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Something to Remember Me By (1990) first appeared in Esquire magazine. It then became the title story in a collection of three novellas published in 1992. The two other stories in the collection are The Bellarosa Connection and A Theft.
Something to Remember Me By – commentary
The main theme
At a superficial level this story could easily be perceived as a comic farce. An adolescent boy is duped by an unscrupulous prostitute who steals his clothes. He is forced to return home dressed as a woman. But when the elements of the story are viewed differently, it can be seen as almost a Biblical parable of descent into shame and personal humiliation. Beneath the comic-grotesque surface there is a deadly serious purpose.
The story is set during the Depression; young Louie’s mother is dying of cancer, and Chicago is in the grip of midwinter ice and snow. He is not particularly successful at school; and he is forced to miss the Discussion Club meeting to do his after-school job as a delivery boy. He sets out on his journey in a bleak mood and hostile weather.
His assignment takes him straight to a house of mourning where he is confronted by a dead young girl in her open coffin. Then the friendly relative he hopes to meet is not in his office, but Louie is confronted instead by another female lying down, but this time completely naked. Her appearance is disturbing to Louie, but she appears to hold out some sort of sexual promise.
He is taken to a sleazy boarding house and a featureless room where his expectations are quickly shattered. She not only tricks him by reneging on her erotic signals; she steals all his clothes and money, leaving him as naked as the condition in which he found her. He is then forced to dress in women’s clothes to make his way home.
As he descends into what he calls at the outset of the story as ‘a whirlpool, a vortex’, his principal fear is the wrath of his father:
If I were to turn up in this filthy dress, the old man, breaking under his burdens, would come down on me in a blind, Old Testament rage.
The drugstore attendant takes him for a female, and Louie begins to feel that he is losing his identity. At this point he is referred to a destination even lower down the social scale – an illegal drinking den or speakeasy. The bartender points out the errors in Louie’s behaviour: “In short, you got mixed up with a whore and she gave you the works”. But the bartender is prepared to help him, by giving him a further degrading task – carrying home the habitual drunk McKern.
When Louie reaches yet another sordid boarding house, he is confronted by two further sources of humiliation in the form of two young girls – McKern’s daughters. The younger girl follows him into the bathroom and sits on the edge of the bath, watching him whilst he lifts up his dress to pee into the toilet. Then the elder girl invites him to join the meal of three pork chops he has cooked for them – which as an orthodox Jew he finds nauseating:
All that my upbringing held in horror geysered up, my throat filling with it, my guts griping.
So he has been cheated, robbed, degraded, shamed, and humiliated at a personal, social, and even a religious level. And when he finally arrives back home his father greets him with a blow to the head – which Louie receives with gratitude, because it suggests his mother has not died during the day.
This story appears in a collection whose sub-title is ‘Three Tales by Saul Bellow’. At just over 10,000 words in length it might well be considered as a long short story. Certainly there are many stories and tales of this length, and many are longer. But it has all the structural and the thematic density of a novella and has a good claim to be regarded as such.
What are the defining factors of the novella? How does it differ from the long short story or even the short novel? The critical consensus seems to be loosely based on the Aristotelian notion of the unity of elements in a single work. That is, the character, the events, their duration, the location, and the main theme or issue should be as tightly concentrated as possible.
The events of the story are concentrated on a single character – the younger Louie. The incidents take place over a single day – starting from his breakfast and ending back home in the early evening. The drama takes place in a single location – Chicago. Even the tone of the story is remarkably consistent – its atmosphere dominated by the bleak winter weather and the ice-bound streets of the city.
The central metaphors of the story are sex and death, which the elder Louie flags up at the beginning of his narrative:
In my time my parents didn’t hesitate to speak of death and the dying. What they seldom mentioned was sex. We’ve got it the other way round.
The young Louie has a girlfriend (Stephanie) whose body he fondles under her raccoon-skin coat, and he is powerfully excited by the sight of the whore’s naked body on the gynaecologist’s examination table. We are also given to understand that the prostitute has been used in some sort of sexual experiment: Louie’s brother-in-law tells him about the doctor:
“He takes people from the street, he hooks them up and pretends he’s collecting graphs. This is for kicks, the science part is horseshit.”
But the very sight of the woman’s breast only serves to remind the young Louie of his mother’s mastectomy – and she is dying of the cancer that was its cause. Moreover the very purpose of his after-school errand is to deliver flowers to a family whose young daughter has died – a daughter who he sees, lying in her coffin.
Death even hovers over the composition and purpose of the narrative itself. The elder Louie, at the age of a ‘grandfather’ and prior to his own death, is passing on the story to his only son as a supplement to a reduced inheritance:
Well, they’re all gone now, and I have made my preparations. I haven’t left a large estate, and that is why I have written this memoir, a sort of addition to your legacy.
The story acts as a very dark and negative sort of ‘coming of age’ parable, an initiation into the basic facts of life (sex and death) for young Louie. The older man has decided to pass on the episode to his own son – though given that the older Louie is now the age of a ‘grandfather’ it might come as a warning too late.
Aristotle also believed that one of the most important elements of tragic drama was that the action of the story should be continuous. That is – a unity of time and events. Louie’s experiences unfold in one continuous movement – from his home, to the other side of the city, and then back home again. There are no digressions or interruptions, no temporal shifts or extraneous elements in the action. The story forms, as one critic claims (echoing the American dramatist Eugene O’Neil) one Short Day’s Journey into Night.
The symbolic significance of these events and the successful unity of their design outweigh the brevity of the narrative to make this a powerful candidate for a remarkably short novella
There are distinct similarities between Louie and any number of Kafka’s protagonists, and many of the issues in the story (and the themes in Bellow’s other works) explore elements of the Jewish experience.
Louie is something of the Holy Fool figure. He is well intentioned, but he keeps making matters worse for himself. He prepares an explanation for turning up to his brother-in-law’s dental surgery, then asks himself:
Why did I need to account for my innocent behaviour when it was innocent? Perhaps because I was always contemplating illicit things Because I was always being accused.
Later, carrying the drunk McKern in a fireman’s lift on his shoulders, he thinks of ‘This disgrace, you see, whilst my mother was surrendering to death’. Finally, when summarising his experiences, he reflects in similarly telling language: ‘The facts of life were having their turn. Their first effect was ridicule … [then] I could have a full hour of shame on the streetcar’.
This combination of the grotesque with self-criticism and an acute sense of embarrassment is very similar to the scenes which are abundant in Kafka’s work. Indeed they seem to reflect a particularly Jewish experience and perception of the world – and they are also present in the work of writers such as (Polish) Bruno Schultz and (Italian) Italo Svevo – real name Aron Ettore Schmitz.
Something to Remember Me By – resources
Something to Remember Me By – Penguin – Amazon UK
Something to Remember Me By – Penguin – Amazon US
Saul Bellow – Collected Stories – Penguin – Amazon UK
Saul; Bellow – Collected Stories – Penguin – Amazon US
Saul Bellow (Modern Critical Views) – essays & studies – Amz UK
Saul Bellow (Modern Critical Views) – essays & studies – Amz US
Something to Remember Me By – summary
As an old man Louie is recalling an incident from his youth, offering the account to his only son as an ‘addition’ to a meagre legacy.
He remembers being a seventeen year old boy, going to school on a freezing day in a Chicago winter when his mother is dying. He is an indifferent scholar, but an avid reader. After school he has a part-time job making deliveries for a local florist.
He travels across town with a bunch of lilies for what turns out to be the funeral of a young girl, who he sees lying in her coffin. Afterwards he calls at the practice of his brother-in-law Philip, a dentist.
Philip is not there, but next door in the office of a gynaecologist he encounters a naked woman on an examination table. He is excited by the incident, especially when she then invites him back to her apartment.
In a sleazy boarding house she asks him to take off his clothes and get into bed. But then she throws his clothes out of the window to an accomplice in the alley and runs off, leaving Louie naked.
He finds a woman’s dress and a bed jacket in the wardrobe, puts them on, and goes to the local drugstore in search of Philip. The druggist treats him sardonically and recommends a nearby illegal bar.
At the speakeasy its bartender correctly guesses that Louie’s problems arise from his naive lack of experience. He predicts there will be trouble when he gets back to his family. But he offers him clothes from a rubbish pile in exchange for taking home a regular customer who is drunk.
At another run-down rooming-house, Louie is met by the man’s two young children. One girl follows him into the lavatory, then her sister asks him to cook their meal – which turns out to be pork chops.
Louie is late getting home, feels guilty and anxious about his mother, and is in fear of his father. He tries to regain the house undetected, but his father appears and immediately begins to beat him. Louie is relieved, because this suggests his mother is still alive.
© Roy Johnson 2017