‘The Bellarosa Connection’ by Saul Bellow

Maybe a bit of a cheat as this was published as a novella, but it does also appear (and where I first came across it) in Bellow’s Collected Stories (2001), but it is such a great piece of work by… what is that cringey expression that’s currently going around?… the GOAT???… and it also falls in perfectly with this idea of how a short story can find a way into tackling the biggest issues around. ‘The Bellarosa Connection’ is generally regarded as Bellow’s only concerted effort to write about the Holocaust in his fiction. Setting aside the argument that everything Bellow wrote was in the shadow of the Jewish experience, it is telling that even a writer as unflinching and confident as Bellow waited so long before finding a way to take it head on. Even then, it isn’t head on. ‘The Bellarosa Connection’ is as much a story about storytelling as it is about the Holocaust, which is of course a central tenet to the legacy of that event – how do we tell that story? How do we pass it down? How do we make it more than history, slipping further from our technicolour understanding of things with every passing day. It opens with a typically Bellovian sentence – by which I mean almost every Bellow sentence is magnificent, only some are more magnificent than others. “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 that I am retired, and the institute is in the capable hands of my son, I would like to forget about remembering.”

First published as a novella by Penguin, 1989, and then in Saul Bellow: The Collected Stories, in 2001

‘By the St. Lawrence’ by Saul Bellow

Old age…

At his age the reprieve from death could be nothing but short…

Bellow’s last short story, ‘By the St. Lawrence’, concerns a typical Bellow protagonist-cum-surrogate: the elderly academic Rob Rexler – or, as the opening sentence puts it: “Not the Rob Rexler? […] the man who wrote all those books on theater and cinema in Weimar Germany, the author of Postwar Berlin and of the controversial study of Bertolt Brecht.”

Rexler is still convalescing after a near-fatal illness when he is invited to travel from New York to his childhood hometown of Lachine, Canada to give a lecture. Having described himself as a man “playing hopscotch at death’s door” Rexler perhaps realises he may never get this chance again to revisit old haunts, and accepts the invitation. Once at Lachine he tramps about his old neighbourhood, noticing how whole streets have been demolished, so that he is afforded an uninterrupted view of the great St. Lawrence river (with undoubtedly symbolic connotations regarding the river and Rexler’s closeness to death: what once was hidden is now in plain sight, with “its platinum rush towards the North Atlantic”).

This being Bellow, the narrative swings liberally between the past and present, Rexler giving full play to his childhood memories. He remembers growing up with his extended family of cousins and uncles and aunts; of having to wait outside in the car while his older cousin paid a visit to a local whorehouse; of the dead man they see on the way home, killed by a passing train, “his organs on the roadbed – first the man’s liver, shining on the white, egg-shaped stones, and a little beyond it his lungs.” Rexler’s recollections regarding sex and death and the ripeness of all are leant poignancy by their vividness (Bellow may well have been a convalescent himself at the time of writing ‘By the St. Lawrence’, but his prose is as sharply observed as ever) and by the knowledge that all these remembered individuals are now dead; that Rexler is the last man standing and that he himself is fast approaching “the magnetic field that every living thing must enter.”

Ultimately ‘By the St. Lawrence’ is more than a mere jaunt down memory lane. Nor is it a simple memento mori. Rather, it seems to be a paean to the vitality of memory and of the knowledge that comes to one towards the end: 

These observations […] were his whole life – his being – and love was what produced them.

First published in Esquire, 1995, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Collected Stories, Viking, 2001

‘By the St. Lawrence’ by Saul Bellow

‘By the St. Lawrence’ is Bellow’s last short story, published in 1995, when the novelist was 80. It travels deeply into the mysterious realm of childhood, with its indelible experiences still pin-sharp decades later. In this, it’s a universal story, though the scenes it revisits are unique to Bellow’s Canadian childhood. Bellow’s stand-in is Rexler, ‘the man who wrote all those books on theatre and cinema in Weimar Germany’, who returns to his home town of Lachine after an illness that almost ended his life. The time is right to revisit old haunts and meditate on existence before the inevitable: ‘He saw death as a magnetic field every living thing must enter’. The story’s core is Rexler’s incredibly vivid boyhood memory of seeing a man killed on a level crossing: ‘not the corpse, but his organs on the roadbed – first the man’s liver, shining on the white, egg-shaped stones, and a little beyond it his lungs. More than anything it was the lungs – Rexler couldn’t get over the twin lungs crushed out of the man by the train when it tore his body open’. That these images have travelled with him, buried, his whole life, is a wonder for Rexler. For him – and Bellow too, we imagine – such persistent memories are at the heart of what makes life such a maddening, insoluble mystery.

First published in Esquire, 1995, collected in Collected Stories, Penguin, 2001