By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

9. More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow, pp. 250-327

More Die of Heartbreak (Penguin Classics)From "In the night there came an extraordinary phone call ..." to end.
Benn telephones Kenneth at 2:10 a.m. from a phone booth in the laundry room of the Layamons' apartment building. He is in the throes of a panic attack and doesn't want any of them to overhear their conversation. Matilda is insisting that he get Vilitzer to give him the money. Kenneth points out to him that having the money would only give the Layamons more power over him. But Benn is in such a nervous state that he can't focus on any one thing, and now he has a new complaint about his wife, in addition to her shoulders: "Matilda's breasts are so far apart!" Kenneth calls him a "negative fetishist" who fell "out of love with Matilda's shoulders" and this latest discovery is only further evidence of "fragmentation or disintegration." Benn moans, "Why should I fight Uncle to obtain millions for a woman whose breasts are so far apart? It's getting beyond me." But Kenneth finally gets his uncle to calm down and get some rest before they meet for the parole hearing.

The next morning, Benn shows Kenneth the Charles Addams cartoon that had been referred to on the first page of the novel: Gomez and Morticia are holding hands. and the caption reads
"Are you unhappy, darling?"
"Oh yes, yes! Completely."
It has a special significance for Benn. He tells Kenneth that Matilda had suggested that she go to the hearing with him instead of Kenneth, and he turned her down. "He wanted me to see how resolute he had been with her. All I could see was how shook up he was.... If he faltered or stammered, shrewd old Vilitzer would conclude that he was a sexually failed husband with a wife who had the whip hand, sending him on errands. With sex troubles, men always faulted the husband."

In the hearing room they take their places behind Vilitzer, who has adopted the pseudo-Roman hairstyle worn by Derek Jacobi in I, Claudius: "It seems popular with the senior Mafiosi, whom you often see with a small, slightly curled fringe." The hearing is conducted by the governor, "a loosely massive man. In his slackness there were highly organized tensions, and I would have said that he was a dangerous person, a mean fighter." The testimony, sexually explicit but clinical, dealing with evidence concerning the woman's rape, unsettles Benn: "'Do we have to go step by step through all this?' said Uncle, a little distracted. He made me feel like a Mephistopheles who had forced him out of his study and made him face life.... The hearing at such a time of crisis was hell on him. He couldn't approach Uncle Vilitzer without first passing through these sexual agonies."

But approach him he does, after the hearing recesses. Vilitzer agrees to give them fifteen minutes of his time. He tells them that Fishl had spoken to him, and accuses Benn of having been sent by his "new father-in-law and Judge Chetnik, his buddy." He claims that Benn and his sister "realized three hundred thousand dollars" from their parents' "three hundred bucks" investment in the property where the Electronic Tower now stands, and should be happy for that. To Kenneth's surprise, Benn stands up to Vilitzer.
Considering what a state Benn was in, what with the somatic peculiarities of the Layamon build, the triple resemblance of Matilda, Dr. Layamon and Tony Perkins as the killer granny, plus the new complaint that his bride's breasts were so widely separated, with God knows what further forms of nuttiness marking time in his head, I wouldn't have predicted such quiet stability in the face of Vilitzer's rage. 
But in the end, Vilitzer won't agree to pay Benn anything. "You're not the boss over yourself. They're using you to beat up on me. As far as I'm concerned there's nothing to settle." And finally, Vilitzer tries to hit Benn. Kenneth intervenes and restrains him, though "he felt as light as an empty plastic egg carton." Just then Fishl enters. Vilitzer "swept -- tottered -- out and we stood silent."

When Vilitzer has left, Fishl says they should have waited and given him time to prepare his father for the meeting. "And I'll tell you, Cousin Benno, I'd think better of you if you had gone after him on your own initiative, not on instructions from outside parties." When Fishl leaves, Benn tells Kenneth that the matter is now between Matilda and himself, and when Kenneth asks if "Matilda will be able to accept an alternative -- give up her plans for the Roanoke," Benn replies, "You seem to have decided in advance that Matilda is an unyielding person."

Later, Benn calls Kenneth several times to tell him about his lunch with Matilda, but Kenneth finds his conversation confused and unfocused. "The downtown hearing was like the strip show in Kyoto in its effect. Hard-edged sex, one might call it, abstract excitement, maddening literalness when the girls invited the public to stare at their inmost secrets." Kenneth learns more from a later conversation with Matilda in which she told him that, knowing how upset he would be at facing Vilitzer, she had made herself sexually alluring to Benn: "I ... put up my hair the way he liked it. He thought a woman should show her neck and didn't care for the hair to be down, schoolgirl fashion, what he called the Alice in Wonderland effect. Your uncle could make very special demands. Everything had to be 'just so.' In sexual relations also." She goes on to tell Kenneth that his uncle liked for her "to put on a frilled blouse when they made love. Also that he had a decided preference for the foot of the bed and for one corner of the mattress." Kenneth says that what he really wanted to know "was how seriously she took Uncle." The rest was too much information.
Matilda wanted to be a tough broad in the brokerage world but also comfortably married to a respected professor, living in style at the Roanoke, where (a lady with fluent, current French) she could have something approaching a salon even in a vulgar town like this. Lastly, she had made a cult of deep sleep, and for that the Roanoke was the perfect setting.
Then the problems with Treckie resurface. Tanya Sterling calls to tell Kenneth that her private investigator has found that Treckie is marrying the snowmobile man, but during the off-season in that business they planned to "operate from a base on Puget Sound and make the flea market circuit in a van or trailer or camper. Little Nancie would travel with them, naturally, although I was to be offered an option of taking her to live with me summers, when Treckie would be busiest." Naturally, Tanya once again insists that she and Kenneth should marry and sue for full custody.

Among numerous calls from Benn to inform him that Matilda is unyielding in her insistence on living in the Roanoke and the consequent necessity of trying to come to terms with Vilitzer, Kenneth also hears from Fishl, who is getting ready to fly to Miami Beach, concerned about the state of his father's health. And that night, about 3 a.m., Benn calls to tell him that he has also heard from Fishl, who "rang me to say he didn't know how long Uncle Harold would last. He's on standby out at the airport -- can't afford full fare to Florida. Frantic! As if it were all my fault." And after the call, Benn tells him, he couldn't sleep and began wandering around the Layamons' apartment. "When it's as bad as that, I've often gotten reinforced by that azalea in Jo Layamon's office." This time, he says, he "really had to have plant contact," so he broke the house rule about going into Mrs. Layamon's sanctum, where he discovered that the plant that had given him so much solace was
"a phony.... Made of silk. Probably in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Damn near perfect imitation. False, though. A stooge azalea -- a stand-in, a ringer, an impostor, a dummy, a shill! I was drawing support for weeks and weeks from this manufactured product. Every time I needed a fix, a contact, a flow, I turned to it. Me, Kenneth! After all these years of unbroken rapport, to be taken in.... The one thing I could always count on. My occupation, my instinct, my connection ... broken off....

"You don't grasp the meaning of a thing like this. I've lost it. Week after week of imaginary contact!"

The peculiar treasure lost! It wasn't that I didn't grasp what he was telling me. I grasped it only too well. 
So he tells Kenneth that he's decided to go to Florida. He and Matilda were scheduled to fly to Brazil via Miami, and they can meet at the airport. He had called to check on Vilitzer and learned that he had collapsed. Kenneth agrees to go with him to the airport. Benn also asks Kenneth to move into his apartment -- rent free. "The bank has standing instructions to pay the rent. I kept Lena's account in her own name."
In this connection, I couldn't help thinking of Aunt Lena ... who had introduced me to the valuable idea that modes of seeing were matters of destiny, that what is sent forth by the seer affects what is seen. She like to give the example of Whistler the painter when he was taken to task by a woman who said, "I never see trees like that." He told her, "No, ma'am, but don't you wish you could?" 
At the airport, Kenneth bids his uncle goodbye and then takes a flight to Seattle. He gears himself up for a fight with Ronald, Treckie's boyfriend, and when he reaches their apartment he barges past her in search of him. She tells Kenneth that Ronald has gone to Mass, and he goes into a rage in which he trashes the bathroom. After he calms down, they talk, and Treckie confirms what Tanya learned from the private investigator. He asks how Nancy is going to fit into this way of life, and she says, "Kids like movement, and there's a lot to learn around flea markets. They attract scads of characters. Haggling is good training." But when he tells her that he's moving out of the dormitory into Benn's apartment and responds to her observation that he'd "need some help with a woman" by saying, "I have somebody in mind," she comes around to the idea that Nancy could stay with him "on a trial basis." (He thinks, "Dita had enough of the romantic womanly about her to develop some kindness even towards Treckie's daughter.") As for the bathroom, Treckie says, "That's all right. As I figure, you had one tantrum coming to you."

 On the telephone, Benn tells him that Vilitzer is dead. He has also realized that "when you go against your deeper instinct you set off a train of cause and effect spreading in all directions. I drew on that damned azalea for weeks and got an illusion of feedback from it. Now everything has been adversely affected, so that I can't even believe myself when I say I did nothing to shorten Vilitzer's life." He promises to call Kenneth tomorrow afternoon, and in the meantime if Matilda calls him, not to tell her anything about Vilitzer: The family has covered up the death "for some complicated business tactical reason."

The call from Benn is late in coming the next day, and Kenneth has begun to believe that Benn has left for Brazil with Matilda without calling him. But Benn explains that he has told Matilda that Vilitzer is still alive and that he feels obligated to stay on in Miami: "I couldn't go away while my mother's brother was dying." So Matilda has left without him.
"By the time she's landing in Brazil I should be well on my way to the North Pole. You see, they've assembled an international team of scientists for the purpose of special researches. And I signed on three days ago, to check out lichens from both poles, a comparative study, and work out certain morphological puzzles.... We're going to be based in northern Scandinavia, at the edge of Finland, actually. And beyond.... nothing but night and ice will help me now. Night so that I can't see myself. Ice as a corrective. Ice for the rigor."
He has left his address in a drawer in his desk. Kenneth promises not to give it to Matilda.

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