By Charles Matthews

Monday, January 31, 2011

8. More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow, pp. 211-249

More Die of Heartbreak (Penguin Classics)From "In his old apartment next afternoon ..." through "... 'Take care,' I said."
Kenneth and Benn meet in Benn's old apartment, where Benn tells his nephew about his meeting with Layamon at the hospital: The doctor hadn't finished his rounds and gave Benn a white coat and told him to pretend to be his associate. The patients were all old women, and Benn was so embarrassed at being there as Layamon examined them that he began to have cardiac arrhythmia. "I felt very bad about the old ladies, and how awful they'd have felt if they had known I was just there for laughs, as Doctor intended by this prank."

But the thing that struck him in particular was, when he was walking behind Layamon, "From the shoulders alone you could identify him as Matilda's dad.... seen from behind, they're alike in build." This seems insignificant to Kenneth, who is more interested in what the doctor told him about the Vilitzer case. Benn says that the doctor wants him to confront Vilitzer: "I'm supposed to say that my father-in-law believes I was short-changed and that I feel the question should be reopened." Benn is upset by the whole thing: "Goddamn these bastards, will they never stop fighting about money! All I wanted was to settle down with an affectionate wife, in a civilized style." He suggested that he could write Vilitzer a letter, but Layamon insisted that nothing should be put in writing, that they'll find a way to arrange a meeting, and that he shouldn't wait for Fishl to talk to his father: "You're leaving for Brazil in less than a week, and besides, Fishl is a wimp and disowned by his old man."

So Benn has agreed. Vilitzer is a member of the state parole board, and an open hearing on a case is scheduled for the next Friday. Benn wants his nephew to come with him and approach Vilitzer there. This goes against what Fishl has advised, but Kenneth reluctantly agrees.

Benn now tells Kenneth what had so disturbed him when he recognized the physical resemblance between Matilda and her father. During the fall, while Kenneth was away in Paris and East Africa, Benn and Matilda had spent a week in the Berkshires. One evening Matilda was bored and suggested that they go see Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho at a theater that was showing classic films. Benn had disliked the movie when he first saw it, and liked it even less this time. "It was a phony. I hated it. I hate all that excitement without a focus. Nothing but conditioned reflexes they've trained you into." Matilda, however, loved it. But the scene that made the greatest impression on Benn was the murder of the detective, Arbogast:

When he saw the figure of Tony Perkins as Mrs. Bates emerge and stab Arbogast, Benn noticed that the "shoulders were stiff and high, unnaturally wide for a woman.... Identification was instantaneous. That person seen from the rear was Matilda. this was as conclusive as it was quick. For Benn it would always be what it was at first sight." 

In fact Benn -- or maybe Bellow, who didn't have the benefit of YouTube to check -- has remembered the scene imperfectly. Mrs. Bates is not seen as "a static figure that waited on the landing." We see only the door to her room opening, and see her figure only fleetingly as she attacks Arbogast. And she is wearing a calico house dress, not the "long Victorian skirt, and .. shirtwaist of dark calico stretched over her shoulders." Nor is her appearance in the scene long enough for us to identify those shoulders as "stiff and high, unnaturally wide for a woman." But the misremembrance is telling: Benn has complained that Hitchcock's film is "Nothing but conditioned reflexes they've trained you into." His memory of the scene suggests that he has conditioned himself to see Matilda in the murderous Mrs. Bates. He struggles against this impression.
But merging Matilda with Tony Perkins playing a psychopath -- that was a deadly move. No harm meant, not really. It came from a greater depth and seemed to paralyze Benn. "I couldn't distance myself from it," he said. This wasn't one of your fleeting memory squibs, or flirting, playing with horror; it was serious. The woman was his fiancée. The wedding was planned, invitations were being engraved. And this vision in the movie house told him not to marry her.
He tries to dismiss the movie as "box-office crap" and "trash," but he's unable. "He couldn't escape the sense that he had committed a crime." Adding to this sense of guilt, when they reach their car they discover the headlights don't work, and there are no open garages. They start for home driving slowly and using their flashers, but are forced to stop by a man who gets out of his car, "cursing. 'You shit-ass! You prick! You queer!'" Matilda is angry and tells Benn that he doesn't have to take the abuse, but he tells her he's drunk and perhaps dangerous. She retorts, "Backing down under threats is a Holocaust mentality." They wind up going back to the town, paying a fine, and spending the night in a hotel. But even when they learn that the man who stopped and cursed them is a deputy sheriff, Matilda still wants to accuse him of being drunk. Benn tells Kenneth, "maybe she was being virile for me, since I was too schmucky to do battle for myself."

Kenneth observes, "Practically from on high (though Alfred Hitchcock and Tony Perkins were the effective agents), he had been told, 'Don't marry her. She's not the woman of your heart.'" He sees Benn as "burdened, bowed to the ground by the weight of Matilda Layamon's shoulders, which were heavier than solid bronze."

Dita has invited Kenneth to dinner. "She wasn't yet well enough to be seen in a restaurant, and on these winter evenings I was her only company. Next Monday her sick leave ended and she was going back to work." He has an expensive bottle of wine his father has given him. First he stops to check his voicemail, which includes a message from Fishl that his father is flying up for "some kind of business" and that Benn shouldn't approach him until Fishl has prepared the way. Kenneth, who knows about the parole board meeting already, reflects that it's too late: Layamon has already given Benn press passes for the hearing. The other message is from Tanya Sterling, who still wants Kenneth to accept her "proposition" -- to marry her and seek custody of his daughter -- and tells him that she's hired a private investigator in Seattle. "She was making a bid to take me over, just as Matilda had taken over Uncle. The very thing that Caroline Bunge had attempted."

But he is still somewhat attracted to Dita Schwartz.
A woman with a well-developed figure, she had lips of the Moorish type, a nose perhaps fuller than my own criterion for noses could come to terms with and a solid face with nothing masculine in its solidity. Excepting some negligible defects, she was terribly handsome. Her skin was almost healed -- an ice rink scarred by skate blades, was my figure for it. The scars would presently go away.
He tells her that he and Benn are going to the parole hearing, having been given press passes, which surprises her because the case being heard is big news: It involves a man named Sickle, who has been serving time for the rape of a young woman named Danae Cusper. She has recanted her testimony against him after some kind of religious conversion.

They talk about Benn and Matilda, and Kenneth drinks rather more of the wine he has brought -- she prefers boilermakers -- than perhaps he should. He retells, once again, Fishl's observation about what women want: "No real person has everything they dream of, so they assemble parts and elements from here and there -- a large cock, a sparkling personality, millions of dollars, a bold brilliant spirit like Malraux, the masculine attraction of Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind, the manners of a French aristocrat, the brain of a superman in physics." (The list takes on a slightly different configuration each time.) But he doesn't spend the night with her.

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