Why did the gods and goddesses of antiquity choose mortals for their love affairs? Obviously, because no dalliance can accommodate more than one divinity at a time.
This will do as a theme of sorts in Saul Bellow's "Theft," a miscellany of plot-bits, a couple of human sketches, an assortment of caricatures and various personal objections to what's going on nowadays.
The author calls it a novella. Its length fits, and it contains a novella-like story about the chastening of a larger-than-life New Yorker at the hands of her Austrian au pair . It is a complex kind of chastening, involving the return of an emerald ring stolen by the au pair's Haitian lover; it also fits in loosely with other things that are going on.
But the book's approximate center is the duel between Clara, the above-mentioned New Yorker, and Ithiel, the love of her life. It resembles one of those tempestuous amatory battles on Mt. Olympus; Jupiter and Juno, or Mars and Venus.
Ithiel is a modern kind of Magus, an expert in the higher arcana of geo-strategy, and continually sought by presidents and prime ministers and Henry Kissinger. He is also, to all appearances, an alter-ego for Bellow, whose formidable writing career has its own Magus-like qualities.
Clara's super-human aura is signaled by the size of her head, which is large. "She needed that head," Bellow writes. "A mind like hers demanded space." Even her migraines take up extra room--everyone present catches them. She comes from a rich Midwestern family and speaks "as plain as cornmeal mush"; nonetheless, she's the terrifically successful fashion editor of a big New York magazine group.
But the most outsized thing about Clara is her passion for Ithiel, also known as Teddy. "It's conceivable that the world spirit gets into mere girls and makes them its demon interpreters," she reflects, intent upon placing these demons at her lover's service.
For his part, Ithiel shares the grand passion but only, so to speak, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Other times, a god needs peace and quiet--Bellow's hint as to how a Great Man is to be loved--and the company of docile and well-fleshed young things who fit cozily into a trip to Venezuela to advise the President.
Olympic-sized battles ensue, the kind that once would submerge an island or turn a perfectly nice young woman into a tree. Ithiel's and Clara's passion eventually works its way out through mortal surrogates.
Ithiel takes on three wives, none of whom work out. Clara takes four husbands, among them a presidential candidate and an Italian super-millionaire. Her latest is a sexpot who fancies himself as the Rolls-Royce of partners. Clara feels that he's more of a Lincoln Continental. "No woman wants her bedroom to be a garage, least of all for a boring car." But she keeps him; her demons have cooled; she and Ithiel settle, more or less, for being the best of friends.
The Ithiel-Clara show has an entertaining extravagance and a trace of comic ruefulness. Bellow, we are certain, is saying more than he is telling.
On the other hand, like the rest of the book, it is slapdash. There is an irritatingly pointless use of a woman named Wong to serve as Clara's confidante. Ithiel's and Clara's mates are barely sketched or barely listed; and Bellow's writing lacks the airiness for such gossamer dismissals.
In Clara, we have notes for what might become a memorable character; but Bellow has not bothered to develop them. In the last part, the confrontations between Clara and Gina, her au pair , have a well-wrought tension and pathos, and Clara's gradual discovery of the graceful dignity of someone she had taken for a misguided simpleton is suddenly touching.
The episode seems unanchored, though. Nothing in the book is very well attached. It remains for Ithiel, a comic abstraction, to provide a voice for Bellow's irritabilities.
He is withering about glasnost. He and others regularly refer to New York as Gogmagogsville .But his principal target is psychiatry. Of Clara's psychiatrist, Ithiel remarks that "If a millipede came into his office he'd leave with a tiny crutch for each leg."
He detests the fashion of using childhood damage to justify adult weakness. He himself was beaten by his father, and he hated it; yet he loved his father.
"The real Teddy, however, rejects this grudge against a dead man whom he perhaps hopes to see in the land of the dead. Besides, after age 40, a moratorium has to be declared--earlier, if possible. You can't afford to be a damaged child forever." And he adds: "Now the heart of this whole country aches for itself."
"Theft" is scrappy--in both senses--amiable, an amiable mess, and sometimes just a mess. You get the impression that Bellow enjoyed writing it and spared himself excessive pains. His wit and pugnacity are as penetrating as ever, and as welcome, but they seem to strike into a narrowing space.