More Die of Heartbreak

If you venture to think in America, you also feel an obligation to provide a historical sketch to go with it, to authenticate or legitimize your thoughts. So it’s one moment of flashing insight and then a quarter of an hour of pedantry and tiresome elaboration–academic gabble. […] One has to feel sorry for people in such an explanatory bind. Or else (a better alternative) one can develop an eye for the comical side of this. (p. 182-83)

As a warning, this is going to be a long post but I’ll to my best to keep it focused and organized. Saul Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak is a complex book and I found myself making notes and marking pages for things I wanted to mention in a review.

To start off, I picked this book blindly from the love category of the Guardian list only because I knew the author. One of my roommates had a American authors course on Twain, Dreiser, and Bellow so I assumed him to be from an earlier era. To my surprise this book is no older than I am, and his first novel was only published back in 1944. Three of his books won National Book Awards and another the Pulitzer Prize; he himself was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. So right away I had to shift my expectations.

Our narrator is Kenneth Trachtenberg, a man in his thirties who has left his Casanova father in Paris and moved to the Midwest to live with his uncle Benn. Benn is a famed botanist described by Kenneth as having a magic connection with the plant world, living somewhat on the fringe of society after the death of his wife. Then he marries the beautiful Matilda Layamon and is swept into a life that seems unsuitable to his nature. Meanwhile Kenneth has issues of his own concerning his estranged girlfriend Treckie and their young daughter. Both men must grapple with the fact that, though (or because?) intellectually  gifted, they are no match for the unpredictability of desire. (That’s not really a good summary, but neither is the one on the back of the book. I don’t want to give anything away, and it’s not really plot driven.)

First of all, this is no beach read. I would probably have put this down early on (or “postponed” it) if I hadn’t been committed for a challenge. I had decided that Saul Bellow was a garrulous, presumptuous writer whose style I just didn’t care for. Nothing happens for the first twenty or thirty pages except character development and a little back story. But later down the line things came together and started to get interesting.

It’s impossible to talk about More Die of Heartbreak without first explaining Kenneth. In many ways he resembles Benn more than his suave  father, regarding him with both filial and intellectual esteem. He grew up with the great minds at his parents’ table and is now a professor of Russian studies. He has a tendency to over-analyze everything, considering the most trivial statements in depth and constantly referencing various authors and philosophers (usually Russian or French). For the first half of the novel I was really fed up with all the random philosophical tangents. Then Kenneth was having a conversation with his mother, who basically told him to shut up, and suddenly everything clicked. If the voice on the page was Bellow himself it would have been unnecessarily complicated, but it actually belonged to Kenneth and other characters found him occasionally insufferable as well.

I felt relieved that I was not alone in my opinion, but more importantly I had a much greater appreciation for the philosophical parts when they occurred because they told me who Kenneth was even more than his actions. I began to pick up on the patterns of the references, seeing them not as Bellow showing off but Kenneth revealing the opinions that had shaped him. Several ideas he kept coming back to throughout the book, and I’ll try to mention the big ones. My biggest complaint is that I was never quite sure whether the ideas belonged to Kenneth (and by extension Bellow) himself, or were merely a conglomeration of existing philosophies. But perhaps this was  intended (see introductory quote).

The title comes from an interview Benn gives about radioactivity from places like Chernobyl. He comments that even though the deaths they cause are tragic, more die of heartbreak every day unnoticed. Kenneth really picks up on this and mixes it with Russian ideas. He claims that despite the carefree trappings of capitalism and democracy, the sexual desires of the Western world are just as much of an ordeal as the classic wars and famines in places like Russia or Africa. In fact, because intrinsic they are perhaps even more of a hazard, whether suppressed or gratuitously gratified, and are far more rampant than in previous generations thanks to the sexual revolution. (What will Google hits make of this?)

Another theme running through the book is that of ice versus emotion. Benn has spent a lot of time in the Antarctic studying the lichens which can be frozen solid for years on end yet pick up life where it left off when they thaw. On the other hand Kenneth often turns to the quote that the heart is three parts glacier (which I can’t find now to see where it originated). It’s so much easier to look at things through the veil of intellectualism than to experience them, which I think in part explains Kenneth’s fascination with Benn’s marriage.

Benn himself is also (or at least has the potential to be) a fascinating character. He has a vast intimate knowledge of plants and an almost mystic connection with them that Kenneth harps on. Kenneth’s goal in life, and the reason he chose Benn over his parents, is to understand this power of insight and transfer it from plants to human beings. He worships Benn, calling him the closest thing he knows to a “Citizen of Eternity (i.e. Moses or Mozart) and claiming others don’t recognize or appreciate his greatness. Half the time, however, I felt like I was in the ranks of the others. Benn seemed nuanced, idiosyncratic, special in both his knowledge and the fact that his life was oriented differently. But were his talents and situation really that singular? He certainly didn’t strike me as a man in a million and I felt it was a case of showing instead of telling. Then, of course, I remembered that we had a narrator. Regardless of whether or not Benn actually was a citizen of eternity, he seemed that way to Kenneth and so that’s the way he was described.

There’s even more going on but I don’t think I can distill it down coherently. Suffice it to say that Bellow must certainly be intelligent, as I assume the variety of references here is only a cross-sampling of his knowledge. I also stand by my statement though that it’s occasionally over-done, especially in the beginning, since some of the tangents do nothing to further the plot. Like an aside about hidden political agendas in the movie I, Claudius which Bellow must have just thought was clever. I think the book probably needed an editor, but no one wanted to tell a Pulitzer/Nobel winner to cut anything.

I’m not sure I can say I enjoyed the More Die of Heartbreak, as it was slow going at times and not necessarily my idea of pleasure reading; however, I  do appreciate it as a literary work and I know I’ll be thinking about it for while. At some point I’d like to try one of his better known books, such as The Adventures of Augie March, to get a more complete picture of Bellow as a writer and also test my theory that the narration here is meant to be Kenneth. But that probably won’t be for some time.

Published in: on September 2, 2009 at 11:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow (love) […]

  2. […] be checking out the rest of his catalog of classics. I never thought I’d say that I preferred More Die of Heartbreak. His short stories are supposedly very good, however, so later on I might see if my anthologies […]

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