For Whom the Bellow Tolls

In an especially affecting passage, Chick discusses The Death of Ivan Ilyich with his wife, Rosamund, and spells out his obsession with seizing, literally, the day—slowing it down to the cadences realized by children. "If only we could bring back the full days we knew as kids. But we become too familiar with the data of experience. . . . Art is one rescue from this chaotic acceleration. Meter in poetry, tempo in music, form and color in painting." Unlike Ilyich, who did not begin to ask the big ones until cancer claimed him, Chick is a veteran questioner.


By Saul Bellow
Viking, 233 pp., $24.95
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If Chick's pensées fill a vacuum created by his amusingly modest refusal to explore Abe's, his vivid autobiographical fragments upstage the man as well. The novel's most startling image is of Chick's imperious European scientist ex-wife, Vela (imagine Minna of The Dean's December turned into Countess Dracula), pushing her pubic hair into his face, then walking off, her way of announcing her intention to get a divorce. Perhaps she was thinking of the pickpocket in Mr. Sammler's Planet. Other characters are etched in wonderfully detailed grotesquerie, as is the city of Chicago, ornamented with a nest of parrots. It's been said countless times, but say it again: No one since Dreiser has the urban pulse in his blood like Bellow. So when Chick reprises Ravelstein for his closing pages, he is something of an anticlimax. True, Ravelstein slowed the day with his concentration on clothing, luxury, music, the mating habits of students, the political secrets harbored by graduates. But it is difficult to share Chick's pleasure in him. Chick is the one you'd want at a dinner party. He evokes what the legendary con man Yellow Kid Weill once told Saul Bellow, "My purpose was invisible. When they looked at me they saw themselves. I only showed them their own purpose."

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