The Bellarosa Connection
This novella by Nobel laureate Saul Bellow is a minor contribution to a series of distinguished works in which he has investigated the spiritual malaise of twentieth century America. Humorous, at times stylistically exuberant, The Bellarosa Connection is Bellow’s fifteenth book. It takes the form of the first-person remembrance of Harry and Sorella Fonstein, acquaintances of the unnamed narrator through his stepmother. (Harry Fonstein is a nephew of the stepmother, whom the narrator calls “Aunt Mildred.”) A Polish Jew, Fonstein lost all of his family during the Nazi persecution and narrowly escaped to America. His rescue was engineered by an Italian underground operation run by Broadway Billy Rose, onetime husband of Fanny Bryce. The central plot of the Fonstein story focuses on the efforts of Harry to meet and personally thank Billy Rose, or “Bellarosa,” as the Italian underground pronounces the name. Harry’s marriage to Sorella, an intelligent though grossly obese woman, and his failure to meet Billy Rose form the principal episodes of the story. The fact, however, that this story is retold as a remembrance or memorial to Sorella and Harry calls attention to another strand in the narrative: the maturation of the narrator and his move to greater consciousness of the brutality suffered by European Jews.
The Bellarosa Connection has a three-part structure reflecting three principal stages of the narrator’s acquaintanceship with the Fonsteins and his maturation. The first stage occurs during the 1940’s in New Jersey, largely at the home of Aunt Mildred and the narrator’s father, a frequent chess opponent for Harry. The narrator remembers himself as a callow young man, a “child of Russian Jews” who, though no longer young, is still “immature,” “a Greenwich Village sort,” “a foolish intellectual gossip.” Fonstein’s escape from Poland and Eastern Europe via Italy is to him no serious matter. Rather, he describes it as “a Hollywood serial—the Saturday thriller, featuring Harry Fonstein and Billy Rose.” “Sorella’s obesity, her beehive coif, the preposterous pince-nez” he finds outrageously humorous, the style of a transvestite. Yet despite his first false formulations, the narrator is drawn by Sorella’s intelligence into hearing not only Fonstein’s story but also the details of the Holocaust. Not surprisingly, he does not want “to think of the history and psychology of these abominations, death chambers and furnaces.”
The second part of the novella is set in Jerusalem in the late 1950’s, when, by coincidence, the narrator, the Fonsteins, and Billy Rose converge on the King David Hotel simultaneously. The narrator, who at this stage has married what he calls “a Main Line lady” and left New Jersey permanently, is now the prosperous founder of the Mnemosyne Institute and is in Israel by invitation to open a branch of his famous memory- training foundation. He has not seen the Fonsteins in ten years. His own father has died and his relationship with the family, largely because of his marriage to a Gentile woman, has suffered. It is during this episode that the narrator learns from Sorella the details of her attempts to coerce Billy Rose into meeting briefly with her husband.
The final stage of the novella brings the reader to the present, sometime in March in the late 1980’s, when, because of a phone call from a rabbi, the narrator tries to locate the Fonsteins after almost thirty years. This effort is initiated by a return of the Jerusalem Fonstein, so to speak. That is, the rabbi who telephones the narrator is seeking Harry because of the condition of a relative in Jerusalem who needs help. A beggar, a homeless eccentric and street preacher, the 1980’s Jerusalem Fonstein echoes the plight of the 1940’s Fonstein, struggling to survive in Europe without detection by the Nazis. As the narrator realizes at this point in the novel, this Jerusalem Fonstein has been “abused out of his head by persecution, loss, death, and brutal history: beside himself, crying out for aid—human and supernatural.” It is at this stage, moreover, that the narrator discovers the impact of the brutality suffered by the European Jews, and it is also in this last section that he learns of the deaths of Harry and Sorella in an automobile accident. The retelling of their story is both an exercise in memory, a wager against death, which is forgetting, and a memorial to the dead couple.
Despite its brevity, The Bellarosa Connection is a rich work. Harry Fonstein serves as an obvious symbol of European Jewry, his relative in Jerusalem as a symbol of that same race in the Middle East, a people who have continued to suffer hostilities. Harry’s orthopedic boot—he was born defective, with one leg shorter than another, just as Sorella is defective because of her obesity—is a symbol of the transformation that America has wrought. A successful businessman in America, Harry wears an elegant British-made boot, so unlikethe crude Polish article,...
(The entire section is 2060 words.)