Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Theft, by Saul Bellow (1989)

This is the second novel I've read by Saul Bellow, a Nobel Prize-winning author. The first, Seize the Day, is very good, about a destructive American obsession with success. A Theft is a little trickier. It's about a woman, Clara Velde, with a successful career life, though a failed love life. What makes this novel so troublesome is that it's not very clear what the reader is supposed to make of Clara. Is she supposed to be a highly flawed heroine, or a fount of love and wisdom? Bellow exercises his powers of subtlety a little too well in this novella, to the point that reading it becomes a chore.

Clara grew up in the country, raised by wealthy fundamentalist parents who donate their money to televangelists. She moved to New York, where she met Ithiel Regler, called Teddy, a brilliant scientist who works for the federal government. She fell in love, and supposedly he did too, though the pretty emerald engagement ring he bought for her was not his choosing. He was only caving in to her demands. Their relationship didn't work out, though twenty years later she still feels he is the only man she really loved. As such, she keeps in touch and still wears the ring.

She married four men after breaking off her engagement with Teddy. She complains that her current husband, Wilder, spends too much of his time reading read thrillers by John Le Carre and doesn't help out with their three kids. She married him for sex alone. He happens to enjoy the fact she is still friendly with some of her high profile exes, and tapes interviews of Teddy whenever he's on TV. Clara confides this information, and more, in her friend, Laura Wong. Laura mostly sits and listens. We don't learn much about her, suggesting that Clara holds no interest in her personal life, but she seems to be the only friend Clara has outside of Teddy. Another important character is Gina, an Italian woman who Clara hires to take care of her kids. Clara sees in Gina a character of high quality, though some of Gina's actions seem to contradict this. Clara allows her to bring her Haitian boyfriend over, but only if the kids are in bed, and one night Gina has a party that balloons into more people than Clara thought there would be.

And now we come to the theft. As you might have guessed, the object of the theft is the engagement ring. In his subtle way, Bellow introduces a second theft, which actually happens first, though nobody ever refers to it as a theft. First of all, Clara loses the ring. Because it is insured, she files a claim and collects $15,000. Then, by chance, the ring turns up again, under her bed. However, she doesn't tell the insurance company she found it because, well, she had already spent all the money. Then, the ring is stolen. Clara thinks she knows who the culprit is, and she develops a very low opinion of this person. It never seems to enter her mind that she is also a thief, and her theft is even worse.

Based on what I've just written, you might be thinking this sounds like a good book. And I admit it has the elements in place to be a fascinating read, but the execution is off. Bellow is, perhaps, a little too subtle. To the point it's not very clear what he's trying to get at. The narrator has a limited third-person perspective and seems more or less partial to Clara. We learn much from Clara's dialogues with Laura Wong, Teddy, and her psychiatrist, though she does most of the talking. It's hard to say what these people think of Clara. The psychiatrist is paid to listen to her, and even Laura has a professional connection with her. Teddy seems to genuinely like her, though not enough to marry her. What we do know is what she thinks of herself, which is that she's of a superior caste of people. The problem is, the novel seems to endorse this view of her. I can't tell what Bellow's aims were; it seems he's playing things with a little too much subtlety. He provides too much contradictory evidence for the reader to develop a thoughtful opinion of her.

To make matters worse is this excerpt from the blurb on the back of the book:

"As she attempts to recover the precious ring, Clara emerges as a genuine heroine, a woman of great depth and unsuspected capacities of wisdom and love."

I think the blurb has it wrong, but it's not clear whose view the blurb represents: the author's, the publisher's, or some other party. Clara is self-absorbed and jumps to hasty conclusions. Based on a very minor detail, a supposed change in Laura's tone of voice, Clara has the belief that her friend wants to steal Teddy from her, though it is assumed Laura has never met Teddy. She has romantic ideas about Gina, but negative feelings about her boyfriend, who she has never talked with. She's a poor mother and a poor wife. We never see her interacting with her daughters or her husband, and when she mentions them it's only to complain. To add to that, she's clearly a racist, which we know based on the number of times she claims that she isn't.

Perhaps this sounds like a thought-provoking read, and certainly I've spent a lot of thought on it, but it was a chore to sort out. This is not very enjoyable. At 110 pages it felt at least twice its length. I reread passages again and again to try and figure them out, only to move on in frustration. I have my mind made up about Clara, but I don't know if the conclusion I've drawn is the one Bellow intends. If you were thinking about getting into Saul Bellow's works, I wouldn't start here.


  1. I've been meaning to try one of his books because he's an award winner. I will keep it in mind not to start with this one.

    1. Seize the Day would be a good start. Probably some of his others, too. These are just the only two I'm familiar with. Thanks for visiting!