April Reading Circle Story: Saul Bellow’s “Something to Remember Me By”

This piece, entitled “Something to Remember Me By,” was written by Saul Bellow near the end of his life, and first published in his Collected Short Stories in 2001, only four years before his death. We are reading it as it is reprinted in Electric Literature’s “Recommended Reading” section (which I highly recommend in turn.) The story is recommended by Mary Gaitskill, whose voice should still be ringing in your ears.

Gaitskill’s side note is illuminating, and well worth your time. She interprets this story as the continuation of a conflict that permeates much of the author’s work as a whole: the tension between seeing and knowing, and the challenge of reconciling that tension through the act of living. For Bellow that act often takes as its setting the rough-and-tumble reality of early 20th century Chicago, a city that, in this story and in others, is the stunningly visceral and mystifyingly opaque representation of the modern industrialized world.

One angle of approach to this story that I would like to explore in our discussion next week concerns the nature of that world, and the narrator’s function, both real and imaginary, within it. Those terms, real and imaginary, are problematic in the context of the story; however, I think they open up a seam in this piece that could help us get a grip on what Bellow is up to. Keep in mind, the narrator is a writer, chronicling for his reader (his son) the adventures of one day in the life of his younger self, whom he pointedly describes in turn as a reader, an interpreter, a searcher for signs in the banal and chaotic wasteland of mechanized modernity that is Depression-era Chicago, 1933. A few questions, then, to guide us as we attempt to find meaning in the confusion of this work: Why was it written? What is its purpose? What is its power?

This is, as Gaitskill points out, a coming of age story, and a relatively conventional one at that, at least at first glance. However, I would argue that part of Bellow’s genius lies in the subtle distortions he introduces into our ability to recognize and distinguish ordinary and extraordinary events and objects. Like all coming of age stories, “Something to Remember Me By” is dominated by sex and death. But what to make of a jar of strong mustard stationed near to a girl’s corpse? How can we assimilate the overwhelming corporeal reality of sex, when it is showcased and manipulated with total indifference in a doctor’s office? What makes this story a bildungsroman unique to Bellow is the way quotidian objects blend into and transform these most profound of human secrets, forming a new, hidden order of knowledge which young Louie is drawn to wrestle with and decode. But how? And why? These are questions that echo back at our narrator as he attempts to sift through his experience years after the fact, for reasons that are perhaps unclear even to him. Such questions resonate with us, too.

These are just a few things that jumped out to me, and that I’d like to touch on next week. I hope you enjoy this story by one of (North) America’s greatest writers. See you next Tuesday.

Andrew Bennett.