The Bellarosa Connection by Saul Bellow

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

As Bellow had used the traditional, even old-fashioned narrative structure of the picaresque for his first major work, The Adventures of Augie March, so thirty years later the author shows his interest in more modern narrative forms. The Bellarosa Connection is an example of the so-called new journalism, in which real events and people are treated in broadly fictional ways. E. L. Doctorow, for example, had used such historical personalities as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and J. P. Morgan in the fictional tapestry of his Ragtime (1975).

In The Bellarosa Connection, Bellow creates a series of events based on the historic atrocity of the Holocaust during World War II. The action centers on Sorella Fonstein’s persistence in gaining an interview with impresario Billy Rose, who was responsible—through his anonymous underground railroad—for bringing a number of Jews to America as they escaped from the Nazis. Among those who were saved was Sorella’s husband, Harry. Fonstein is snubbed by Billy Rose (the European Jews had called their savior “Bellarosa”), but Sorella herself, with tigerlike tenacity, ultimately succeeds in confronting Billy and blackmailing him, through her knowledge of a scandal, into meeting with Harry.

Billy’s ignorance and crudity as a human being are portrayed with insight, for if human character is fraught with contradiction, then Billy’s character is contradiction personified. His motive for underwriting his sole example of generosity and unselfishness in a life of hustling selfishness is never fully explained; Billy himself is not really sure of his motive. As a Jew, Billy may have truly acted in sympathy with his fellow Jews, as if (as the narrator points out) “the God of his fathers still mattered.” For one time in his life, this obsessively vulgar person begrudgingly freed the font of human goodness within him.

In spite of his complexity, however, Billy Rose is not the main character. He is seen by the reader only in the climactic interview with Sorella. It is, in fact, Sorella who commands the reader’s—and the narrator’s—attention. Like many of Bellow’s women, she is fierce, tenacious, and in absolute command over her husband. With an animal obesity to match, she is bright and yet oddly gentle, even humble. What Sorella achieves by the interview is not only Billy’s consent to meet with her husband so that Harry can thank him. At bottom lies Sorella’s extorting from Billy a sense of responsibility for the life he had saved, a responsibility that extends to all humanity. Billy thus shares kinship with Harry, with Jews, and with all humankind. Sorella seems to have understood this connection—the real Bellarosa connection—the chain of mutual responsibility, of recognition of human suffering, of compassion for the human condition.

This connection is ultimately clarified by the novella’s point of view. The narrator is a distant relation of Sorella, who tells the story in an effort to purge his memory. He is the founder of Mnemosyne Institute, a company engaged in training businessmen and government leaders in memory techniques. Like Billy Rose, the narrator is a self-made millionaire. His working motto being “memory is life,” he is now on the eve of retirement, about to pass on the business to his son. His recollections of the Fonstein and Billy Rose story thus close the circle of relationship. The narrator’s memory forms the link connecting the participants of the drama with the rest of humankind. Like the narrator, the reader is vicariously involved. Humanity, through memory, is being tested and vindicated.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

One of Saul Bellow’s shorter works, The Bellarosa Connection tells the story of a wife’s persistence in gaining an interview with impresario Billy Rose, who was responsible—through his anonymous underground railroad—for saving from the Nazis a number of Jews, Harry Fonstein among them, by bringing them to America. The narrator, a distant relative of the Fonsteins,...

(The entire section is 1,266 words.)