About four years ago I was having a discussion with a buddy’s dad about literature. Jack’s dad is an architect of not-so-little local renown. The talk was being held over cognac and pâté; my first encounter with either delicacy. He showed me how far down you clip an expensive cigar. Jack’s father is what one might consider a real Corinthian, save the wolfish connotations. During this talk, he said that the majority of his non-historical fiction related literary sensibilities came mostly via osmosis, from his wife. Let it be said that four years ago I was fresh off graduation from college, still very much of the opinion that my English degree was worth more than the paper it was printed on. (An opinion that has been vigorously rebuked by about eighty percent of New York state’s employers.) So when Jack’s dad told me about Saul Bellow, and how his wife had said something to the effect of him being one of the great modern writers, I felt fully authorized to counter, and then sort of lay the comment off as the simple opinion of a “non-lit guy.” (In the years that have elapsed, I have realized a few things about myself, and the world, namely that the latter does not revolve around the former. Here’s a pro tip: If you ever find yourself sitting in the beautifully glassed-in anteroom of a three-story townhouse in uptown Chicago, sipping Martell and smoking Cuban cigars for the first time while warming your feet on heated tile, acquaint yourself with the reality that the man facilitating such a cozy literary waxing session is smarter than you are. Despite the sixty some odd man-hours you spent hung over in various English classes, you are not Harold Bloom.) My particular opinion this night was that there were only four modern American masters, and none of them were named Bellow. (This was, in fact, Harold Bloom’s opinion. He said that Thomas Pynchon, Phillip Roth, Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo were the four living greats.(1)) I was at best quoting him, at worst passing the whole thing off as my own, but probably just occupying some cryptomnesiac middle ground. Either way, I was effectively showcasing the intellect of a trained parakeet. My DeLillo obsession in full swing, and standing a full two years before I’d encounter Wallace, I was happy enough to take Bloom’s comment as literary gospel and shut out the possibility of any other collection of written words having any meaningful impact on my life. I was young, and smug, and obviously sitting at a level of knowledge so grand and near capacity that I didn’t have any use for new wisdom. I had closed the proverbial book. It’s a special kind of prick that thinks he’s got nothing left to learn, I know now. And that’s why I’m beginning my (unorthodox) review of Saul Bellow’s Herzog with both an apologia (to Mr. and Mrs. Lahey and parents smarter than me everywhere) and a plea, to all the other self-righteous twenty-two year olds with sole custody of all life’s secrets. A plea for them to take that long and humbling trip down from their ivory towers and to just listen for once in their fucking lives. Throughout the course of my life, I’ve been absolutely certain four times over that no one would ever be able to supplant my then current favorite author from his (and in one case her) place in my heart. Every time it was with rockbound certitude that I declared the contest for greatest author definitively won and over with. But as they say, you live, and you learn. As punishment for my pretension and myopia, I will be writing this review in the least scholarly fashion I can think of: in fragmented, unchronological, scatterbrained, nonthematic bullet points. And so without further ado, Herzog: A Review.
- Herzog tells the story of eponymous Moses Herzog, a man dealing with the fresh aftermath of his second failed marriage. The jacket of the book (my copy, at least) calls Herzog “a joker and moaner, cuckold and charmer, … truly an everyman for our time.” All of this and more is true, and illustrated thoroughly, as we track and backtrack and flashback through a slideshow of Moses’ endeavors in life and love. One thing is for sure, Moses is a joker, and if his life is a joke, he’s almost all the way in on it. Moses acknowledges that there might be a perverse attraction to his endless toiling and heartache. Herzog’s brother- (and it’s interesting, even when two Herzogs are conversing, Bellow refers to Moses as ‘Herzog.’ I’m thinking this is his way of showing even the familial nod to Moses being the “story;” Moses the troubled, Moses of two failed marriages, Moses, sole possessor of a flair for dramatics; when someone mentions the name Herzog, chances are Moses has gotten into trouble again) -Will, has a bead on Moses. “You’re used to difficult women,” he says, “To struggle. Perhaps you like it when they give you a bad time.” And Moses’ explanation is that “Every treasure is guarded by dragons. That’s how you can tell its valuable.” Will, a kind and compassionate and simple man, loves his brother but very obviously does not understand the allure. But allure there is, to a life of complication. In what has to be the greatest standalone passage of the novel, Herzog goes on record, endorsing this notion [italics sic]: “To tell the truth, I never had it so good, he wrote. But I lacked the strength of character to bear such joy. That was hardly a joke. When a man’s breast feels like a cage from which all the dark birds have flown- he is free, he is light. And he longs to have his vultures back again.” And this is the crux of Moses Herzog’s character. He is addicted to the melodrama. He confronts accusations that he cherry picks difficult women head on. He knows he does. He likes them beautiful and crazy; one without the other wouldn’t do. The remote manse in the Berkshires would’ve been too quiet had it not been filled with the escapades of his wife, seems to serve as accurate symbolism, for what’s been happening on repeat for his entire life. He’s got more to say about this. A scholar in romantics, watch Herzog romanticize even pain: “His indignation rose, and he tried to check it. Ramona was being considerate, giving him a chance to sound off to release spleen. This was not what he had come for. And anyway he was growing tired of his obsession. Besides, she had troubles of her own. And the poet said that indignation was a kind of joy, be was he right? There is a time to speak and a time to shut up. The only truly interesting side of the matter was the intimate design of the injury, the fact that it was so penetrating, custom-made exactly to your measure. It’s fascinating that hatred should be so personal as to be almost loving. The knife and the wound aching for each other.”
- My absolute favorite moment of Herzog comes near the halfway mark. Or, the foundation of my favorite moment is grounded in this scene. Herzog is reminiscing about a day he spent with his son, at an aquarium. “Marco listened, pale and steady, his freckled Herzog face revealing little. Marco never seemed to wonder at the immense (the appalling!) collection of facts in his father’s head. At the aquarium Herzog supplied the classification of fish scales-”the ctenoid, the placoid…” He knew where the coelacanth had been caught, the anatomy of a lobster’s stomach. He offered all this to his son-we must stop this, Herzog decided-guilty conduct, an overemotional father, a bad example. I try too hard with him.” Roughly fifty pages later Bellow writes, “That mass of flesh rising from the opening of the magistrate’s black cloth, nearly eyeless, or whale-eyed, was, after all, a human head. The hollow, ignorant voice, a human voice. You don’t destroy a man’s career because he yielded to an impulse in that ponderous stinking cavern below Grand Central, in the cloaca of the city, where no mind can be sure of stability, where policemen (perhaps themselves that way given) tempt and trap poor souls.” A cloaca is “a. the common cavity into which the intestinal, urinary, and generative canals open in birds, reptiles, amphibians, many fishes, and certain mammals and b. a similar cavity in invertebrates.” And while lobsters are technically arthropods, I found something so satisfying in Bellow imbuing in Herzog the authority of using that word to build an intestinal metaphor. Notice “whale-eyed” being used to compound the effect. We don’t balk at Herzog dropping this sort of esoteric word in description because the knowledge base has been previously established. Not so far back that you wouldn’t remember it, but back far enough that it didn’t seem like a cheap gimmick. It was a perfect means to earn a narrator some credibility in language, and was just one example of Bellow’s gift with authenticity. Herzog doesn’t live an ordinary life, but the details of his life are so perfectly unusual that you feel they would’ve been impossible to fake. A strong feeling of truth being stranger than fiction, existing in a work of fiction. (2)
- I like finding idiosyncrasies in writers. Points of obsession mentioned too often to be coincidence. Some are easy to spot (Hemingway admired bullfighters, Franzen has a weird bird thing) and some, not as much: (does it seem like Don DeLillo mentions teeth brushing a lot?) Well, Bellow’s fetish goes beyond simple oral hygiene. He is obsessed with washing up. The loving attention he pays to sinks and soaps and the washing of hands. Maybe there’s some religious undertones there. Or maybe he’s obsessive-compulsive. (The most common form of obsessive-compulsive disorder is compulsive hand washing.) It just seems to me that Bellow doesn’t routinely go out of his way to extensively detail everything with adjective-thick paragraphs; there were about five fully fleshed-out hand and face washing scenes in Herzog.
- Here are just some well-written parts. One: “Herzog was loitering for a moment near the fish store, arrested by the odor. A thin muscular Negro was pitching buckets of ground ice into the deep window. The fish were packed together, backs arched as if they were swimming in the crushed, smoking ice, bloody bronze, slimy black-green, gray-gold- the lobsters were crowded to the glass, feelers bent. The morning was warm, gray, damp, fresh, smelling of the river. Pausing on the metal doors of the sidewalk elevator, Moses received the raised pattern of the steel through his thin shoe soles; like Braille. But he did not interpret a message. The fish were arrested, lifelike, in the white, frothing, ground ice. The street was overcast, warm and gray, intimate, unclean, flavored by the polluted river, the sexually stirring brackish tidal odor.” Two: “This was his station, and he ran up the stairs. The revolving gates rattled their multiple bars and ratchets behind him. He hastened by the change booth where a man sat in a light the color of strong tea, and up the two flights of stairs. In the mouth of the exit he stopped to catch his breath. Above him the flowering glass, wired and gray, and Broadway heavy and blue in the dusk, almost tropical; at the foot of the downhill Eighties lay the Hudson, as dense as mercury. On the points of radio towers in New Jersey red lights like small hearts beat or tingled. In midstreet, on the benches, old people: on faces, on heads, the strong marks of decay: the big legs of women and blotted eyes of men, sunken mouths and inky nostrils. It was the normal hour for bats swooping raggedly (Ludeyville), or pieces of paper (New York) to remind Herzog of bats. An escaped balloon was fleeing like a sperm, black and quick into the orange dust of the west. He crossed the street, making a detour to avoid a fog of grilled chicken and sausage.” SPOILER ALERT: This book came out almost 50 years ago. Not going to editorialize, these sequences are just good.
- But Herzog, joker that he is, doesn’t proceed without traces of fatalism. He laments: “But what is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is dead, that point was passed long ago. Perhaps it should be stated Death is God. This generation thinks –and this is its thought of thoughts- that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb.” And Bellow flirts with some seemingly dark machinations as the book hits its back third. But he resists the temptation of turning this realist novel into something noir. On the whole though, Herzog is a character study, and Moses is an affable dude. And in summation, there is no summation. Just a hack review from a guy who half a decade ago wouldn’t’ve plucked this book from the shelf. So in lieu of ranking the book, or trying to prove a hypothesis, or tying together all the overarching themes, I’ll just tell you what I should’ve told myself five years ago: just read it.
(1)Side note: how incredible would it be to have these dudes lend their names to a belletristic reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?
(2)He does this again, sort of, when near the end of the book he says: “But if I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me,” a reprise of the book’s opening line.