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Authors: Saul Bellow

The victim

BOOK: The victim
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The victim: a novel
Saul Bellow
New York, NY, USA : Penguin, 1988, c1947. (1947)
Rating:
★★★☆☆

Product Description

Bellow's second novel charts the descent into paranoia of Asa Leventhal, sub-editor of a trade magazine. With his wife away visiting her mother, Asa is alone, but not for long. His sister-in-law summons him to Staten Island to help with his sick nephew. Other demands mount, and readers witness a man losing control.

About the Author

Saul Bellow
(1915-2005) wrote thirteen novels and numerous novellas and stories in his lifetime. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976.
Norman Rush
is the author of the novel
Mating
, which won the National Book Award, as well as the novel
Mortals
and the short story collection
Whites
.

Saul Bellow The Victim

First published in 1947

It is related, O auspicious King, that there was a merchant of the merchants who had much wealth, and business in various cities. Now on a day he mounted horse and went forth to recover monies in certain towns, and the heat oppressed him; so he sat beneath a tree and, putting his hand into his saddle-bags, he took thence some broken bread and dried dates and began to break fast. When he had ended eating the dates he threw away the stones with force and lo! an Ifrit appeared, huge of stature and brandishing a drawn sword, wherewith he approached the merchant and said, "Stand up that I may slay thee even as thou slewest my son!" Asked the merchant, "How have I slain thy son?" and he answered, "When thou atest dates and threwest away the stones they struck my son full in the breast as he was walking by, so that he died forthwith."

--"The Tale of the Trader and the Jinni" from Thousand and One Nights

Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to reveal itself; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces, upturned to the heavens; faces, imploring, wrathful, despairing; faces that surged upward by thousands, by myriads, by generations...

--DE QUINCEY, The Pains of Opium

1

ON some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok. The whole continent seems to have moved from its place and slid nearer the equator, the bitter gray Atlantic to have become green and tropical, and the people, thronging the streets, barbaric fellahin among the stupendous monuments of their mystery, the lights of which, a dazing profusion, climb upward endlessly into the heat of the sky. On such a night, Asa Leventhal alighted hurriedly from a Third Avenue train. In his preoccupation he had almost gone past his stop. When he recognized it, he jumped up, shouting to the conductor, "Hey, hold it, wait a minute!" The black door of the ancient car was already sliding shut; he struggled with it, forcing it back with his shoulder, and squeezed through. The train fled, and Leventhal, breathing hard, stared after it, cursing, and then turned and descended to the street. He was bitterly irritated. He had spent the afternoon with his sister-in-law, his brother's wife, in Staten Island. Or, rather, he had wasted it because of her. Soon after lunch she had phoned him at the office--he was an editor of a small trade magazine in lower Manhattan--and immediately, with terrible cries, she implored him to come out, to come at once. One of the children was sick. "Elena," he said as soon as he was able to make himself heard, "I'm busy. So I want you to control yourself now and tell me: is it really serious?" "Come right away! Asa, please! Right away!" He pressed the tip of his ear as if to protect himself from her shrillness and muttered something about Italian excitability. Then the connection was broken. He hung up, expecting her to ring again, but the phone remained silent. He did not know how to reach her; his brother was not listed in the Staten Island directory. She was calling either from a store or from a neighbor's house. For a long time, Leventhal had had very little to do with his brother and his brother's family. Only a few weeks ago he had received a card from him postmarked Galveston. He was working in a shipyard. At the time, Leventhal had said to his wife, "First Norfolk, now Texas. Anything is better than home." It was the old story; Max had married young and now he was after novelty, adventure. There were plenty of shipyards and jobs in Brooklyn and Jersey. Meanwhile Elena was burdened with the care of the children. Leventhal had told her the truth. He was busy. A pile of unchecked proofs lay before him. He moved away the phone after waiting a few minutes and, making an impatient noise in his throat, picked up a piece of copy. No doubt the child was sick, probably seriously sick, or she wouldn't have carried on so. And, since his brother was away, it was somewhat in the nature of a duty to go. He would go this evening. It couldn't be so urgent. It was just beyond Elena's power to speak calmly about anything. He told himself this several times; nevertheless her cries continued to sound in his ears together with the windy thrum of the long-stemmed electric fans and the tick of typewriters. What if it were really critical? And suddenly, impulsively, meanwhile condemning himself for it, he got up, pulled his jacket from the back of the chair, went to the girl at the switchboard, and said, "I'm going in to see Beard. Buzz him for me, will you?" With his hands in his hind pockets, pressing against his chief's desk, bending toward him slightly, Leventhal announced quietly that he had to go out. Mr Beard's face, a face enlarged by baldness, with a fierce bony nose and a veined forehead, took on an incredulous, sharp look. "With an issue to get ready?" he said. "It's a family emergency," said Leventhal. "Can't it wait a few hours?" "I wouldn't go if I thought it could." Mr Beard made a short, unpleasant answer to this. He slapped his metal ruler on the pages of the type-book. "Use your own judgment," he said. There was nothing further to be said, but Leventhal lingered beside the desk hoping for something more. Mr Beard covered his blemished forehead with a trembling hand and studied an article silently. "Goddammed fish!" said Leventhal to himself. A thundershower began when he approached the outside door. He watched it for a while. The air was suddenly as blue as siphon glass. The blind side wall of the warehouse on the corner was streaked black, and the washed paving stones and tar seams shone in the curved street. Leventhal returned to the office to get his raincoat, and as he was going down the hall he heard Mr Beard sayirig in that nagging, prosecuting voice of his, "Walks out right in the middle of everything. Right in a pinch. With everybody else swamped." Another voice which he identified as that of Mr Fay, the business manager, answered, "It's funny that he should just pick up and go. There must be something up." "Takes unfair advantage," Mr Beard continued. "Like the rest of his brethren. I've never known one who wouldn't. Always please themselves first. Why didn't he offer to come back later, at least?" Mr Fay said nothing. Expressionless, Leventhal put on his raincoat. His arm caught in the sleeve, and he pushed it through violently. He walked out of the office with his rather hulking stride, halting in the anteroom to draw a drink from the glass cooler. While waiting for the elevator, he discovered that he was still holding the paper cup. Crumpling it, he threw it with an energetic swing between the bars into the shaft. The trip to the ferry was short, and Leventhal did not take off his rubber coat in the subway. The air was muggy; his face grew damp. The blades of the fan turned so slowly in the gloomy yellow light that he could count the revolutions. The shower was over by the time he reached the street, and when the boat rode out of the slip over the slight swell, the sun came out again. Leventhal stood in the open, his coat slung over his shoulder, the folds gathered in his hand. There was a slow heave about the painted and rusted hulls in the harbor. The rain had gone out to the horizon, a dark band far overreaching the faint marks of the shore. On the water the air was cooler, but on the Staten Island side the great tarnished green sheds were sweltering, the acres of cement widely spattered with sunlight. The disembarking crowd spread through them, going toward the line of busses that waited at the curb with threshing motors, in a shimmer of fumes. Max lived in a large apartment building. His flat, like Leventhal's own on Irving Place, was a high walk-up. Children were running noisily through the foyer; the walls were covered with childish writing. A Negro janitor in a garrison cap was washing the stairs and looked angry at Leventhal's tracks. In the court, the wash swung stiff and yellow in the strong sun; the pulleys were creaking. Elena had not answered Leventhal's ring. The elder of his nephews came to the door when he knocked. The boy did not know him. Of course, Leventhal reflected, how should he? He glanced up at the stranger, raising his arm to his eyes to screen them in the sunny, dusty, desolate white corridor. Behind him the flat was dark; the shades were drawn and a lamp was burning amid the clutter of the dining-room table. "Where's your mother?" "She's in here. Who are you?" "Your uncle," said Leventhal. Coming into the hall he unavoidably pushed against the boy. His sister-in-law hurried toward him from the kitchen. She had changed; she was heavier than when he had last seen her. "Well, Elena?" he said. "Oh, Asa, you're here?" She reached for his hand. "Sure I'm here. You asked me to come, didn't you?" "I tried to call you again, but they told me you were gone." "Why again?" "Phillie, take Uncle's coat," said Elena. "Doesn't the bell work?" "We disconnected it because of the baby." Leventhal dropped his raincoat into the boy's arms and followed her into the dining-room where she busied herself with clearing a chair for him. "Oh, look at the house," she said. "I haven't had time to clean up. My mind is just miles away. It's already three weeks that I took down the curtains and I haven't got them back yet. And look at me." She put down the clothes she had lifted from the chair and showed herself to him with outspread arms. Her black hair was in disorder, she was wearing a nightgown under her cotton dress, her feet were bare. She smiled mournfully. Leventhal, impassive as usual, merely nodded. He observed that her eyes were anxious, altogether too bright and too liquid; there was a superfluous energy in her movements, a suggestion of distraction or even of madness not very securely held in check. But he was too susceptible to such suggestions. He was aware of that, and he warned himself not to be hasty. He looked at her again. Her face, once florid and dark, was softer, fuller, and more pale, a little yellow. He was able to picture her as she had once been when he glanced at his nephew. He resembled her strongly. Only his slightly outcurving nose belonged to the Leventhals. "Now, tell me, what's the matter, Elena?" "Oh, Mickey is sick, he's terribly sick," said Elena. "What's he got?" "The doctor says he doesn't know what it is. He can't do anything with him. He runs high fevers all the time. It started a couple of weeks ago. I give him to eat and he doesn't keep it down. I try everything. I don't know what I should do with him. And today I got such a scare. I went into the room and I couldn't hear him breathe." "No, what do you mean?" said Leventhal. "Just what I'm telling you. I couldn't hear him breathe," she said with intensity. "He wasn't breathing. I put my head on the pillow by his. I couldn't hear a thing. I put my hand over his nose. I couldn't feel anything. I got cold all over. I thought I was going to die myself. I ran out to call the doctor. I couldn't get him. I called his office and everywhere. I couldn't find him. So then I called you. When I got back he was breathing. He was all right. Then I tried to phone you." Elena's hand was resting on her bosom; the long, pointed fingers were dirty; beneath them her skin was white and very smooth. So that was the crisis. He might have guessed it was something like that. "He was breathing all the time," he said somewhat roughly. "How could he stop and start again?" "No, no," she insisted. "He wasn't." Leventhal's composure was not perfect; it was tinged with fear. He thought, looking away from her toward a corner of the ceiling, "What superstition! Just like in the old country. The dead can come back to life, too, I suppose, and all the rest of it." "Why didn't you feel his heart?" he said to her. "I should have, probably..." "You certainly should." "You were busy, weren't you?" "Well, sure, I had work-----" She expressed such contrition at this that he told himself to be kinder. He might as well be; he was here, the harm was done. He assured her that he had an afternoon coming. He had been with the firm six years, and if he couldn't take a few hours off on a personal matter after six years, he might as well give up. He could go away every afternoon for a month without coming close to the number of hours of overtime without pay that he had put in. After he stopped talking his mind ran on in the same strain. In the civil service it was different. There you had your sick leave and you went home with a headache. And you had tenure.... But he did not want to dwell on this. He got up and turned his chair, as if to change the subject of his thoughts by changing his position. "You should raise the shades," he said to Elena. "Why do you keep them down?" "It makes the room cooler." "It cuts off the air... And you have to keep the lamp on. That gives off heat." She had moved the clothing from his chair to the table, pushing back dishes, bread, milk cartons, magazines. He guessed that she kept the shades down for no other reason than to hide her slovenliness from the neighbors across the court. He looked at the room with displeasure. And Max drifted around from Norfolk to Galveston to God knows where. Perhaps he preferred living in rooming houses and hotels. Elena gave Philip a dollar and sent him down for beer. She took the money from her dress pocket, which was filled with change. When he had gone, Leventhal asked to see Mickey. He was lying in Elena's hot, shadowy, close room, dozing in the large bed that stood against the wall, the sheet pulled down to his waist. His short black hair seemed damp; his mouth was open. He was wearing a sleeveless undershirt. Leventhal carefully put the back of his hand to his cheek; it was burning. In withdrawing he knocked his ring against the bedpost. The look Elena shot him startled him. He found himself raising the same hand apologetically and felt his face flush. She, however, was no longer looking at him; she was drawing the sheet over the child's shoulder. Leventhal withdrew to the hall and waited for her. She shut the door slowly, with such care that it seemed to him whole minutes passed. He gazed into the room; it grew darker about the figure on the bed partly hidden from him by the bulge of the chiffonier. At last she released the knob and they returned to the dining-room. He sat down, depressed and gloomy. He began at once to argue that Mickey should be taken to a hospital. "Who is this doctor of yours?" he said. "What's wrong with him that he lets you keep the boy at home? The hospital is the place for him." But he soon realized that Elena, not the doctor, was to blame. She said, with great obstinacy, that he was better off at home, where she could take care of him herself. She showed such a dread of hospitals that at last he exclaimed, "Don't be such a peasant, Elena!" She was silent, though she appeared more distressed than offended and probably did not understand him. He was annoyed with himself for being so vehement, but everything here oppressed him--the house, his sister-in-law, the sick child. How could the boy get well in such a place, in that room? "Well, for goodness sake, Elena," he argued in a different tone, "a hospital is nothing to be afraid of." She shut her eyes and shook her head; he began to shape another sentence but stopped and lay back in the mohair armchair. Suddenly she said brightly, almost happily, "Here's Philip and the beer." She rose to bring glasses. There was a hunt for the bottle-opener; it was not found, and Philip pried off the caps on the handle of a metal cabinet in the kitchen. Elena wanted to make sandwiches, but Leventhal said he was not hungry. "Oh, it'll be dinnertime soon. Your missis won't like it if your appetite is spoiled. How is she? She's such a pretty girl." Elena smiled warmly. She did not even know his wife's name. They had met only once or twice. He hesitated to tell her that Mary had gone South for a few weeks to be with her mother. Elena would have insisted that he stay. To change the subject, he asked about his brother. Max had been in Galveston since February. He wanted the family to join him, but the city was so crowded it was impossible to find a

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