Ernest Hemingway once commented that “no son of a bitch that ever won the Nobel Prize ever wrote anything worth reading afterwards”*. Although Saul Bellow is one of my favourite authors, I cannot help but agree with Hemingway in relation to Bellow’s novels post-1976. Bellow’s early stuff is exciting and provocative; Dangling Man is deliciously acerbic and The Adventures of Augie March is inspirational and motivating, often an argued contender for the Great American Novel. Having read three other books of his, one of these others being The Actual, a novel he wrote following The Bellarosa Connection, I could sense that a certain something was missing in Bellow’s later works, a vitality that is integral to the ones that won him his heaps of prizes and recognition.
Maybe Bellow’s novels get better with years, and I just can’t see it or relate to his themes of aging and Jewishness, who knows. But despite the negativity I just decried, The Bellarosa Connection is an intriguing story – Holocaust survivor, Fonstein, with the assistance of his corpulent wife, tries to hunt down and thank the celebrated man that evacuated him from Nazi-occupied Europe and saved his life. However, this man wants nothing to do with him and refuses to give him the time of day, denying Fonstein his long-awaited sense of closure. This is the crux of the novel’s plot, with further elaborations and changes as it goes, and the story is regaled by Fonstein’s friend, our narrator who tell this story with the consciousness of his own age and his changing society.
Bellow’s narrator prides himself on his memory, proclaiming that “memory is life”. He is still able to remember the name of his second-grade teacher and seems to recall his story in confident detail. But memory can be a burden and can work in ways that are counter-intuitive to what you want to remember:
On the fringes of the family, or in remote, time-dulled social circles, random memories can be an affliction. What you see first, retrospectively, are the psychopaths, the uglies, the cheapies, the stingies, the hypochondriacs, the family bores, humanoids, and tyrants. They have dramatic staying power. Harder to recover are the kind eyes, gentle faces, of the comedians who wanted to entertain you, gratis, divert you from troubles. An important part of my method is that memory chains are constructed thematically. Where themes are lacking there can be little or no recall … To give a strongly negative example, there can be murderers who can’t recall their crimes because they have no interest in the existence or nonexistence of their victims. So, students, only pertinent themes assure full recollection.
This ties in memory to the main theme of the novel: Bellow is concerned with what will happen to Jews that are assimilated into America, whether their collective trauma and origins will survive in contemporary society or fizzle out, be forgotten. The man who saved Fonstein, Billy Rose, certainly seems like he has forgotten, or doesn’t want to remember, the circumstances pertaining to the horrors of World War II.
Perhaps this is an issue for Bellow, both as a man with fewer years ahead of him, and as a member of Jewish-American society at the time. Who will remember you when you are dead? And even broader, who will remember what your people went through, where you came from, how you got here, what you gave your life to? The narrator’s conversation with the young house-sitter, and the narrator’s regret in not spending the thirty years he had to do one particular thing, stops the novel from eventually slipping into dull greyness and serves as an uplifting yet ominous distraction from the bleak, impending reminder that memory is perhaps the only thing one can hold on to of the past.
*See Baker, Carlos. Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story. London: Collins, 1963. pp619-623