BOOK REVIEW / The ground bass of brutality: 'Something to Remember me by' - Saul Bellow: Secker, 13.99 pounds

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SAUL BELLOW is a garrulous writer, a great prolix ventriloquist, and the talkative effect occurs even in his briefest works. So the terms on which Something to Remember Me By are offered to us are a little odd, not to say perverse: Bellow the hero of thrift.

Two of the tales in the book were published here in a volume in 1989; the third appeared in Esquire in 1990. What is new is the assembly, which Bellow has lengthened with a foreword on the virtues of writing brief. Understandably, he makes a hash of this, and having grasped at various unfriendly tufts of the subject, settles for some heart-warming stuff about supposed relations between writers and readers.

All three tales are nonetheless lively and free of abstraction. All are about memory, and the demands of the past. 'The Bellarosa Connection' recounts the avoidance, by a garish showbusiness philanthropist, of the human object of his charity; the narrator has similarly avoided, by a twist he sees as peculiarly American, the pain of his historical inheritance, what he calls 'the ground bass of brutality, without which no human music ever is performed'. 'A Theft' concerns the stealing of a ring from a New York fashion editor, whose troubled view that 'nobody is anybody' is refuted by the behaviour of her difficult daughter.

The title story records a day in the 1930s: 'It began like any other winter day in Chicago - grimly ordinary.' It escapes the ordinary pretty quickly, though. The boy-protagonist sees the corpse of a young girl, has his clothes taken from him by a woman who may be a prostitute, and is finally relieved to be beaten by his father, because this means the boy's terminally ill mother has not died during his escapades.

The process of 'self-revision' is universal, one of Bellow's narrators says; we deal in 'fortified delusions'. These stories attempt to unbuild such structures, to find what Bellow calls the face beneath the face; or they evoke the fate of such attempts. The news is not good. What's cheering is the occasional success, and the racy, voluble enthusiasm of the storytellers.