For the purposes of this story, Saul Bellow invents a famous modern Spanish poet, Manuel Gonzaga, whose elusive manuscripts set the plot in motion. Clarence Feiler is a naïve young man from California who hears from a Spanish Republican refugee that there are more than one hundred poems by Gonzaga somewhere in Madrid. Feiler wrote his graduate thesis on Gonzaga’s Los Huesos Secos, an experience that, he felt, put him “in touch with a poet who could show me how to go on, and what attitude to take toward life.” Feiler has been leading an aimless fife; he realizes that he is “becoming an eccentric” and is “too timid to say he believed in God,” and so his quest for the Gonzaga manuscripts evolves into a quest for his own identity. Finding the manuscripts and presenting them to the world matters to him, and “what mattered might save him.”
Feiler’s first act on arriving in Madrid is to find Miss Faith Ungar, an art student whose fiancé is an airline pilot regularly engaged in bringing in blackmarket pesetas from Tangiers. Miss Ungar is sympathetic to his ambitions, but he frets that “the kind of woman who became engaged to an airline pilot might look down on him.” Her friendship with Feiler does seem sincere, though, and perhaps would have developed into something deeper had he had the courage to pursue it. At one time he even reflects, “He should have a woman like that. It passed dimly over his mind that a live woman would make a better quest than a dead poet.” The moment passes, however, leaving a faint after-sense of an opportunity wasted.
Feiler takes a room at a pension and immediately involves himself in a verbal exchange with a Miss Walsh, a querulous Englishwoman who baits him about his country’s testing of atomic bombs. When she calls him “some...
(The entire section is 741 words.)