THE LONELY VOICE #8: In Praise of Inaction, Bellow’s “The Old System”

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I’ve been hearing the short story is dead again. The real money is in novels. Screenplays! A short story? Why don’t you go and write a haiku while you’re at it. What do you think this is the 50s? “For Esme with Love and Squalor” is dead and buried in cold New Hampshire ground. Send your novel and screenplay ideas to:

James Frey
Incredibly Expensive Apartment
New York, NY

A big thanks to James[1] for prodding the Lonely Voice out of retirement. He got me thinking about why we do what we do, why we read what we read. I’m not sure that any great story can be summed up in a high concept pitch, capable of being summed up in one sentence. In spite of what Frey and countless others are ceaselessly peddling, fiction deserves better than to be stuffed into pre-packaged boxes, heavy on plot and action.

I know I’m not alone in this. At least I hope I’m not. But a lot of times, I actually prefer stories where not much happens, where plot is not king. For me, clever plots can often be tedious and forced. I don’t want my fiction movie-ready. No, character is what I’m after. In a world where human contact seems to becoming less and less important, I find myself craving, now more than ever, the ability of a good story to bring me into the mind of a stranger. Don’t burden me with something happening all the time. What I want is to know people. I want to invade their most intimate spaces. Aren’t the greatest dramas of our lives mostly centered around who we wake up with in the morning? By this I mean, ourselves and of course that other person (or lack of that other person.) Is this me? And who is this other person, really? And how different would it be if this other person was that other person? In fiction, as in nowhere else, I can cross the most forbidden borders.

In today’s Lonely Voice, a man sleeps until noon and then spends the afternoon looking out the window at the dying day remembering the only authentic love he’s ever truly known.

Saul Bellow’s “The Old System” opens like this:

It was a thoughtful day for Dr. Braun. Winter. Saturday. The short end of December.

Bellow’s not kidding. It is a thoughtful day for Dr. Braun. A very thoughtful day. Dr. Braun will now spend the next 20 pages thinking. It is also, for me, one example of a certain kind of great short story, a meditation on death and grief that stops time while at the same time animating the past. On this winter morning, Dr. Braun, a scientist, is thinking of the two people on earth he may have actually loved. Two cousins, Isaac and Tina. Schenectady, New York in the 1920’s and 30’s. Nothing about this particular morning sends (or in that terrible writingish word, triggers) Dr. Braun back to the past unless it is only the fading light of a foreshortened day. Bellow doesn’t need to create any false cause and effect.

Dr. Braun remembers because he happens to remember. He looks out across the alley from his kitchen window, at the circular tank of a laundry and discovers, “a sentiment approaching.” That’s all. A sentiment, a feeling nudged, not forced, into his head by the dark December noon.

The sentiment, as he drank his coffee, was for two cousins in upstate New York, the Mohawk Valley. They were dead. Isaac Braun and his sister Tina. Tina was first to go. Two years later, Isaac died. Braun now discovered that he and Cousin Isaac loved each other. For whatever use or meaning this fact might have within the peculiar system of light, movement, contact and perishing in which he tried to find stability. Toward Tina, Dr. Braun’s feelings were less clear. More passionate once, but at present more detached.

In his quest to find stability, Dr. Braun continues to remember. He remembers a certain sycamore tree beside the Mohawk River. He remembers a country cottage in the Adirondacks. He remembers drainage ditches, polliwogs, cousin Mutt (Isaac and Tina’s less loved brother) dancing in his undershirt, singing that old song about sticking his nose up a nanny goats ass. He remembers Tina coming to his sick bed where he is recovering from a bee sting and lifting up her dress…

As with any other piece of writing by Bellow, the writing here catapults not on action but on the language, in this case the language of Dr. Braun’s memories. This story, in spite of the fact that literally nothing happens in the sense of present action, is not at all static. First, there is the movement of, and relationship between, Bellow’s sentences. Take a look at this description of Isaac and Tina’s mother, the hard-hearted battleaxe Aunt Rose.

Her face was red, her hair powerful, black. She had a sharp nose. To cut mercy like a cotton thread.

Powerful hair? All right, not Bellow’s greatest line. But I would give my toes to have followed the sentence ‘She had a sharp nose’ with To cut mercy like a cotton thread. Don’t you know Aunt Rose now? Can’t you not only see her knife-like nose but also into her soul?

Or listen to this, about a minor character, Tina’s husband, a minor hoodlum whose father sold peanuts at Coney Island. “His baldness was total, like a purge.”

The entire story, as I’ve been saying, takes place over the course of one afternoon while Dr. Braun drinks coffee and looks out the window at the icicles hanging off the tank across the alley. Isaac and Tina had a falling out as siblings sometimes do. Over money. Tina accused Isaac of fleecing her. Isaac said she abandoned him at his moment of greatest need. The years pass. Isaac gets richer and richer. He’s a real estate developer. Strip malls and cheap apartment buildings. Tina watches with increasing envy and hate. Here’s her take (through the brain of Dr. Braun) of her wealthy, pious, Orthodox brother:

He, too, kept the psalms near. As active worldly Jews for centuries had done. One copy lay in the glove compartment of his Cadillac. To which his great gloomy sister referred with a twist of the face…She said, ‘He reads the Tehillim aloud in his air conditioned Caddy when there’s a long freight train at the crossing. That crook! He’d pick God’s pocket!

Memory, of course, is not only unreliable; it is very often a spool of wholesale lies. And thank god for it. What if what you remembered was actually true? Be careful what you wish for. You wouldn’t be able to lie to yourself if your memory had a truth meter. But the fact is that ordinarily we aren’t after truth when we remember. Often, we are going for something far more elusive, something that is just out of our grasp, something that increases mystery rather than answers concrete questions.

Or as Bellow puts it when speaking about our inability to know even those who are closest to us “Those who try to interpret humankind through its eyes are in for much strangeness – perplexity.”

As well as Dr. Braun knows his people, their love for each other (and his love for them) rests upon the great perplexity of love itself. He remembers much but this doesn’t mean he has it all figured out. He never will. He only knows there is something about these two cousins – Isaac and Tina – that holds him, today, in his kitchen, with his cold coffee.

One especially remarkable aspect of the story is not only does Dr. Braun sit and think but he also – like any fiction writer – invents thoughts for the characters he’s thinking about. In other words, a character thinks about another character thinking! For me this borders on story ecstasy. Dr. Braun is making this stuff up and I’m buying everything he’s selling. I got a put a story this good down and take a walk around the block.

This is dead Isaac thinking about his dead parents:

Isaac was concerned about his parents. Down there, how were they? The wet, the cold, above all the worms worried him. In frost, his hearth shrank for Aunt Rose and Uncle Braun, though as a builder he knew they were beneath the frost line.

Knowing you’ll be buried under the frost line, does this make you feel better about the grave? Notice something else? Isaac’s mother and father are referred to as Aunt Rose and Uncle Braun. That’s not how Isaac would, in his own mind, think of his own parents. And yet Bellow isn’t making a mistake here. It’s how Isaac via Dr. Braun refers to them – so what you get is a kind of linguistic fusion. The grief of the dead and the grief of the living come together through a man who in twenty pages hasn’t moved an inch.

Eventually something does happen in “The Old System.” Tina is diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. On her deathbed, she refuses to see Isaac who, as a good brother and a pious Jew, keeps trying to see her before she dies. I won’t give away what happens. I’ll only say its hilarious and moving. So there’s plot after all! Yes. But plot born of character born of memory.

Great stories, great characters, will be written so long as people, in their confusion, love and laugh and grieve. And to hell with what really happened. Memory is nothing if not invention. I quote a portion of the glorious ending of “The Old System.” This won’t give anything away. It’s only Dr. Braun beginning, silently, to soar.

Oh, these Jews – these Jews! Their feelings, their hearts! Dr. Braun often wanted nothing more than to stop all this. For what came of it? One after another you gave over your dying. One by one they went. You went. Childhood, family, friendship, love were stifled in the grave. And these tears! When you wept them from the heart. You felt you justified something, understood something. Again, nothing! It was only an imitation of understanding. A promise that mankind might – might, mind you – eventually, through its gift which might – might again! – be a divine gift, comprehend why it lived. Why life, why death.


[1] Because I too wasted twenty-five minutes out of my life bothering to read that nonsense in New York Magazine about Frey and his fiction factory. Give me back that twenty-five minutes of my life, New York Magazine.


Peter Orner’s most recent book, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is a New York Times Editor’s Choice book and was named a Favorite Book of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal. 2014 will mark the 5th year of the Lonely Voice column on the Rumpus. More from this author →