Saul Bellow: A Father-To-Be (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 34)

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Thoughts very often grow fertile in the subway, because of the motion, the great company, the subtlety of the rider’s state as he rattles under streets and rivers, under the foundations of great buildings, and Rogin’s mind had already been strangely stimulated.

A couple years ago I read my first short story by Saul Bellow “A Silver Dish”   and its remained a favorite ever since. So for Week 34 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project, I selected the Four of Hearts which corresponds to another Saul Bellow story “A Father-to Be”. And it lives up to the reputation of that first story.

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Rogin is coming home from work deep in thought about his fiance, Joan, her family and friends, his work and life in general. This story is true stream of consiousness. As he makes his way on to the subway, his thoughts turn toward the other passengers until he sets his sight on a man he decides could be his son in forty years. His thoughts may not be funny in and of themselves but the reader can’t help but laugh at the in-depth, detailed ideas that Rogin has about this man while the man himself has absolutely no clue what Rogin is thinking. All of the thinking on Rogin’s part contrasted with what is actual silence between the two passengers makes for an amusing scene.

This story gives a new meaning to the term “people watching” and it also makes one wonder what others might be thinking as they watch you. There have probably been stranger thoughts than Rogin’s.

This story is included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker edited by David Remnick. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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A Fourth Anniversary Top Ten List

Today is the fourth anniversary of Mirror With Clouds. To celebrate, I am posting my top ten favorite short stories that I’ve read in 2015.  They are in order from 10 to 1.

10.) Here We Are by Dorothy Parker- A very funny story with one of my favorite quotations of the year:

“We have been married,” he said, “exactly two hours and twenty-six minutes.”

“My,” she said, “it seems like longer.”

9.) Miami-New York by Martha Gellhorn- One of Ernest Hemingway’s wives seems to have more of a sense of humor than he did.

8.) Death of a Favorite by J. F. Powers – One of my favorite narrators comes in the form of a cat.

7.) The Country Husband by John Cheever – A depressing but brilliantly written story about life in the suburbs with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” as the soundtrack:

Then Donald Goslin, who lived at the corner, began to play the “Moonlight Sonata”. He did this nearly every night. He threw the tempo out the window and played it rubato from beginning to end, like an outpouring of tearful petulance, lonesomeness, and self-pity – of everything it was Beethoven’s greatness not to know. The music rang up and down the street beneath the trees like an appeal for love, for tenderness, aimed at some lonely housemaid – some fresh-faced, homesick girl from Galway, looking at old snapshots in her third-floor room.

6.) The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx – I liked this story so much I read more of Proulx’s Wyoming stories from her collection Close Range.

5.) Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates – This is the story that has pushed me beyond simply an appreciation for Oates’ work. It’s by far the scariest story I read this year.

4.) In the Gloaming by Alice Elliot Dark – Tear jerker? Yes. Sentimental? No. Saddest story I read this year.

3.) God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen by Ernest Hemingway – A disturbing story with one of my favorite first lines:

In those days the distances were all very different, the dirt blew off the hills that now have been cut down, and Kansas City was very like Constantinople.

2.) A Silver Dish by Saul Bellow – The title by no means gives away how funny and irreverent this story is.

1.) A Voice in the Night by Steven Millhauser- My fascination with Steven Millhauser’s work only increased with this story and it contained one of my favorite final lines:

A calling. Not Samuel’s call but another. Not that way but this way. Samuel ministering unto the Lord, his teacher-father ministering unto the generations. And the son? What about him? Far, far to the west of everywhere, ministering unto the Muse. Thanks, Old Sea-Parter, for leaving me be.

 

Saul Bellow Week, Day 6 – Looking For Mr. Green

Was he awed by the success of his bizarre enterprise and therefore ready to spend money to find out where in the universe being and seeming were identical?  Yes, he wanted to know what abides; and whether flesh is Bible grass; and he offered money to be burned in the fire of suns.

In “Looking For Mr. Green”, Saul Bellow tackles the issue of money. George Grebe gets a job during the Great Depression handing out relief checks to an impoverished Chicago neighborhood. As the title implies, he can’t find Mr. Green, a check recipient, nor can he find anyone who knows him.

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As Grebe makes his search, he encounters a woman who sets up her ironing in the relief office because she can’t get money to pay her electric bill.  He meets a janitor who barely gets by and an elderly gentleman who thinks he knows the solution to the poverty issue.

Does he eventually find Mr. Green?  To a certain degree, yes. Is Grebe’s problem solved by handing over the check? Maybe – at least for that day.  Similar to the poverty issue, Grebe offers a quick fix that might cause problems down the road.

This story utilizes Saul Bellow’s vast knowledge of Philosophy, History, Politics, Religion, Art and Science and combines it with a great narrative and fascinating characters. After “A Silver Dish”, I think “Looking For Mr. Green” is the Saul Bellow story I would recommend next.

Saul Bellow Week, Day 5 – Mosby’s Memoir

I confess that there have been times this week when I feel like I would understand some of Saul Bellow’s stories better if I had a Ph.D in Philosophy or Political Science or History or maybe even all three.  On the other hand, it hasn’t diminished my overall enjoyment and appreciation of them.

“Mosby’s Memoir” might be the exception to the latter rule.  Willis Mosby visits Mexico to write his memoir.  The majority of the story tells Mosby’s memories and thoughts as he contemplates what to include in his memoir. Many of these thoughts involve Lustgarten, his friend, both current and former, if I understand correctly.

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The current and former aspect of this story could be puzzling in that present and past seems to get mixed up within the same paragraph. Any reader who enjoys a challenge and having to think very hard while reading a story should love this one. I don’t know whether I was simply lazy or whether it was just over my head – maybe a little of both.

Saul Bellow Week, Day 4 – By the St. Lawrence

The observations, Rexler was to learn, were his whole life – his being – and love was what produced them.  For each physical trait there was a corresponding feeling. Paired, pair by pair, they walked back and forth, in and out of his soul.

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Of what I’ve read so far, “By the St. Lawrence” is Saul Bellow’s most emotional and poignant story. It’s also the shortest. While the potential for cynicism, as in “Cousins”, is there (and cousins are in this story, too), Rob Rexler has mostly happy memories of visiting his Aunt and Uncle and cousins in Lachine, Quebec when he was young – around seventy years ago.

He returns to Lachine as an elderly man in a limousine – a man of higher learning and intellect just like many of Bellow’s characters. The reader gets the impression that his life since Lachine may not have been the happiest although it certainly was successful.

Bellow gives the reader a sense of both awe and despair as Rexler returns to a town where most of his memories have been torn down. The sadness of growing old seems to appear in much of Bellow’s writing; however, with “By the St. Lawrence”, it’s more in the forefront.

Saul Bellow Week, Day 3 – Cousins

Anyone trying to map out Ijah Brodsky’s family tree in Saul Bellow’s short story “Cousins” is probably missing the point.

Ijah narrates the story in what has become familiar ramblings in the works I’ve read by Bellows so far. In this case, Ijah jumps from Cousin Tanky’s connection to the Chicago mob to Tanky’s sister Eunice who enlists Ijah for some legal help with her brother to ninety-one year-old Cousin Motty who is in a car accident but gives Ijah numerous letters from Cousin Scholem, whom he (Ijah) hasn’t seen in thirty years, asking for assistance to get buried in East Germany. The story is set in 1983 before the Berlin Wall came down.  Many of Ijah’s relatives lived there prior to the wall going up.  Cousin Seckel and Cousin Riva  and Cousin Mendy all have some part in the ramblings, as well.

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As narrator, Ijah comes across as a little more cynical than the narrators of the other Bellow stories I’ve read although I get the feeling that cynicism is a familiar quality in Bellow’s characters. If all the cousins have a purpose in the story, I would say that it’s to highlight the detachment Ijah doesn’t necessarily mind feeling from his society.  He doesn’t have much to say about his immediate family.  Perhaps, the cousins provide him a family of sort but with some needed distance.

Ijah’s ex-wife Sabel zeros in on his issues to which Ijah willingly agrees:

“…you have an exuberance that you keep to yourself. You have a crazy high energy absolutely peculiar to you. Because of this high charge you can defy the plain dirty facts that other people have to suffer through, whether they like it or not. What you are is an exuberance hoarder, Ijah. You live on your exuberant hoard.

Of course, the cousins also provide the story with tons of comedy as they play the wacko’s to Ijah’s straight man.

Saul Bellow Week, Day 2 – Zetland: By a Character Witness

For Day 2 of Saul Bellow Week, I read his short story “Zetland: By a Character Witness”.  This one came in at only about 30 pages – a little shorter than “Him With the Foot in His Mouth”.

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Very short on plot, the story sets out the childhood and early married life of Elias Zetland, an intellectual Jewish boy growing up in Chicago (I’m seeing a pattern, here).  The narrator is unnamed and only gives a slight clue as to his relationship with Zetland (or Zet as he calls him).  He seems to be a boyhood/adolescent friend who knows much about Zet’s life.

The usual early adulthood changes make up the plot.  Zet marries Lottie – a marriage neither family likes.  They move from Chicago to New York and Zet changes his mind about majoring in philosophy when he reads Moby-Dick.  Melville and Moby-Dick have been popping up in a lot of the stories I’ve been reading lately.

There is a light-hearted depth to “Zetland” that I’m finding is characteristic to the Saul Bellow stories I’ve read so far.  The depth comes from an obviously intelligent writer creating intelligent characters.  The light-heartedness keeps both Bellow and his characters from taking themselves too seriously.

As a native of Chicago, Bellow writes a little tongue-in-cheek as Zet and Lottie move to New York:

Zet and Lottie swam into New York City from the skies… They were in the East, where everything was better, where objects were different.  Here there was deeper meaning in the air.

I would (so far) consider Woody from “A Silver Dish” as the best example of Bellow’s characters – smart, but not wanting to follow the path set out for them by family or society. Perhaps Zet might come in second.