The United States has always had a special relationship with the short story. Whilst the British Empire lapped up the hearty meat of the novels from the likes of Thackery and Richardson, it seems that short, impactive literature was just what the frontiersman ordered. If the history of America has since been one of a journey of self-discovery, a grand and largely futile experiment in the holding down of a discernible single identity, then the short story has contributed to the scattergun methodology of that experiment. When Irwin Shaw said, ‘In a novel or a play you must be a whole man. In a collection of stories you can be all the men or fragments of men, worthy and unworthy, who in different seasons abound in you,’ he may have been talking just as much about what it is to be an American as what it is to be a writer of short fiction. If America is impossible to understand as a whole, then perhaps the significance of the short story to it is that it offers us the broad picture by focussing in on the minutiae, by treating us to an overall truth bit by bit.
With this thought in mind, I realise it may seem cheating a little to choose Bellow’s late novella as my favourite short story. But a great novella has more in common with the short story than the novel. It is, perhaps, the most glorious of all forms of fictive prose, being the length that it must be, rather than the length stipulated by printing economics or the guidelines of a competition. If poetry is the best words in the best order, then the novella is the art of prose at its necessary exhalation. The modern novella has its masterpieces of perfection as forebear, something that the novel arguably does not have, in Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, and Kafka’s Metamorphosis. ‘The Bellarosa Connection’ is not perfect, but it shows the greatest stylist of his generation honing his art to the maximum slightness: Bellow is the master of pouring a man’s life into a few short days, or even hours, by bouncing reflections off every item in the room. ‘The Bellarosa Connection’ is, in essence, one conversation that tells the story of the American century.
Bellow’s towering contribution to post-war American fiction is largely a riff on one continuous theme, but like Rothko, or even The Goldberg Variations, these on-going riffs centre in on a truth that is only definable by the repetition at its core. And if Rothko’s goal was to give mankind back a spiritual fullness through a reintroduction of mythology, then Bellow’s goal, in literature, was to continually ask where this emptiness had come from in the first place. He looked all across the cultural landscape of middle-America for answers. He wrote extensively about the middle-class Jewish American experience, and yet only in ‘The Bellarosa Connection’ and Mr Sammler’s Planet does he approach the subject of the Holocaust with any sustained focus.
The story, as his widow Janice Bellow recalls, came from a heated and late night conversation after a hearty meal with friends about the question of Jewish guilt. Bellow spent several months fashioning his ideas around this topic to the legend of the Broadway impresario Billy Rose, who created an escape network for Italian Jews during the war. Harry Fonstein, and his wife Sorella, relate the story of one such escape to the unnamed narrator. But the story is not about the escape, the story is about the frustrated attempts of the Fonsteins to thank Rose for his work in the years after the war. The story is as complex as it is simple, and as funny as it is grave. These paradoxes were always Bellow’s hunting ground.
But apart from the sweeping (and largely realised) intellectual goals of the work, there is the sheer enjoyment of Bellow’s prose, too. His swagger, his wit, and his sheer cleverness are as abundant here as they are in his greatest novels. It has perhaps my favourite opening line in all literature:
As founder of the Mnemosyne Institute in Philadelphia, forty years in the trade, I trained many executives, politicians, and members of the defense establishment, and now I am retired, with the Institute in the capable hands of my son, I would like to forget about remembering. It is an Alice in Wonderland proposition.
It perfectly establishes everything the following story attempts to do. The story itself is told through a rabbit hole of meta-narratives, and the nature of memory (such a preoccupation for Bellow’s heroes, Doestoevsky and Proust) feeds through every sentence. But it also has great examples of Bellow’s famous wit:
My father would have made a mathematician had he been more withdrawn from human affairs.
Or how about:
The Mnemosyne Institute: as unprofitable as it was unpronounceable.
And of course, the Bellarosa of the title is the name Fonstein carries around with him for years after his escape from the Italian prison, (avoiding the gas chamber), having misunderstood the guard who aids him, who tells him in a thick accent that he owes his liberation to Billy Rose. Fonstein assumes Bellarosa is a powerful clandestine Jewish-American organisation; a cruel and darkly funny metaphor for the West’s institutional lack of interest in any rescue of Europe’s Jews.
In this shorter form, also, we see Bellow going to town on the Tolstoyan maxim that a character can be defined by a ‘dominating essence’. And so just as Anna Karenin always has a light step and Levin treads heavily throughout Tolstoy’s masterpiece, here Sorella Fonstein – a powerfully memorable Jewess – is both restricted and impelled by her ‘forceful obesity’. It is a trick that Bellow uses to great effect in much of his shorter work (particularly in ‘The Actual’, and ‘Him With His Foot in His Mouth’), and it is one that proves very effective here. But this is just one prime example of the dazzling literary sleight of hand on offer from Bellow in ‘The Bellarosa Connection’.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis