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Old World, New World

COLLECTED STORIES | By SAUL BELLOW | Viking Press | 442 pages | $30 hardcover

There’s a wonderful story in Saul Bellow‘s Collected Stories. It’s about a circus elephant that has been hired by a Chicago department store in an effort to increase sales in its toy section. The elephant is called Margey. Getting Margey up to the fifth floor of the store hadn‘t been easy, however. She balked at getting into the freight elevator, but Nirad, her Indian trainer, was eventually able to persuade her. From then on everything was a roaring success. Sales went through the roof, and the newspapers (which called her ”Largey“) couldn’t get enough of her. But after a month it was time to return her to the circus -- only Margey wouldn‘t get back into the elevator. Nothing, but nothing, would persuade her, and no one could think of a way to get her out of the building:

There were management conferences and powwows. Experts were called in. Legions of inventive cranks flooded the lines with suggestions. Open the roof and lift out the animal with a crane? Remove a wall and have her lowered by piano movers? Drug her and stow her unconscious in the freight elevator? But how could you pick her up when she was etherized? . . . Nirad the mahout was frantic. The great creature was in misery, suffered from insomnia. Were there no solutions?

If that doesn’t sound like your typical Saul Bellow story, well, it isn‘t. It’s a children‘s story that one of his characters -- Katrina, mistress of the great art critic Victor Wulpy, in ”What Kind of Day Did You Have?“ -- is working on. She has occasionally asked Victor if he has any ideas about a possible ending, but soon gives up: You don’t pester a great man like Victor, she tells herself, ”with your nonsense.“

For Victor, read Bellow: Frivolous entertainments and edge-of-your-seat plots are hardly his stock-in-trade. In fact, reading through his Collected Stories, one is struck by just how little ”story“ there is to his stories. For some people, this may make him boring. (In one of the best pieces in this collection, ”Him With His Foot in His Mouth,“ the hero reads aloud to a famous musicologist. ”‘I’m afraid I‘m putting you to sleep, Professor,’“ he says, noticing the musicologist nodding off. ”‘No, no -- on the contrary, you’re keeping me awake,‘“ comes the answer.) It is, certainly, a weakness, and no amount of intellectual razzle-dazzle and brilliant character description can entirely disguise it. But somehow, Bellow is so lavishly gifted a writer that one reads him with immense pleasure anyway.

As James Wood points out in his introduction to the book, one almost never finds in Bellow’s stories a sentence such as ”He put down his drink and left the room.“ His stories are really wisps of narrative, streams of reminiscence, and they often hang on the slightest of pretexts that serve as an excuse for Bellow to start singing. Often, the main character is a thinly disguised version of, if not Bellow himself, then an aspect of him. Thus ”The Bellarosa Connection,“ which recounts the circumstances of a Jew‘s escape from Fascist Italy and his subsequent life in America, is narrated by the founder of the ”Mnemosyne Institute“ -- a good memory being something Bellow is famous for. ”Him With His Foot in His Mouth“ is an old man’s self-examination prompted by a lifelong habit of insulting people -- nasty one-liners being something Bellow is famous for also.

”Great men“ are frequently at the center of these stories -- ”A Theft,“ ”Mosby‘s Memoirs,“ ”By the St. Lawrence,“ as well as the ones mentioned above. The effect of this can be a bit wearying, like listening to a virtuoso with a limited repertoire. There is a definite tinge of narcissism that tends to grow stronger as Bellow’s work proceeds. Earlier stories, such as ”Looking for Mr. Green,“ which dates back to the 1950s, remind one more of such early Bellow novels as The Victim, sophisticated works that still carry a strong element of social realism and that are entirely free of the sometimes self-regarding brilliance of his later work.

That said, this remains a wonderful collection, a feast of riches to be dipped into repeatedly. (To take a small example: I‘ve never read a more acute but sympathetic critique of the life and work of Allen Ginsberg than one finds, casually thrown out, in the midst of ”Him With His Foot in His Mouth.“) One of the qualities that make Bellow’s work so attractive is its essential seriousness, its concern with the fundamentals of life. Even at its slightest, his work never feels trivial. Although it originates in Chicago, which is at the heart of much of his fiction, Bellow‘s perspective on American life is essentially closer to the Old World than the New. Meeting his Jewish cousin who escaped from Fascist Italy, the American-born hero of ”The Bellarosa Connection“ thinks, ”He saw me, probably, as an immature unstable Jewish American, humanly ignorant and loosely kind.“ In Bellow, contemporary America is always being examined from the viewpoint of an ancestral Old World past -- materially comfortable late-20th-century lives whose roots lie deep in harsh early-20th-century terrain. His ability to make vivid not just the present but the past as well is what gives these stories their unmistakable depth.


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