Thursday, September 04, 2008

Reader's Diary #392- Saul Bellow: A Theft

Saul Bellow was born in 1915 in Lachine, Quebec and lived there for the first nine years of his life. Then he moved to Chicago, where he spent the greatest part of his life, becoming a naturalized American in 1941. Still, I've chosen his novella, A Theft, for the 2nd Canadian Book Challenge.

No, I wasn't setting out to reclaim him, but I thought his work could provide a bit of insight in the nature of the Canadian literature. Using Will and Ian Ferguson's criteria for a Canadian novel, I've set out to determine if those first nine years of Bellow's life were formative ones, and following that, if A Theft is Canadian. 0 indicates a poor match, 1 is questionable, 2 is a perfect match:

1st. "Setting – Setting is important. It has to be bleak and foreboding: maybe Cape Breton or outport Newfoundland or a cabin in northern Ontario."

Score: 0 While I'm sure there are those with the opinion that New York is bleak, I don't think this is what the Fergusons had in mind. Nor is it in Canada.

2nd. "Plot – Avoid this at all costs. Instead, the characters should just sort of mope from scene to scene, maybe staring into the distance now and then to remember events that happened long before. You don’t want a sense of forward momentum in a novel. You want “atmosphere.”"

Score: 2 While someone could reduce A Theft to woman loses ring twice, it barely suffices as a plot. Keep in mind, the Fergusons were being facetious; Canadian novels have plots, they're just often fog-like. As for the remembering of events, that's all Clara seems to do: dwell on her past husbands and the one that got away.

3rd. "Humour – God, no. Instead of humour, you want irony. And lots of it. Your book should be drenched in irony. Soaked in it, even. When someone squeezes your book, irony should ooze out from between the pages. It should reek of postmodern alienation and ennui. The more postmodern the better."

Score:2 The funniest line I could find in the whole book comes from Ithiel talking to Clara about psychiatrists, "Those guys! If a millipede came into the office, he'd leave with an infinitesimal crutch for each leg." Oh wait, did I say funniest? I meant "funniest."

4th. "Character – In Canadian novels the men – especially the father figures – should be brooding alcoholics, or brooding violent alcoholics, or pathetic losers who aren't really alcoholic but are still quite pathetic, or recovering alcoholics, or violent losers, or brooding pathetic recovering alcoholics who are also violent.

The main female character must be victimized. That goes without saying. She has to be victimized. But here’s the thing – she should also be empowered. That’s right. In Canadian novels, you get to have it both ways: “empowered victims.”"

Score: 2 The father here falls into the "pathetic loser" category. In Bellow's defense, he's also not much of an issue to the story. Then, neither are the kids. Shouldn't these people have some relevance?

And as for the victimized female being empowered, I'd say Clara is more like an empowered female being victimized. (She's a corporate executive who can't get her man and has her ring stolen. That's pretty tragic, isn't it?)

5th. "Style – Keep it simple. Stark. Unfurnished. Underwritten. Subject + verb + object again and again and again and again. SVO. SVO. Stick to the bare minimum offered by the English language. Do not use adverbs. And if you have to use adjectives, keep them short and simple and obvious to the point of redundancy (i.e., “blue sky,” “white clouds,” “wet rain,” “unfaithful husband”). "

Score: 1 To be honest, I'm not sure I agree with the Ferguson's on this point, but I weighed A Theft against their observation anyway, and found that, like most novels I've read, there are simple sentences and more complex, descriptive sentences. I'll note that there is a preoccupation with race as an adjective (i.e., the Chinese-American confidante, Frenchy slickness, etc).

So, the science has it. With a 7 out of a possible 10 points, A Theft, is a Canadian novel after all.

When I think about it, it wasn't just the Canadian/American identity crisis of which the book suffered. Instead of coming across as complex, Clara's motivations seem disjointed. I'm sure emotionally unstable yet successful businesswomen exist, but I didn't buy it with Clara. And was this a novel about love or about race relations? Plenty of great authors could have tied the two themes together, but while I hear Bellow was supposed to belong to that exclusive club, he failed to do so.

Hey Americans, do you want it back?


Barbara Bruederlin said...

Very nice use of the Canadian novel report card! It seems to be a foolproof method.

Wanda said...

Love how you've used Will and Ian Ferguson's "criteria..." to review this book, very cool John! I don't see me stealing any time to read it though.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Yes, those Ferguson boys have given us such a handy tool.

Wanda: "Stealing" time for A Theft? Hardee-har-har.

Carrie K said...

Saul Bellow is from Quebec? Why does that surprise me so?

I really enjoyed your use of the Fergusons criteria to critique the novel, John. Empowered victim. Hm.

kirbc said...

Loved the review - and those criteria are fantastic (almost uncomfortably astute). I may just have to apply them to the my current read that suffers from a similar Canadian/American identity complex.

John Mutford said...

Kirbc: What book are your reading?