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Monday
Jul202009

1965

Herzog

By Saul Bellow

Original and Current Publisher: Viking Press

Salvatore Scibona writes:

Anybody who has gotten some distance from a heartbreak’s wickedest throes, and wants to understand it, and wants to feel again the vibrancy of mind that made love possible in the first place, should read Saul Bellow’s 1964 novel Herzog.

Bellow used to get a bad rap for writing eggheaded books. He didn’t seem to mind. His books don’t merit the rap because an eggheaded story priggishly elevates ideas above experience; but in Herzog, and all of Bellow’s best work, he sinks his prodigious learning so deeply in manic, bristling physical detail that the ideas take on an almost material reality, as though each gave off its own odor.

Bellow does not digress into chapters of philosophical discourse purely abstracted from physical life, as, say, Tolstoy did. His hero writes letters to Adlai Stevenson and to Spinoza, meantime gnawing a loaf of bread that has been half-eaten through by a rat. What other writer dresses metaphysical questions in such splendidly tailored clothes? What other brainy novel makes a world so hopping with material life that it compels you to read while pacing briskly about the room even when it’s describing a man hating himself on his couch?:

Herzog, a solid figure of a man, if pale and suffering, lying on his sofa in the lengthening evening of a New York spring, in the background the trembling energy of the city, a sense and flavor of river water, a stripe of beautifying and dramatic filth contributed by New Jersey to the sunset, Herzog in the coop of his privacy and still strong in body (his health was really a sort of miracle; he had done his best to be sick) pictured what might have happened if instead of listening so intensely and thoughtfully he had hit Madeleine in the face.

And who makes you pity and laugh like this?: “O Lord, he concluded, forgive all these trespasses. Lead me not into Penn Station.”

Herzog’s disarray is hardly as unaccountable as the novel’s opening suspects: “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” After all, his wife has left him for his best friend. The betrayal so smashes his whole being that commonplace distinctions—between the living and the famous dead to whom he addresses his mad letters, between the life of his intellect and the life of his heart—no longer hold, and the poor man feels sure he’s headed to murder or to the nuthouse. Heartbreak has creamed all his faculties together, like corned beef hash. And who hasn’t felt this after bungled love, the upheaval and jumbling of parts of our selves that had seemed so tidily arranged?

And who hasn’t needed the help that this wise and headlong book gives us, in gluing Humpty Dumpty back together again—with all the same pieces but in a new, previously unthinkable order, stained with hope?

Salvatore Scibona was a National Book Award finalist in fiction in 2007 for his first novel, The End.

 

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein writes:

 

“Take me, for instance. I’ve been writing letters helter-skelter in all directions. More words. I go after reality with language. Perhaps I’d like to change it all into language.”

That’s Moses Herzog talking, and you bet he would like to change it all into language. Him and Bellow both.

Bellow is often cited as a hero of narrative realism, as having single-handedly, through the heft of his technique, held back the postmodern, meta-fictional, experiments-in-naval-gazing onslaught. But Saul Bellow’s relationship with reality was as complicated and adversarial as any writer’s before and after. He was not going to be the one to submit. Let reality submit. What a fighter the man was, a conquistador with dreamy Jewish eyes.

It’s extraordinary how many times Bellow calls out to his mighty antagonist by name: Reality. He uses the word more times than Kant and Hegel put together. That’s what he was up against, the thing he was out to master and possess. His boot, cleated with metaphors, is planted smack on its exposed bulging neck. His famous style—the zealousness of his figurative language, the mixing of milky thought and bloody-raw meat—is never an end in itself but a means of taking possession.

“And this is the unwritten history of man.” So Herzog, finally quieting down after his five days of internal combustion, puts it: “His unseen negative accomplishment, his power to do without gratification for himself provided there is something great, something into which his being, and all beings, can go. He does not need meaning as long as such intensity has scope.” That’s something Bellow’s descriptive intensity had: scope. There is no way to surpass him when it comes to scope, since he aimed for it all. All.

Each time I read Herzog, I have to take it ever more slowly. The intensity’s scope pummels and dazes me, much as reality does.

So in the end, who wins: reality or Bellow? If you have to ask, it’s time to reread Herzog.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein was a National Book Awards fiction judge in 2008. Her forthcoming novel is Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God.

 

Jess Walter writes:

Dear National Book Foundation,

Did I really agree to describe Herzog—that monstrous, masterful, hysterical burst of sheer fictional self? What, did I imagine writing a clever letter about Bellow’s Big Bang of a protagonist, the epistolary, autobiographical Moses Herzog, intellectual, depressive, failed husband and father, failed everything, who bursts forth from the book’s first sounds, “If I am out of my mind, it is all right with me ...” then blazes across the rest of it with that refrain, writing letters—brooding, hilarious, open-wound missives to ex-wives and girlfriends, to colleagues, to his cuckolding best friend, to Eisenhower, to God, to no one and to everyone—this Herzog entirely alive and entirely adrift in life, this spinning, teetering Moses who “suffering, suffered in style,” emerging in Bellow’s perfect, pitiless tending as raw and manic, with fresh recall of every old trauma (many self-inflicted) but with no ability to abide his own sorrow or guilt: “I’m not even greatly impressed by my own tortured heart. It begins to seem another waste of time”?

Okay then: the book came out in 1964, the year before I was born and, as they’d say now, opened big, a bestseller, winner of the 1965 National Book Award. Twenty-five years later, I picked up a used Fawcett pocket copy (cover price 95 cents) with a phony denim cover meant to appeal to young people (Hey kids! Wanna see where all this self-examination leads?) Having never taken a class on Bellow, or really, much of anything, I had no theory in which to place the book, except to note that when I read The Adventures of Augie March it had seemed like a youthful call: “Here I am, America!,” and that Herzog felt like a middle-aged response: “I said, Here I am, God damn it!” Herzog’s sneaky third-person gives the illusion of detachment, but it’s not merely a literary device; it’s more like retinal detachment, clouding our vision, blinding our youthful optimistic Augie eyes forever. Other than that, the thing’s a total, gleeful, depressing mystery to me, how Bellow does it, except by being Bellow, which seems especially inadvisable after reading Herzog. As Moses moves toward some kind of stability, the letters wane, as if writing isn’t a symptom of his psychosis, but the thing itself. Is there a warning there, perhaps about attempting to summon such a character, or trying to be such a writer? As Bellow’s Herzog (or Herzog’s Bellow) says, “There is someone inside me. When I speak of him I feel him in my head, pounding for order. He will ruin me.”

Jess Walter was a National Book Award finalist in fiction in 2006 for The Zero. He was a National Book Awards fiction judge in 2008.

 

ISBN: 9780142437292

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Louis Auchincloss for The Rector of Justin
  • John Hawkes for Second Skin
  • Richard Kim for The Martyred
  • Wallace Markfield for To an Early Grave
  • Vladimir Nabokov for The Defense
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer for Short Friday

Fiction Judges that Year: Richard Gilman, R.W.B. Lewis, Bernard Malamud

The Year in Literature:  

  • The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Mikhail Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:  

  • Saul Bellow was born Solomon Bello in Lachine, Quebec, two years after his parents emigrated from Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Suggested Links:

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