More Die of Heartbreak

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

What needs noting at the outset of a discussion of More Die of Heartbreak is that to paraphrase the novel’s central conflict (or, at least, that which provides the story its climax) is to misrepresent the real subject of the novel. In fact, were the story solely devoted to the conflict between Kenneth Trachtenberg’s uncle, Benn Crader, and granduncle, Harold Vilitzer, it would be a third as long as it is. Instead, Saul Bellow stretches out this conflict so that it is only apparent in brief mentions and foreshadowing allusions through approximately the first half of the novel; only thereafter does Crader-versus-Vilitzer emerge as the author and the narrator’s central concern, providing a necessary climax to the narrative and then fading into the background as two other more engaging and provocative conflicts are more or less resolved. These other conflicts have to do with Uncle Benn’s marriage to Matilda Layamon and Kenneth’s relationship with Treckie, the mother of his two-year-old daughter Nancy.

Also noteworthy is that, had it not been for his marriage to Matilda, Benn probably would never have attempted to force Vilitzer to pay him the millions that rightfully belong to Kenneth’s mother and Benn (Vilitzer made a huge profit on the sale of land bequeathed to the family). According to Kenneth, it is the constant goading of Benn by Matilda and her avaricious father that prompts him to confront Vilitzer and threaten him with a lawsuit unless he hands over Benn’s share of the land-sale profit. Such a retributive and essentially materialistic maneuver is antithetical to Benn’s character and values, for Kenneth portrays him as an educated innocent, seemingly otherworldly with his lifelong devotion to botany (his father, Kenneth’s great-grandfather, a Russian Jew, had dabbled in the “mystical tradition,” and Kenneth notes often that Benn’s shoulder blades look like “wing cases” beneath his coat). Indeed, one of Kenneth’s unspoken goals is to keep “Uncle” from being contaminated by the strictly temporal and Machiavellian scheming that Kenneth views as pervasive in twentieth century America; in this regard, Benn is portrayed as virtuous for not reading newspapers, not watching television, and seldom reading books. Kenneth himself, however, has obviously spent much time engaged in these pursuits; thus Benn depends upon his nephew for informed “modern” counsel.

Nevertheless, Benn does confront Vilitzer—even though this comes to nothing because his uncle, “as crooked as they came,” is unmoved by his nephew’s implied threats and then dies before Benn has a chance to confront him a second time. Even more important to Kenneth because it seems contradictory to Uncle’s character, Benn does marry Matilda, an egocentric and totally materialistic woman in her mid-thirties who still lives with her parents, before and after her marriage. This marriage is extremely troubling to Kenneth—especially since Uncle has committed himself to it without first conferring with his nephew, his only confidant regarding all of his other intimate dealings with women. In short, such dealings with the female gender—both Benn’s and Kenneth’s—make up much of this novel’s content or, in other words, most of Kenneth’s concerns. In this regard, More Die of Heartbreak is reminiscent of Bellow’s Herzog (1964).

At one point in Herzog, Moses Herzog writes: “Will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood.” Regardless of what women want in his story (and Herzog never arrives at a conclusive answer), they are unquestionably the central problem in Herzog’s life—a problem exacerbated rather than solved as he moves from one relationship to another, from his marriage to Daisy Herzog to his affair with Sono Oguki, from that affair to his marriage to Madeleine (Mady) Pontritter, and from that marriage to his affair with Ramona Donsell. According to Herzog, each one of the women with whom he becomes involved seems, whether she knows it or not, intent upon drinking “human blood"—or, more specifically, man’s blood (read life-force, vitality).

Twenty-three years after the publication of Herzog, Bellow is still writing about men who suffer from what might be called a Herzog-complex, for in More Die of Heartbreak, Kenneth and Benn may be able to look through the deeds of men, but they find it impossible to “look through the deeds of women”; Kenneth says, they are “both up against it with the ladies—both pretty stupid.” What he means by “stupid” here, as elsewhere in this novel, is a kind of Adamic stupidity, since Bellow himself seems implicitly to believe that the onus of the fallen human condition rests primarily upon the heads of women, most of whom the author portrays as determined to entice men away from any quests for spiritual perfection and into a life of sensual pleasures and moral corruption. “Anyway,” Kenneth says early in his extended series of flashbacks, all meant to elucidate Benn’s actions at the novel’s end, “when Uncle fell, I fell with him. It was inevitable that I should go down too.” Kenneth’s fall is “inevitable” because he has chosen Benn as his “personal avant garde,” his “forerunner,” where women are concerned; it is also inevitable because he himself cannot seem to avoid being hurt by loving the wrong kind of woman. Indeed, what he says about Benn is also true about himself: He is “a woman-battered man.”

It is true that Kenneth generalizes about both sexes when he says...

(The entire section is 2302 words.)