April 24, 1989 12:00 PM

by Saul Bellow

This novella points up one of the world’s glaring problems: not enough Nobel Prize winners are writing soap operas. Bellow’s plot certainly has Krantzian-Robbinsesque overtones. Clara Velde, a chic, independent Manhattan executive, is on her fourth husband but remains devoted to a former boyfriend, high-powered diplomat-without-portfolio Ithiel “Teddy” Regler. The theft of the title has to do with Clara’s loss of an emerald ring given her by Teddy when their relationship was torrid instead of platonic and cerebral.

It’s all on the glib and glitzy side for Bellow. But this is a real class act for this kind of fiction, playful and slick in an intellectual kind of way. The name Ithiel, for instance, comes from the Bible (Proverbs 30:1). Given Bellow’s romantic history (four marriages), it would seem too much of a coincidence that the same Bible chapter that mentions Ithiel also includes the verses: “Three things are too wonderful for me: four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden.” Bellow seems too to be having a good time trying to see things from a woman’s point of view, especially how men sound to women. In one of their heart-to-hearts, Teddy takes umbrage at Clara’s suggestion that he’s too important to care about a mere ring: “You shouldn’t think I can’t take a ring seriously, or that I’m so snooty about world significance or Lenin’s ‘decisive correlation of forces’—that you’re just a kid and I indulge you like a big daddy. I like you better than I do the president, or the national security adviser.”

Clara also has to deal with her therapist: “Hope brought her here, every effort must be made, but when she looked, looked with all her might at Dr. Gladstone, she could not justify the trust she was asked to place in that samurai beard, the bared teeth it framed, the big fashionable specs, his often baseless confidence in his science. However, it would take the better part of a year to acquaint a new doctor with the fundamentals of her case. She was stuck with this one.” Bellow seems to have published this tale in paperback form (forgoing a hardcover version) partly out of pique at not being able to find a magazine that would print it, partly in search of a different audience. So much the better if he lures in a few readers by having the identity-plagued Clara wonder, “Was there anybody who was somebody?” This book surrounds that kind of sudsy verbiage with enough subtleties of thought and language to satisfy aficionados of serious literature as well as keep the boys in Sweden from taking back their prize. (Penguin, paper, $6.95)


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