Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Silver Dish by Saul Bellow

A Silver Dish (ASD) comes from the 1984 collection Him With His Foot In His Mouth And Other Stories, but first appeared in The New Yorker in 1978. Although, at the time (and despite his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976) Bellow’s reputation was declining, this collection was well received. Cynthia Ozick describes it as “five stories, awesome yet imperfect… brainy language shocked into originality.” Jason Cowley calls them “time capsules in prose, studies of consciousness.” Michael Glenday comments:

The intensity of this cultural recollection is extraordinary, both in terms of the wealth of material detail, and of what one may term the evocation of historical character. This lyrical vein is, I think, too rarely present in Bellow’s novels.

The stories present, he continues, “narratives of memory to provide a backdrop against which the venality of contemporary life can be exposed” and in them “degeneration is seen as radical and ubiquitous, written into the constitution of national life.” Although this may sound close to Raymond Carver territory, there is about this collection, and about ASD in particular, a warmth which is all too often missing in Carver’s work. Joyce Carol Oates describes ASD as “one of the most beautiful, and beautifully crafted stories I have come across in years.” Margaret Manning says that it is “about a coarse-grained life. But whose life is made of silk?”

ASD is a character study of two men, Woody Selbst, sixty, a self-made man, and his father, Morris – or Pop – a man of truly outrageous behaviour. The story begins with a breathtaking first paragraph:

What do you do about death – in this case the death of an old father? If you’re a modern person, sixty years of age, and a man who’s been around, like Woody Selbst, what do you do? Take this matter of mourning, and take it against a contemporary background. How, against a contemporary background, do you mourn an octogenarian father, nearly blind, his heart enlarged, his lungs filling with fluid, who creeps, stumbles, gives off the odors, the moldiness or gassiness, of old men. I mean! As Woody put it, be realistic. Think what times these are. The papers daily give it to you – the Lufthansa pilot in Aden is described by the hostages on his knees, begging the Palestinian terrorists not to execute him, but they shoot him through the head. Later they themselves are killed. And still others shoot others, or shoot themselves. That’s what you read in the press, see on the tube, mention at dinner. We know now what goes daily through the whole of the human community, like a global death-peristalsis.

This is classic Bellow. The shocking directness of the first sentence immediately draws the reader into the story. As it continues, it seems to ask uncomfortable questions: after all, no-one cares to admit to ambivalence about the death of a parent. Then, before the story has a chance to become too introverted, it sweeps out to an extraordinary degree by encompassing global terrorism and the violence of death. In the second paragraph it sweeps even further, with a remarkable description from Woody’s youth of a buffalo calf being dragged from a riverbank into the churning river while the parent buffaloes look around as though “asking each other dumbly what had happened.” It is clear what territory we are in here: this story is about bloodlines, about family, about connectedness.

Marianne Friedrich suggests that “the beauty of this short story lies in its fortunate balance between an amazing vitality and freshness of life, and a complex artistic representation.” She then points to her own research at the University of Chicago which suggests the genesis of ASD is a series of character sketches from real life with no semblance of plot or narrative technique. She explains how Bellow grafted and re-grafted characters into different plot ideas, discarding material and gradually distilling it until the characters and their actions felt drawn from real life. Thus, Friedrich concludes, it is “the inquiry into character, not ideas or general concepts of plot, that give the creative process the decisive first impulse.” Given that an enduring criticism of Bellow, particularly in his later novels, is that his characters have, in Sanford Pinsker’s words, “too much of the non-fictional essay pressing on their chests”, and that “the balance between texture and talkiness was tilting, unhappily towards the latter,” this conscious re- and re-working by Bellow of the text of ASD can be seen as significant. And what is undeniable is that it is successful.

The story takes the form of a tryptich covering three time frames – the past, when the silver dish of the title is stolen by Pop, “last Tuesday”, when Pop dies in Woody’s arms and “now”, the Sunday morning when Woody is reviewing his past. It is a complicated structure but perfectly comprehensible. Partly, this is due to what Dieter Schultz identifies as:

shifts in narrative technique. While the central section dramatizes the theft of the dish by means of scenic narration, sections one and three alternate between showing and telling, with emphasis on reflection and summary.

The first section gives us an introduction to Woody and to the fact that Pop is dying. As Schultz points out:

it establishes a narrative voice, a local and temporal setting, and a set of moral coordinates that guide the reader through the barrage of memory bits flooding the protagonist’s mind. Even when the reader may feel whirled around by a multitude of data and impressions, such a strategy prepares the “quiet zone” from which moral authority emerges.

In this section Woody is reflecting, after Pop’s death, on how his life has turned out. We learn a great deal of Woody’s character – an individualist, someone who fights the system for no reason other than he feels he ought to. He is clearly mourning his father and turns to memories as a way of managing the grief.

The long centrepiece of the story relates one particular memory, the theft of the silver dish by his father which results in Woody being suspended from the seminary and which, therefore, transforms his life. The final section returns us to Pop’s deathbed and the harrowing scene where Woody gets into bed with his father to try to stop him from pulling out the intravenous needles. That the reader should care as much as Woody about this ogre of a man is testament to Bellow’s skill as a writer.

In Woody and Pop, Bellow has created two timeless characters. Pop is, in many ways, a ghastly man, a “metaphysical gargoyle”, someone who walked out on his family when Woody was fourteen, saying airily: “It’s okay. I put you all on welfare.” In the next breath he asks his son to give him money to buy gasoline:

Understanding that Pop couldn’t get away without his help, Woody turned over to him all he had earned at the Sunset Ridge Country Club in Winnetka. Pop felt that the valuable life lesson he was transmitting was worth far more than these dollars, and whenever he was conning his boy a sort of high-priest expression came down over his bent nose, his ruddy face.

Years later, the now worldly-wise Woody smiles as he remembers Pop’s attitude of “that’ll teach you to trust your father.” He recalls that: “Pop was physical; Pop was digestive, circulatory, sexual.” Pop loves to be outrageous: for example, referring to Aunt Rebecca’s removed breast, he tells his son: “if titties were not fondled and kissed, they got cancer in protest.” Pop is a self-made man who arrived in Chicago from Liverpool as a boy:

He became an American, and America never knew it. He voted without papers, he drove without a license, he paid no taxes, he cut every corner.

Apparently without scruple, Pop forces his son to take him to the home of his sponsor at the seminary, Mrs Skoglund. There, he intends to ask for $50. While the religious Mrs Skoglund goes to another room to pray for guidance as to whether or not to lend the money, Pop steals a silver dish from a locked cabinet which he unpicks with a penknife. Woody reacts in horror and the two have a wrestling match in which Pop punches Woody in the face three or four times and knees him in the mouth. Later, he promises to put the dish back but “of course,” he keeps it and pawns it. When the theft is discovered, Woody is suspended from the seminary and Aunt Rebecca turns him out of his home. Even now, Pop acts badly. “So what, kid?” he says. He even justifies stealing the dish:

“I didn’t hurt myself, and at the same time did you a favor.”
“It was for me?”
“It was too strange of a life. That life wasn’t you, Woody. All those women…”

Why did Pop do it? After all, he was not a foolish man and must have known he had little chance of success. Partly, it was simply a challenge:

Morris [Pop] knew that Mother and Aunt Rebecca had told Mrs Skoglund how wicked he was. They had painted him for her in poster colours – purple for vice, black for his soul, red for Hell flames: a gambler, smoker, drinker, deserter, screwer of women, and atheist. So Pop was determined to reach her. It was risky for everybody.

Reprehensible that may be, but it is only part of the story. “That theft was part of Pop’s war with Mother… Mother represented the forces of religion and hypochondria.” Pop hates the way his ex-wife – a convert to Christianity – and her brother-in-law, Doctor Kovner, preach fundamentalism. “Unless I take a hand,” he tells his son, “you won’t even understand what life is. Because they don’t know – those silly Christers.” Pop himself isn’t religious, not even especially moral, and yet, as Frederick Glaysher notes:

Contrary to what might be expected, [Woody] and his coarse, scheming father remain more loyal to the old values than the pious Christians who merely want the boy Woody as a convert so that he might proselytize among the Jews.

Pop genuinely believes he is helping his son. He sees himself, in Schulz’s words, as a “reality instructor.” Through the theft, Pop believes he has won the war with Mother:

Pop had carried him back to his side of the line, blood of his blood, the same thick body walls, the same coarse grain. Not cut out for a spiritual life. Simply not up to it.

Pop was no worse than Woody, and Woody was no better than Pop.”

Unsurprisingly, his upbringing has an impact on Woody’s character. Early in the story, we are shown that he is unconventional. He smuggles hashish out of Kampala because “he liked taking chances. Risk was a wonderful stimulus.” Woody is a highly complex character, an amalgam of the incorrigibility of his father and the piety that his mother represents, if not attains. He is “leading a double life, sacred and profane.” He is far from perfect: as a child he steals food from the mission house for no reason other than he likes to be reckless. When, speaking in church, he finds that his heart is not in what he is preaching, he turns to techniques his father would have appreciated: "sincere behavior got him through. He had to rely for delivery on his face, his voice – on behavior." And yet, despite this, Woody is a decent man. Where Pop abandoned his family, Woody goes to elaborate lengths to help his:

Since his wife, after fifteen years of separation, had not learned to take care of herself, Woody did her shopping on Fridays, filled her freezer. He had to take her this week to buy shoes. Also, Friday night he always spent with Helen – Helen was his wife de facto. Saturday he did his big weekly shopping. Saturday night he devoted to Mom and his sisters.

Peter Hyland describes ASD as “the story of a man whose life is blighted by his need to be loved by a father who is incapable of giving love.” However, there is textual evidence to the contrary. We are told, for example, "Did he [Pop] love anyone (he was so busy?) Yes, he loved Halina. He loved his son." Second-billing, perhaps, but Woody knew his father loved him, in his own way. Hyland goes on to describe Pop as “cynically selfish,” which again is too literal to capture the depth of the man. Certainly, Pop was cynical but, even so, traces of decency can be found:

If Woody had a weakness, it was to be unselfish. This worked to Pop’s advantage, but he criticized Woody for it, nevertheless.

Hyland then suggests of Woody that “for his own emotional and spiritual equilibrium he needs to redeem a man who cannot be redeemed.” Again, this seems too narrow a view of Pop. Indeed, it could be argued that the whole story is an elaborate redemption of this complex, infuriating man. There is an infectiousness about his total refusal to be ordinary which makes him quite appealing. The reader can only admire Woody for the way he has assimilated his father’s devilry and spirit. Ozick gets the tone right when she describes ASD as the “companionable trials of Woody Selbst and his rogue father.” Schulz goes even further:

Almost from the outset, parallels and affinities with Pop [and Woody] abound to the point where one can argue that “A Silver Dish,” far from dramatizing a conflict between father and son, actually presents a story of male bonding.

As with much of Bellow’s work, ASD draws its strength from the way Bellow uses character to make a point about society in general. By focusing on the individual, he can bring the general more clearly into focus. So it is with ASD. Schulz describes Woody as combining “elements of American modernity with a larger, more spiritual realm.” John Clayton explains that “the story moves towards an integration of the two conflicting worlds of the physical and metaphysical,” This is made possible by the creation of two vibrant, living, colourful personalities, by establishing what Schulz describes as “the opposition of idealist son and realist father,” and by leaving them to find their own ways to their respective states of grace.

That moment is surely reached in the beautiful conclusion to the story, when – in a counterpoint to the earlier wrestling scene – Woody has climbed into bed beside his father and holds him as he dies:

After a time, Pop’s resistance ended. He subsided and subsided. He rested against his son, his small body curled there…Pop, whom Woody thought he had stilled, only had found a better way to get around him. Loss of heat was the way he did it. His heat was leaving him. As can happen with small animals while you hold them in your hand, Woody presently felt him cooling. Then, as Woody did his best to restrain him, and thought he was succeeding, Pop divided himself. And when he was separated from his warmth, he slipped into death. And there was his elderly, large, muscular son, still holding and pressing him when there was nothing anymore to press. You could never pin down that self-willed man. When he was ready to make his move, he made it – always on his own terms. And always, always, something up his sleeve. That was how he was.

This ending, elegaic, spiritual, above all human, could, one imagines, even have brought a tear to the eye of that old rogue, Pop. Well, almost, and that is the genius of A Silver Dish.


Alex Keegan said...

Just spotted this, Tom.

Was arguing with a new Boot Camper about how a story should (IMO) set the ground-rules for itself very early

Something I call "creating a mode of acceptance", something the BCer doesn't want to accept!

I thought of SB's ASD and how much the first paragraph brings to the table.

Nice review BTW

Alex Keegan

Tom Conoboy said...

Hey Alex, good to hear from you again. My views on ASD owe much to your own reading and interpretation, from which I learned a great deal.

Yes, ASD is a good example of creating a good mode of acceptance. This is one of the biggest mistakes aspiring writers make. I remember in my MA class a woman wrote a story that started out as a very light-hearted romp. It was actually quite well written, flowing nicely and neatly funny. But then, out of nowhere, it turned utterly dark, with the main killed in a terrible fire. The writer argued "that's what happens in real life." I argued that stories aren't real life, they mirror and reflect it, but that sort of arbitrariness simply doesn't work. She wouldn't have it either.

But if a reader is set up to expect one thing and then gets something totally different, that's a fault in my book.