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MORE DIE OF HEARTBREAK by Saul Bellow (Morrow: $16.95; 335 pp.)

June 14, 1987|Leonard Michaels | Michaels is the author of "The Men's Club" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Avon). and

"More Die of Heartbreak" is less like a novel than an anatomy of love in the post-modern age; a loquacious, brilliant, entertaining book, mixing long flights of ideas with comic scenes which says a lot about the "entanglements" of "serious(?)" men and calculating, ditsy, depraved, physically disgusting, and piteously needy women. I would guess that Saul Bellow himself, given his emotional and intellectual investment, really likes women rather in the way a preacher really likes sin.

The story mainly concerns two men--Crader and Trachtenberg--who talk about sex, love, marriage, and work while their lives grow increasingly chaotic and further apart. Trachtenberg, the narrator, does most of the talking and keeps promising a story of Crader's disastrous marriage, but doesn't really begin it for more than a hundred pages. Before and after, he tells about himself and often disrupts narrative momentum for the sake of his thoughts and talky paragraphs like eruptions of an awesome incontinence.

Trachtenberg erupts, but it is Crader whose name suggests 'crater,' as in a volcano. Presumably, Trachtenberg and Crader are aspects of each other, or essentially one man torn in half, his heart and mind going different ways.

Trachtenberg says, when "a serious man" asks an "attractive woman" to marry him, it is a "preface to self-injury." He describes marriage as "two psychotics under one quilt." About sex, he says, "Whatever troubles people run into, they look for the sexual remedy . . . they turn to sex as the analgesic." Furthermore, people "do the act by which love would be transmitted if there were any," but, since there isn't, marriage, sex, and love are species of contemporary desperation. This is what Trachtenberg thinks. What does he think about his thinking, his compulsion to generalize?

Of course, we all have these thoughts today instead of prayers. And we think these thoughts are serious and we take price in our ability to think, to elaborate ideas, so we go round and round in consciousness like this. However, they don't get us anywhere; our speculations are like a stationary bicycle.

We think. Therefore, we think, think, think. None of it leads to a place of rest, but the process spins off occasionally into action. A major action occurs when Crader, who is a famous botanist with mystical seeing power, discovers that he loathes, rather than loves, his beautiful wife. This happens while they watch Hitchcock's thriller, "Psycho," and Crader detects a resemblance between his wife's shoulders, high and wide, and those of Anthony Perkins, a murderous lunatic in a repulsive movie. Crader has better reasons to loathe his wife--she likes the movie!--but the shoulders crystallize a truth; not merely in his feelings, but a truth about her.

It's very funny. Also very sad because even the most beautiful people are subject to the grotesquely critical disgust of others. If this weren't true, the huge profits of the cosmetics and fashion industries would dwindle to nothing overnight, since they are drawn mainly from our fear of criticism. The book implies, most generally, that love is always based on some variety of glamorous illusion, and this holds even for one's ability to love oneself.

Bellow doesn't put it like this. He isn't a modern Saint Augustine, but the idea is implicit even in the way Bellow makes characters live. He concentrates on the affective minutiae of their physical being. Few writers seize a person's essence, as powerfully and absolutely as Bellow, in the twist and hang of lips, or the weight and light of eyes, or more largely the gestalt of torso, head and legs. Being seen by Bellow, is like having a spiritual X-ray taken through one's cheeks or lips or any body part toward which he aims the fantastic instrument of his glance. The effect is often mercilessly reductive. Perhaps only saints could survive such seeing, for they lack usual human density and accessibility.

It is maybe a little excessive to say this book argues that to see, really to see, is to not love, except insofar as one loves to see. But there are several scenes where this is suggested. In one, a gang of sophisticated, accomplished men in a Japanese sex palace, gape at women who squat and exhibit their red, dilated interiorities. Between these men and the women's thing (or women generally), there is no common human ground. Look, guys, see where you pour your lives. The more "literal," says Trachtenberg, the more it is "mysterious." Yeats made some great poems of this paradox.

Finally, Crader flees his wife and everyone else to do research in the North Pole where he can't suffer humiliations of relationships, sex, love, marriage, etc. He can be true to himself, his magical gift for seeing, restricting it to a harmless innocent application. The study of specialized plants in cold, pure, lonely, northern darkness, high above the human world.

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