I am what you might call a casual fan of Saul Bellow. Of his approximately fourteen novels, I've read five, and I've read them slowly over the last four or five years. At a certain level, it's hard not to be at least an admirer of Bellow's work - the quality of his prose and the occasional depths of his insights make it difficult to dismiss.
This was certainly true of More Die of Heartbreak, which I finished just last week. The author is taking on quite weighty subject matter: the nature of love, happiness, the contrast between materialism and intellectualism. And yet I found myself lagging as I read the book, and it's not the first time this has happened with a Bellow novel. This is also one of his later novels (published in 1987, when the author was already over 80), and unlike so many other great writers who've managed to bring a fresh and even youthful perspective despite getting way up there, Bellow is - with all respect - showing his age in this one, in both big and little ways.
First, if you read my long post some months ago on The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien, you'll remember that I talked about what I called "Tolkien time". Well, there is also such a thing as "Bellow time", though it's quite a different phenomenon. Bellow's novels do not proceed linearly - or, if they do, it's in a very herky jerky fashion. A novel may start at point X, then move back to point V, take digression W, leap ahead to point Y, stop to consider X again, briefly recall time S, move to Y + one hour, then reconsider W, V, X, and discuss heretofore unmentioned T, then end just before Z. Most of the novel usually takes place outside the linear time between the beginning and the end. And that is OK, sometimes it's even pretty entertaining, but often with Bellow I find myself frustrated. Even in the midst of brilliant observations and insights I find myself thinking why doesn't he just get on with it already? and sometimes I flip ahead.
Bellow's novels are also interesting because the characters are usually quite successful people who are nonetheless prone to all sorts of anxieties and phobias and poor decision-making. None of them ever reflect for a moment on their own accomplishments. The stark contrast between the inhumanity of modern society and old-fashioned, inwardly-focused people is a recurring theme, as is the related theme of book smarts vs. street smarts. Bellow is also interesting in the way he will frequently have a character describe other people with unappealing words, yet the character is trying to make them sound attractive. For instance a man will describe a woman as (just made-up examples) "wonderfully plump" or say he is "fascinated by the fine fuzz on her upper lip, which showed her best qualities and her bravery in the face of the world". I mean, huh? Here is one of the places where I wonder if there's some kind of generational thing going on. I certainly don't need my novel characters to be modelesque but I'm not sure I understand the (frequent) juxtaposition of unappealing adjectives with praise that is often related to sexual attractiveness.
More Die of Heartbreak is primarily the story of Kenneth Trachtenberg, a Russian literature scholar, and his uncle Benn Crader, who is a famous plant morphology professor. Kenneth is the protagonist but is primarily an observer - most of the action revolves around Benn the intellectual. Benn is also a widower and is described repeatedly as inept with women; while this may be true, I find it bizarre to describe someone married so long in those terms. Kenneth and Benn both have relationship problems. Kenneth also feels a weird sexual inferiority to his father - his own relationship is with a woman who has a child with him but won't marry him and then moves from the midwest to Seattle, where she prefers to spend her time with a succession of men who like to beat her up (as part of sex, it seems). It's annoying that not once in all his ruminations is Kenneth really worried that he brought a daughter into the world with such a nutty mom, and never does he really worry about his daughter's welfare (even though he winds up taking her back towards the end of the novel). But this is a side show.
The main action involves Benn. Kenneth and Benn are quite close and even though they appear to be in their 30s and 50s, respectively, they spend quite a lot of time having discussions where they try to figure out women (and their concerns are phrased in such a way that also strike me as a generational thing). Benn marries a beautiful, wealthy heiress named Matilda without warning Kenneth (this makes Kenneth feel betrayed, though he gets over it), but is unhappy with the marriage because he doesn't get along with Matilda's family, who are trying to get him to pursue money from his own uncle, a gangster-politician who swindled him out of some expensive real estate years before.
First, Matilda? This is supposed to be the 1980s. I have trouble picturing a young, beautiful Matilda.
Second, this gangster-politician and all the maneuvering around him by Matilda's rich family sets up the contrast to Benn - worldly materialism vs. intellectual pursuits. Benn doesn't want the money, doesn't understand how to play politics, and doesn't even seem particularly bothered that he cannot provide for his new wife at anything like the standard of living she is used to. (What does Matilda see in Benn? Evidently a man prominent enough in intellectual circles to allow her to be the socialite she aspires to be.) Matilda stands aside from most of the attempted manipulations of Benn, leaving them to her father (and her involvement seems limited but not nonexistent - it's hard to know how innocent she is because on one hand she is described as shrewd but on the other seems to actually love her new husband). Meanwhile, without even realizing it, she endures Benn's weird hang-ups about the shape of her body, which might have come straight out of an episode of Seinfeld.
When the dust has cleared, nothing has been solved and nobody seems better off than they were before, with the possible exception of Kenneth's young daughter. Then again, she is only escaping a possibly dangerous situation physically (we never really hear about it - maybe it's not) to have her care put in the hands of an extremely self-absorbed person. And Bellow manages to convey a sense that these successful people - be they book-smart or street-smart - are all wasting their lives.
None of this is to take anything away from Bellow's wonderful prose, his terrific character names ("Della Bedell" has to be one of my favorites), and the way he mines his characters for insights (who would have ever guessed so much could be had from plant morphology?).
Would I recommend this book? To anyone who tells me they like Bellow, of course. To anyone interested in the book-smarts/street-smarts issue, sure (though as someone who has certainly struggled with these issues, I can't say I really learned much from reading the book). A good question is, would I recommend this novel to someone who wanted to read a Bellow? And if not, which one would I recommend? I was always pretty fond of Dangling Man, but as his first novel I'm not sure it fully represents his style. There's a lot of hype around Herzog, but I haven't read it yet. So I'm not sure.
As for me, I'll probably just keep plodding through Saul Bellow slowly, maybe one a year, and working back and forth through his novels in no particular pattern. Sort of like the meandering of "Bellow time" itself. But I'm in no rush to tackle the next one, be it Herzog or something else.