Saul Bellow novel. Risks of living in freedom

More Die of Heartbreak, by Saul Bellow. New York: William Morrow & Co. 335 pp. $17.95. IN good time for the Fourth of July, Saul Bellow has taken a look at his United States and seen liberty turning into license. His intellectually droll and provocative new novel doesn't just lament or exploit a sex-saturated society; it seriocomically analyzes it through characters who participate in the scene even as they endlessly speculate about it. They provide, among other things, an elaboration of what Bellow writes in his foreword to another current book, Allan Bloom's best-selling ``The Closing of the American Mind'' (discussed elsewhere on this page):

``...To put the matter at its baldest, we live in a thought-world, and the thinking has gone very bad indeed.''

Later in the book, Professor Bloom refers to his University of Chicago colleague in another line that might be linked to this novel: ``Saul Bellow has described his own intention as `the rediscovery of the magic of the world under the debris of modern ideas.'''

In ``More Die of Heartbreak,'' the bearer of magic is a respected botanist, Benn Crader. At least he is seen to have the ``magics'' (unsought gifts) by his admiring nephew, Kenneth Trachtenberg, a scholar of Russian literature at the same Midwestern university, who is the novel's narrator. And a key line in the thought-world of this novel is that ``what is sent forth by the seer affects what is seen.''

The debris of modern ideas, the thinking gone bad, seems represented by some of these characters' own thoughts as well as by the surrounding mental attitudes that they resist. Bellow characteristically lets readers do the sorting out. We may take a cue from Kenneth, who speaks of experiencing ``the fantastic, the bizarre facts of contemporary reality; making no particular effort to impose my cognitions on them.''

Yet it is hard not to suppose that Kenneth - and Bellow? - agree with the Russian mentor who deplores a time when ``pure love is overcome by perversity,'' when ``love is replaced by Health, and Health is obtained by anatomical means.''

The heart becomes ice in this realm of imagery, and the question is how and whether the ice can be melted - instead of the heart simply broken. Benn gives the novel its title when a newspaperman asks him about the effects of nuclear radiation on plants and people. He ruefully suggests that ``more people die of heartbreak.''

As traditional certainties fade, there comes a question, on the one hand, of heightened expectations and, on the other, of reduced expectations - so much familiarity with the absence of love that a sense of emptiness becomes ``normal.'' Yet, Kenneth notes, nobody marches against heartbreak.

There may be a hint of hope in the recurring image of the lichens, which are Uncle Benn's botanical specialty. They can be frozen indefinitely and still warmed into life again with a gleam of sun.

But if this is a thought-world, Bellow conveys it through the thoroughly verbalized pains, pleasures, and human comedy of his characters. Benn was faithful to his first wife. Now, like a symbol of later times, he has been ``acquiescing in the preeminence of sex, putting it at the heart of existence, bowing to the consensus.'' And his beautiful second wife becomes a burden, trying to manipulate him for her family's gain into deeds that strain his conscience.

Benn, for all his hapless affairs, cannot bear the pornographic show to which he is taken by young colleagues, or a governor's prurient TV use of a rape case - or Benn's own feeling of corruption from an exploitative movie. (``What did this tell a fellow about his heart - that it was activated by trash?'')

An intellectual character's concern about such corruption-by-media is one of the timely glints in Bellow's high and low literary outpouring. A decade after winning such serious awards as the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes, he remains the jauntiest intellectual kid on the block. Here he plays with a Charles Addams cartoon, not to mention a gallery including Admiral Byrd, William Blake, Swedenborg, and the Russian writers about whom Kenneth teaches.

The flow of Bellovian talk recalls the buoyancy of his ``Henderson the Rain King'' days. But the view from the Far North, where both novels end, is not so bracing now as it was then. Henderson seemed on the way to the love and salvation he had sought in Africa. Uncle Benn flies north to escape the human entanglements involved with love and the counterfeits of love in an age of sexual confusion. Will his chilled heart emulate the lichens he is going to study and somehow be warmed again?

As of the last pages of ``More Die of Heartbreak,'' Benn is saying: ``Nothing but night and ice will help me now.'' It is as if, for a sensitive human being, the heart must be put in cold storage to endure the age.

But wait. In one of Bellow's classic/contemporary phrases, Benn wryly notes that he has been called ``a phoenix who runs with arsonists.'' And Benn, no more than Bellow, will say that cinders always win. ``Well, let's see what can be done,'' he says to the nephew who hangs on his every word, ``whether I can rise from these ashes.''

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