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'He wanted a statement about the radiation level increasing. Also dioxin and other harmful waste. It's terribly serious, of course, but I think more people die of heartbreak than of radiation.' Such is the premise of Saul Bellow's masterpiece, written at what was probably the height of his creative power and on a par with Herzog and The Dean's December.

In a refined and richly substantiated extemporisation, Bellow takes a sounding of the place of romance in contemporary life and makes the case that it remains of central if problematic concern. More Die of Heartbreak remains hugely current, and relevant. Modern fears and distractions continue to lay siege to the arguably paramount realms of sentimental and private fulfilment. Our world is even more so one of technicians and specialists, isolated in mutually inaccessible spheres. For this is what Bellow portrays: the difficulty of love when surrounded with the complexities of professional specialisation, money, sex, cultural doubt, moral and social flux. Also just the difficulty of love.

Benn Crader, a botanist, and his nephew Kenneth, another academic, struggle to reconcile intellectual achievement with unsatisfactory marital lives. The uncle marries the glamorous social climber Matilda Layamon in a second wedding, to find himself forced into a financial suit that will destroy his ties to his own family. Kenneth strives to fill the gap left by a painful break-up. Nothing much more happens in this ironic, rambling portrayal of floundering individuals who philosophise as they go. And to be fair, this is not for fans of action or quick-paced plots. But if you like reading Kundera or Philip Roth (who is a later writer and seems to me to owe much to Bellow), you will enjoy this novel. Bellow is impressively erudite but never pedantic and always entertaining and matter-of-fact. He tends to divagate, here from the dangers of bad skin to the morals of Hitchcock movies and to court politics, but he is extremely well informed and invariably interesting. There is also a point to his constant asides, namely to put the question of the adequacy of culture to real life.

And it is all told with an effective, deadpan humour. ('Benn was a botanist of a "high level of distinction"... They're relatively inexpensive too. It costs more to keep two convicts in Statesville than one botanist in his chair. But convicts offer more in the way of excitement - riot and arson in the prisons, garrotting a guard, driving a stake through the warden's head.' Or 'Mother joined a group of medical volunteers stationed near Djibouti, where the famine victims died by the thousands, daily. She wore chino skirts, cheap cotton twill, as close to sackcloth as she could get.') Perhaps a little sarcastic, but who wants polite, deferential blandness?
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on 31 August 2014
I would say it's a great book but an average novel.
I think that that Bellow lets himself be carried away by his great intelligence and cleverness.
That's why one starts amazed by the book's clever discussions and than, latter, one starts wishing that he would keep some of the thoughts to himself and invest a little more on the characters definition.
For me people are more then the cleverness of their sayings...
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on 15 November 2014
fit for purpose
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