Long and short of Saul Bellow

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 March, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 March, 1993, 12:00am

SOMETHING TO REMEMBER ME BY By Saul Bellow (Secker & Warburg, $238) ARE mere mortals allowed to question the works of Nobel literature prize winners? It's a matter any reviewer should contemplate with trepidation. I do so in the case of Saul Bellow because he has the generosity of spirit and modesty to question his own works.

In the foreword to this collection of three short stories Mr Bellow tells readers how he used to write ''fat books''.

''It's difficult for me now to read those early novels,'' he writes, ''not because they lack interest but because I find myself editing them, slimming down sentences and cutting whole paragraphs.'' Mr Bellow approvingly quotes Chekhov as saying: ''Odd, I have now a mania for shortness. Whatever I read - my own or other people's works - it all seems to me not short enough.'' The American writer shares these sentiments and urges the reader to contemplate the virtues of brevity. Yet Mr Bellow's reputation is largely built on fat books such as Herzog , Humboldt's Gift and Dangling Man . He is supposed to have a tremendous understanding of human nature which is said to permeate these works.

Personally, I find Mr Bellow to be rather confusing although I am often caught up with the characters who march through the pages of his work.

I therefore approached Something to Remember Me By with eager anticipation, hoping that the confusion of the longer works would disappear in the brevity of these short stories. In the story which gives the name to the collection, Mr Bellow succeeds beyond reasonable expectation.

However, in the already published story entitled Theft , he seems to be back to his old tricks dealing with the tangled emotions of lovers who have married other partners, younger lovers who are not understood by the female side of the older relationshipand a rather impersonal onlooker, named Laura Wong, who hovers in and out of the story.

Theft has its moments but I found it telling me more than I wanted to know about things lacking in interest and saying far too little about those matters which seemed potentially interesting.

Fortunately the other two stories have greater appeal. The Bellarosa Connection is a strange, strange story drawn from Mr Bellow's deep well of Jewish stories originating from the Holocaust.

As he writes: ''Damn it, you couldn't say no to Jewish history after what happened in Nazi Germany.'' Nor can you fail to be fascinated by Fonstein and his wife Sorella.

The Jewish refugee Fonstein is rescued from Nazi Europe by Broadway impresario Billy Rose who financed a kind of underground railway to facilitate rescue missions. Mr Rose, no angel, has ambivalent feelings about those he has helped to rescue and never wants to meet them. Fonstein, however, is obsessed by the idea that he should thank his saviour. He is constantly spurned and even humiliated by the great man from Broadway.

However his wife, the very large and aggressive Sorella, is not prepared to take no for an answer. She has her methods which include blackmail.

The story is a veritable complex of marvellously interwoven themes. On the one hand there is the question of guilt, on the other, that of how to cope with gratitude. The clash of the American and European Jewish cultures is personified by Fonstein and Rose.

Beneath the big themes are a number of smaller threads dealing with the familiar old businesses of love, betrayal, loyalty etc. I hate to put it in these terms, but you certainly do get your money's worth from Mr Bellow in this story.

The pearl of the collection however is the strongly biographical Something to Remember Me By . It is published here in book form for the first time, although it appeared in Esquire magazine in 1990.

This is a touching recollection of adolescence in Chicago, written pointedly in the first person in the form of a reminiscent dialogue.

''When you were a small boy,'' says Louie, the main character in the story, ''you were keen on family history. You will quickly understand that I couldn't tell a child what I am about to tell you now. You don't talk about death and vortices to a kid, notnowadays. In my time my parents didn't hesitate to speak of death and the dying. What they seldom mentioned was sex. We've got it the other way around.'' In recalling the experiences of a young adolescent male Mr Bellow cannot avoid talking about sex. It's true, young men or teenagers really do spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about sex. Louie, however, moves beyond thought to the prospect of real experience with a woman, probably a prostitute, who seduces him but whose real intention is to rob him of literally every stitch of clothing.

It is, I suppose, the ultimate humiliation for a 17-year-old and a splendid way of dealing with the awfulness and pleasures confronting an adolescent on the verge of manhood.

Mr Bellow submerges the reader in the atmosphere of Chicago in the 30s. He gently mocks Louie but vividly lays out the challenges which he faces.

For those of us who have been through much of this experience (minus the bit about the seduction, I hasten to add), the story is almost embarrassingly revelatory about what seemed to be the painful and bewildering struggle to shake off childhood and enter this terrifying and enticing new world populated by people like your parents, although, of course, you intend to be nothing like them.