Vol. 8, No. 3
Years ago I had a conversation with a friend comparing John Updike and Saul Bellow. At the time I liked Updike a little better, but she said something on Bellow’s side that nearly changed my mind on the spot. “Updike sees,” she said. “He sees the world and he knows what he is looking at. Bellow looks and he doesn’t always know. Bellow is stunned by the world.” By that she meant that Bellow’s vision is deeper.
I’m not sure that she was right (I’m not sure, for one thing, that Updike is always so knowing), but I’m still thinking about what she said. This blunt and exquisite little beauty, “Something To Remember Me By,” is a small example and counter-example of what she was talking about. The narrator is a worldly old man with a sophisticated eye and a wise-ass sense of humor describing an incident from his boyhood. But for all his wise-assedness, he remains amazed by the force and plenitude of physical life: pocket lint, soiled snowbanks, a tile wall with gaps “stuffed with dirt,” the “salt, acid, dark, sweet odors” of strange pussy. Then there’s social life: the order of family and religion, the chaos of morality, crime, goofiness, love, deception and holy books, some of which hide money, others of which cost 5 cents and come apart in your hands. As his scornful older brother says, this boy “doesn’t understand fuck-all,” and through this boy’s eyes, who would?
The story takes place in depression-era Chicago and it is told almost like a fairy tale: the boy, whose mother is slowly dying, goes on the “journey” of his day at school and work. At its very start he kisses his bed-ridden mother; though he lives in a city, he then encounters hunters, steps over the blood they’ve spilt and enters a park (or wood). Later he enters a strange home to deliver flowers; in the dining room he sees a young girl lying in a coffin. Her frowning mother gestures with her fists. He sees “baked ham with sliced bread” on the drainboard, a “jar of French’s mustard and wooden tongue depressors to spread it;” there’s a dead body, but it’s these daily things that make him say “I saw and I saw and I saw.” Under this mortal enchantment the boy then goes to see his uncle and instead meets another girl, also supine, but naked and very much alive. The boy forgets his mother and is falsely seduced. He is humbled, does service, is punished. There is mercy and knowledge.
Actually punishment comes last, but mercy and knowledge have more power—which would say that my friend was wrong, that Bellow does look and know. Except that the knowledge of the story, which comes from the world of objects and cheap books, plus people who make fun, speechify, cheat and punch hell out of the kid—this knowledge is peculiar; blunt, yet hard to read, right in your face, but off the color spectrum.
“That was when the measured, reassuring, sleep-inducing turntable of days became a whirlpool, a vortex darkening towards the bottom.”
“I myself know the power of nonpathos, in these low, devious days.”
The boy turned old man thinks both these thoughts close on each other; his knowing and his amazed unknowing come together and fall apart again.