Thursday, April 07, 2005


Him With His Mouth, and Also a Foot

Childishness is not a obstacle to survival--he said it, and he proved it, in a way that would have made utilitarians jealous. I already used his own title for the last post, but if there were ever a running bet on the "when are they going to die already" posse, I would've thought Saul Bellow would outlast many of his juniors, including the Polish wonder kid and Castro. Most seemed to find it rather annoying that a writer of his talent was still alive. It did have its uses though, as Joan Acocella noted: "The Library of America has now run out of dead Americans, and so, for only the second time, it has devoted a volume to the living." Bellow would have perhaps cracked a smile on the "run out of the dead" remark. To his credit, he kind of kept out of the way, though new books would unfortunately remind people he was alive--good new books, which added even more emphasis on the alive part. I have an ultimately misguided tendency to think that his playful thoughts were always in close proxmity to death, no matter what his age, and that acted as some kind of antibiotic. And I think, by his own admission, such thoughts had something to do with a near-death experience when he was a child. Vulnerability can go a long way. He would handle modernity at the edges and the cross currents, keeping it from flowing through his work entirely like DeLillo or DF Wallace. Keep it at bay, seemed to be the slogan, although characters would often find shrapnel lodged in their psyche:

What do you do about death--in this case, the death of an old father?...Take this matter of mourning, and take it against a contemporary background. How, against a contemporary background, do you mourn an octogenarian father, nearly blind, his heart enlarged, his lungs filling with fluid, who creeps, stumbles, gives off the odors, the moldiness or gassiness, of old men...Think what times these are...the Lufthansa pilot in Aden is described by the hostages as being on his knees, begging the Palestinian terrorists not to execute him, but they shoot him through the head. Later they themselves are killed. And still others shoot others, or shoot themselves...We know what goes daily through the whole of human community, like a global death-peristalsis.

Maybe this kind of direct confrontation put some people off, but it was also the source of things. The characters, when confronted, were trying to face these questions head-on. And the art was in the bursting of the seams. I read somewhere that "he was good as describing faces," which made me laugh--a great epitaph really, but faces?

The round face had lengthened, and a Voltarian look had come into it. Her blue stare put it to you directly: Read me the riddle of this absurd transformation, the white hair, the cracked voice. My transformation, and for that matter yours. Where is your hair, and why are you stooped? And perhaps there were certain common premises. All these physical alterations seem to release the mind. For me there are further suggestions: that as the social order goes haywire and the constraints of centuries are removed, and the seams of history open, as it were, walls come apart at the corners, bonds dissolve, and we are freed to think for ourselves--provided we can find the strength to make use of the opportunity--to escape through the gaps, not succumbing in lamentations but getting on top of the collapsed pile.

When I was a kid, some teacher off-handedly told me that everyone in world were cousins. By some miracle, I was able to hold that belief for a lengthy period of time, maybe one or two years. When I was playing with a friend, the subject came up by way of a toy globe sitting in the middle of the room. The usual "Yes, they are" and "No, they're not" ensued. After which we went to the livingroom to consult the parents. Their initial response was "Of course not," but seeing my shocked expression, they modified it, "Well, in a sense they are." Every knowledge betrayal after that was a walk in the park.

We were issued booklets: "Our Little Japanese Cousins," "Our Morrocan Cousins." "Our Little Russian Cousins,"...I read all these gentle descriptions about little Ivan and tiny Conchita and my eager heart opened to them. Why, we were close, we were one under it all...We were not guineas, dagos, krauts: we were cousins. It was a splendid conception, and those of us who opened our excited hearts to the world union of cousins were happy, as I was, to give our candy pennies to a fund for the rebuilding of Tokyo after the earthquake of the twenties. After Pearl Harbor, we were obliged to bomb the hell out of the place. It's unlikely that Japanese children had been provided with the books about their little American cousins. The Chicago Board of Education never thought to look into this.

Some come to think that he name drops and rambles too often. In Turkey, the novel that's most often translated (if not the only one) is Dangling Man, precisely because it seems to lack those properties. Well, somebody is missing out. His characters at times seem to mock the reactions....

He repeated himself. The commodity brokers, politicians, personal-injury lawyers, bagmen and fixers, salesmen and promoters who worked at the club lost patience with him. He was offensive in the locker room, wrapped in his sheet. Nobody knew what he was talking about. Too much Chinese in his cantos, too much Proven├žal. The club asked the family to keep him at home.

Yeah, right. The proper nouns seemed to function as mental life jackets for the characters, the deeper the shit they were in, the more they threw out there.

What she occasionally talked about while Fonstein and my father stared at the chessboard, sealed in their trance, was the black humor, the slapstick side of certain camp operations. Being a French teacher, she was familiar with Jarry and Ubu Roi, Pataphysics, Absurdism, Dada, Surrealism. Some camps were run in a burlesque style that forced you to make these connections. Prisoners were sent naked into the swamp and had to croak and hop like frogs. Children were hanged while starved, freezing slave laborers lined up on parade in front of the gallows and a prison band played Viennese light opera waltzes...I was invited to meditate on themes like: Can Death Be Funny? or Who Gets the Last Laugh? I wouldn't do it, though. First those people murdered you, then they forced you to brood on their crimes.

It's death or good company. Or may be the staleness of self-preservation.

The uncritical affectionate child. He hoped I might bring back something. But all he got from me was a cripple by his bedside. Yet Rexler had tried to offer him something. Let's see if we can ratchet up that old-time feeling. Perhaps Albert had got something out of it. But Albert had taken no conscious notice of the man hit by the train...Rexler, who didn't even know where the cemetery was and would never go to visit it, walked lopsided in the sunny grass...Deep-voiced, either humming or groaning, he turned his mind again to the lungs in the roadbed as pink as a rubber eraser and the other organs, the baldness of them, the foolish oddity of their shapes, almost clownish, almost a denial or refutation of the high-ranking desires and subtleties...His deformity, the shelf of his back and the curved bracket of his left shoulder, gave added protection to his hoarded organs. A contorted coop or bony armor must have formed by his will...Don't tell me, Rexler thought, that everything depends on these random-looking parts--and to preserve them I was turned into some kind of human bi-valve?

Well, what of the end?

And when he was separated from his warmth, he slipped into death. And there was his elderly, large, muscular son, still holding and pressing him, when there was nothing anymore to press. You could never pin down that self-willed man. When he was ready to make his move, he made it--always on his own terms. And always, always, something up his sleeve. That was how he was.

Maybe, maybe not.

...adolescence turned him into a cripple gymnast whose skeleton was the apparatus he worked out on like an acrobat in training. This was how reality punished you for your innocence. It turned you into a crustacean...But he had taken pains to train himself away from abnormality, from the outlook and the habits of a cripple. He walked with a virile descending limp, his weight coming down on the advancing left foot. "Not personally responsible for the way life operates" was what he tacitly declared.

And yet.

These 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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