There are writers, I believe, who benefit from constraint. This at least has been my experience with Saul Bellow, whose brilliance as a novelist is incontestable, but whose tendency to sprawl out in all directions, novelistically speaking, frustrates me sometimes when I read him. Case in point: Humboldt’s Gift is a masterpiece. It’s also kind of a mess, or at least I experienced it as such when I last read it a decade ago or so. It’s on an extended mental list of things I want to read again, someday, as soon as I have a spare moment.
In Bellow’s shorter works there’s a certain focus, the sprawl forcibly constrained into a sharper, more pointed form. I read The Bellarosa Connection again this afternoon. It’s one of his shorter works; in the 1989 Penguin edition it’s a hundred pages long, but these are the suspiciously generous pages often accorded to novellas, with largish type and spacious margins; different typesetting would’ve rendered it a considerably smaller book. I’m struck, as I was the first time I read it, by the brilliance of the execution and the deceptive simplicity of the story.
As founder of the Mnemosyne Institute in Philadelphia, The Bellarosa Connection’s unnamed narrator has made a career of his remarkable memory. In his later years, he inhabits a Philadelphia mansion, a millionaire several times over, alone since the death of his wife. He was born in Newark, son of Russian Jews. As a 32 year old in the late 40s he “still behaved like a 12 year old,”
hanging out in Greenwich Village, immature, drifting, a layabout, shacking up with Bennington girls, a foolish intellectual gossip, nothing in his head but froth—the founder, said my father in comic bewilderment, of the Mnemosyne Institute, about as profitable as it was pronounceable.
It’s the job of every generation to baffle their parents. The narrator’s stepmother has a nephew, Fonstein, about the narrator’s age but with a vastly different biography. While the narrator was caught up in the small dramas of high school and then serving in a low-key post as an army clerk in the Aleutians, Fonstein was busy surviving the Holocaust. Fonstein is the kind of person, the narrator’s father hints, whom one might aspire to emulate. Fonstein is possessed of a certain seriousness that the narrator lacks.
The narrator’s father makes a point of introducing the two. Fonstein has recently emigrated from Cuba. He is serious but not without a trace of wit, married to a massive woman named Sorella whose desire for a husband coincided with Fonstein’s desire for legal residency in the United States, although this isn’t to suggest that they don’t love one another.
Feinstein got out of Poland with his mother and made his way to northern Italy, where his mother soon died; he buried her and set about the business of picking up Italian as rapidly as possible, working his way south, until a night when he was employed as a translator for a reception in Rome at which Hitler was present. But a police check was run and his papers were suspect, so he was arrested and thrown into an Italian jail while the SS began deportation proceedings. It was here that a man came to him one evening: at the same time the next night, Fonstein was told, the door to his cell would be left unlocked. He was to make his way to the street. No one would stop him. A car would be waiting, and he would be taken to safety.
Who, he asks, is his benefactor? Ciano, his occasional employer? No, he’s told, it’s not Ciano. It’s Billy Rose, a Broadway producer, who’s apparently running a covert rescue operation in Italy. When Fonstein arrives at last on Ellis Island, a representative from Rose Productions comes to see him. His case is being turned over to an aid society, she tells him. Can he see Billy Rose, just to thank him and shake his hand? No, he’s told, Rose won’t see him.
Fonstein’s letters to Rose in the ensuing years are returned, always with a polite note in someone else’s hand: Billy Rose has no time to see him. His calls are deflected by secretaries. He approaches Billy Rose at Sardi’s, but one of the restaurant personnel cuts him off before he reaches Rose’s table. He wants only to thank Rose, to shake his hand, but Rose — a man capable of great acts of goodness, but also a bit of a sleazebag even by Broadway producer standards, comfortable with shady business dealings and unable to relate very easily with his fellow man except, apparently, at a distance and in the abstract — will not see him.
Do the ones who save us owe us anything? When documents that incriminate Rose come to her unexpectedly, Sorella devotes herself to trying to get Rose to see her husband; the narrator listens to her stories and files everything away in his perfect memory. The Bellarosa Connection is fascinating as a study of memory and regret.