Fonstein, a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis and took up clandestine residence in Rome, is arrested after a police check. In jail, awaiting transportation to a death camp, he receives a message that his cell will be unlocked the following night. A car picks him up, he is taken to Genoa, and put on a Swedish freighter bound for the United States.
The escape is organized by a network backed by Billy Rose, the New York showman, who used his Prohibition-days Mob connections to smuggle a number of fellow Jews out of Italy during World War II.
Upon this bit of historical byway--Fonstein is fictional but the escape route is not--Saul Bellow hangs a story about memory as a spiritual force; specifically, as a force watered down and neglected by Jews who went from Old World oppression to New World ease.
It is told, in the tones of grievance and high nerves characteristic of a Bellow narrator, by an easy--and therefore uneasy--American Jewish intellectual. This nameless narrator has used his special talent to prosper, marry a rich WASP, and live in a priceless 18th-Century colonial house in Philadelphia. The house is all memory--but someone else's.
The Iron Toothbrush
In a prime irony--Bellow, I suspect, brushes his teeth with an iron toothbrush--the narrator's talent is a phenomenal gift for remembering. He has parlayed this into the Mnemosyne Institute, which gathers large fees for teaching businesses and government agencies the techniques of memory.
It is brain memory; not the real thing. The real thing, as the narrator comes to realize--a realization that is the theme of Bellow's novella--is something deeper. It is emotional memory, memory of the heart. It is what the Jewish religion asks of God: \o7 Yiskor Elohim \f7 or, as the author renders it, "Remember Your Dead." It is memory as life, or as what gives value to life.
The narrator's instrument of conversion is Fonstein, a relative of his stepmother. He too has prospered, as the inventor of an improved thermostat and the husband of the brilliant, powerful and impressively fat Sorella, who ran the business for him. The remarkable thing about Fonstein is his obsession: All his life he had tried to meet his benefactor and had perpetually been rebuffed. Rose ignored his letters, his phone calls, and once, when Fonstein approached him in Sardi's, Rose simply turned his face to the wall.
Fonstein is the Jew of the Old World. Benefaction is a link in the chain of humanity; thanks is another link. Together, they pull human beings into a community.
Slipped the Chains
If the narrator, Americanized and comfortable, has slipped the chain of memory and obligation, Rose stands for its violent shattering. He is the New York avoidance reflex. New Yorkers will help but they will help tough, almost as an act of aggression. To be thanked is virtually to be insulted. Thank the New Yorker and he will flinch: \o7 What does this guy want? \f7 you can hear him asking. Or, as one of Rose's assistants tells Fonstein:
"Billy didn't want his gratitude. First your suppliant takes you by the knees. Then he asks for a small loan. He wants a handout, a pair of pants, a place to sleep in, a meal ticket, a bit of capital to go into business. One man's gratitude is poison to his benefactor."
Before Rose dies, there will be one encounter, appropriately, in Jerusalem ("Should I forget thee . . . "). Fonstein has lost heart, but Sorella has enough for two. She is one of Bellow's superwomen.
She and her husband are in Israel for a visit; Rose is there to endow a rose garden. She has gathered some damaging material from his past, and she seeks to force him to give Fonstein a 15-minute interview. Rose screams at her, and suddenly she realizes there is nothing there. If memory is life, then a man who utterly rejects it is not alive.
The narrator recalls all this. He has lost touch with Fonstein and Sorella; on one occasion when Fonstein telephoned him for some advice about his son, he had snubbed him. Now, in his 70s, widowed and alone, he tries to trace them, only to learn that they have recently been killed in a car crash. All he can do is remember.
The narrator seeks to atone for having been more Rose than Fonstein, but Bellow will not let him off easily. He never lets his protagonists off easily; least of all, when they personify his own lifelong wrestle with the gnarled question of what it means to be American and Jewish.
The narrator, even in atonement, remains a bit of a prig and a misery. Here is his wonderfully sour reflection about the weather: "Winter, with a grunt, gave up its grip on Philadelphia and began to go out in trickles of grimy snow . . . then it was the turn of spring to thrive on the dirt of the city." And his quest for the Fonsteins ends with a long telephonic put-down by a self-absorbed friend of their son, who is staying in the apartment.
There is a certain sketchiness about "The Bellarosa Connection." The possibilities of that last phone call seemed to trickle away. Our expectations of Sorella, the superwoman, are aroused, but Bellow doesn't put enough energy into dramatizing her to fulfill them. The book's life lies in the biting growl of the narrator, remembering forgetfulness and upbraiding it.