In his novella A Theft, Saul Bellow, America’s 1976 Nobel laureate and the distinguished author of such prizewinning novels as The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Herzog (1964), Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), and Humboldt’s Gift (1975), has written something he had never tried before: a story with a female protagonist. Like the male heroes of many earlier novels, Clara Velde is at once strong and driven: an intelligent, successful, introspective, garrulous figure, in quest of love and wisdom, or as a minimum, seeking peace of mind amid the turbulence of New York City, the Gogmagogsville of Clara’s energetic monologues. Bellow begins with “what was conspicuous about her, . . a head unusually big. In a person of inert character a head of such size might have seemed a deformity; in Clara, because she had so much personal force, it came across as ruggedly handsome. She needed that head; a mind like hers demanded space.” Clara, by origin a country girl, has never quite shed her rural innocence, for all her present worldly sophistication. Her family took root in the farm country of Illinois and Indiana, but she fled their “old-time religion,” including “prayers at breakfast, grace at every meal, psalms learned by heart, the Gospels, chapter and verse,” for literary studies in the East at Wellesley and Columbia. She has achieved worldly success, becoming in her vigorous and still-attractive middle age the “czarina of fashion writing,” but this side is less vividly presented than her risky emotional life: She has survived two suicide attempts at the end of failed love affairs and, afterward, has worked through four inadequate marriages.
The last of these marriages is to the inert Wilder Velde, one of a series of inadequate males in Clara’s life. Wilder interrupts his nonstop reading of mystery novels only to jet off for brief advisory sessions with dark-horse political candidates who inevitably lose in the primaries. This marriage seems destined to last, as the novel ends, if only because it is oddly workable—Wilder is nearly always there but is too smug to question Clara’s wide-ranging emotional life external to their marriage. The last of Clara’s “utility husbands,” he is no more than a convenient male with ’stud power,” a masculine placeholder rather than the confidant and object of admiration Clara has sought all her life. Wilder’s feeble career as a political adviser and his sterile absorption of knowledge (the mystery novels) stand in marked contrast to the brilliant and dynamic Ithiel (Teddy) Regler, the one man Clara really loves. Regler, a widely quoted political analyst, appears frequently on television talk shows and rubs elbows with Henry Kissinger and Anatole Dobrynin, but he “didn’t make a big public career, [because] he wasn’t a team player.” Nor could he make the commitment to play on Clara’s team, though he squandered his substance by marrying three lesser women. Worn down by entreaties, Ithiel did once go so far as to buy Clara a valuable emerald engagement ring, but shortly thereafter the first stage of their relationship ended in a violent quarrel over Clara’s attempt to “hold Ithiel on too short a leash” and Clara’s second suicide attempt.
The novella’s focus, however, is not on this early and more conventional stage, wherein Clara longs to be half of what she calls “the Human Pair,” but on a more surprising and mature later stage. As a young woman “Clara had made reckless experiments—all those chancy relationships; anything might have happened; much did; and all for the honor of running risks.” Clara’s failures, however, seem to matter less than her resilience and her curiosity: “She would watch and listen with critical concentration. ‘Tell!’ was one of her code words.” Bellow allows Clara to emerge untarnished from the cauldron of Gogmagogsville because her contemporary openness and her surface hardness rest on a foundation of staunch loyalty to a chosen few, a loyalty that may find its source in her Christian, farm-girl roots. Despite the potentially grim overtones of Clara’s past, she is the protagonist of a work that lacks the dark, tragicomic texture one tends to expect of Bellow. Humor is more in the foreground of this novella, which aspires to be a true comedy of ideas. Clara is a winning figure, and her tale is best understood as...
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