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By Saul Bellow
Seoul, Korea: Jimoodang Publishing Company, 2001
New York: Penguin Books, 1989
ISBN # 0-14-01-2686-4 102 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2013

An unnamed narrator is telling us a story in his own later years. The principals, Harry and Sorella Fonstein are no longer in his life and haven’t been for some 30 or more years. Yet the narrator is just fascinated by them and their story, and given that he himself is famous for his nearly total recall memory, decides to demonstrate his prodigious memory by telling us their story in detail. The narrator is the founder of The Mnemosyne Institute, and quite a well-known scholar and himself a philanthropists of sorts.

Thus begins the fascinating novel, The Bellarosa Connection. We follow Harry first. He was a young Jewish teen in Poland when the Nazis began arresting of Jews. He escaped and soon ended up in Italy, which, of course, was also coming under strong Nazi influence and he not only wasn’t safe there, but arrested put into prison and would likely soon have been executed as other Jews were.

In a most unlikely turn, Harry is simply released in an arranged escape in which he just walks out of the prison. He has been saved by Bellarosa – who is actually the famous Hollywood impresario, Billy Rose. Harry makes his way to the U.S. after a short stay in Cuba, and marries Sorella, an American woman. As fairy tales go, so goes Harry, becoming in modestly short order a very wealthy man. In non-fairy tale manner, it is in great measure his wife’s business acumen that brings him the wealth.

Harry and Sorella’s lives would seem to be nearly ideal. After an ordeal that killed so many Jews in Europe, here is Harry, in the U.S., successful and wealthy, married to a woman he deeply loves and even has a child-prodigy son! Ah, but there is one obstacle to his full happiness and sense of completion. He has never been able to thank Billy Rose for having saved him. Of course Bill Rose doesn’t really know Harry. He had a program to save Jews, all unknown to him, and Harry just happened to be one of them. No matter; Harry knows that, nonetheless he simply wants to say: THANK YOU.

He has tried from the time he got to the U.S., but Rose will have nothing of it. He won’t respond to letters, he denies Harry a visit, and when Harry even tries to confront him in public – just to say THANKS – Rose insulates himself from Harry. It’s Harry’s mission in life to be able to make this expression to Rose, no matter what.

Harry’s secretary even tells Harry her version of why Rose will not meet with any of the people he has saved:

“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 pad to sleep in, a meal ticket, a bit of capital to go into business. One man’s gratitude is poison to his benefactor. Besides, Billy was fastidious about persons. In principle they were welcome to his goodwill, but they drove him to hysteria when they put their moves on him.”

Sorella does have a weapon to use on Rose – her good friend was a secretary to Billy Rose and left to Sorella her diary in which she catalogued lots of things about Billy Rose that he wouldn’t want known, so she has some leverage to help Harry get his much desired visit.

While the story is primarily about Harry and Rose, the narrator is also there in the front lines of the novel. He often reflects on things and most especially his special gift of memory which he did little to earn, but lots to milk to its ultimate drops. He knows and remembers things, but realizes that just THINKING things is not enough. It takes action before the world changes. Yet he himself stays rather locked up in ideas, thought, and most importantly, the details which he remembers, which is about everything he’s ever known or read. But he knows his own limits.

“One can think of such things – (historical events) – and think and think – but nothing is resolved by these historical meditations. To think doesn’t settle anything. No idea is more than an imagining potency, a mushroom cloud (destroying nothing, making nothing), rising from blinding consciousness.”

Structurally the novel is quite interesting. The story of Harry and Sorella is itself gripping and fascinating. The narrator’s role, his knowledge of Harry and Sorella via his direct experience and prodigious memory is a rather daring strategy for Saul Bellow’s novel and I think it works quite well.

The novel is short and a quick read (mainly because the story is so gripping), but rewarding. I would highly recommend it.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett