get married -- "for the purpose, and only for the purpose." She says, "this startles you," and he says, "You're right."

He tries to evade the issue, by suggesting that, according to what Fishl has recently told him, she shouldn't "depend on the effect of reason in a courtroom," and he rattles on with a differently populated version of what Fishl had told him about women looking for a variety of different things in men: "a Sugar Ray physique, Mastroianni charm, romantic courage like Malraux, scientific wizardry like Crick and Watson with the double helix, millions like Paul Getty, plus a Spinoza brain." She responds, correctly, "Kenneth, you're evading me." She admits that she's ten years old than he is (he estimates the figure to be more like twenty), and claims that she wouldn't expect anything of him: "If you held me in your arms in bed, I'd be happy."

When she proposes that they go to her room and spend a night together, "to see what it might be like," he makes as swift an exit as possible, reflecting that "it would be against my rule of truthfulness to conceal the fact that I am fond of preposterous people. And what stunning offers you can get from the insane!"

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