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Herzog Novel Review Essay

September 20, 1964

The Way Up From Rock Bottom

Herzog By Saul Bellow

he position of the 43-year-old hero and title character of Saul Bellow’s latest and best novel is absurd. Moses E. Herzog believes in reason, but is suffering from a protracted nervous crisis, following the collapse of his second marriage, that leads him to the brink of suicide. He deplores the current vogue for crisis ethics, dionysiac revivals and thrilling apocalypses, yet is professionally an intellectual historian of the Romantic Movement who travels about with a paperback volume of Blake’s poems in his valise.

He is an urbanite from Montreal who has spent most of his life in Chicago and New York, yet the only think he owns is a decaying farmhouse in a depopulated area of the Berkshires. He believes that “brotherhood is what makes a man human,” yet he has been cuckolded by his best friend and has come to manhood in a period when six million of his fellow Jews were exterminated by the Nazis and their allies.

He sees his mission as “this great bone-breaking burden of selfhood and self-development,” but he has apparently failed as a father, a lover, a husband, a writer, an academic and he faces each day and each night the real possibility that his psyche is being invaded by the self-disintegrative processes of an actual psychosis.

And he sees in a last absurd paradox that his balance, if it is to come, must come “from instability.” The novel, in its almost perfect narrative art, makes us see the truth and wisdom of that paradox, not only for Herzog himself but for all of us at this point -- at this “post-Christian” point, as the book hesitantly but finally puts it -- of modern history.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, Jewish writers -- Bernard Malamud, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, inter alia -- have emerged as a dominant movement in our literature. “Herzog,” in several senses, is the great pay-off book of that movement. It is a masterpiece, the first the movement has produced (unless Henry Roth’s magnificent try at a masterpiece, “Call It Sleep,” written in the 1930s, can somehow be brought into the picture), and it is Bellow’s most Jewish book. There are no gentiles in it. It is full of Jewish wit, humor, pathos, intellectual and moral passion, hipness about European social thought and foreign literatures. Like the prophets, Herzog cries out for “a change of heart,” and like all Jews in this generation, he feels himself to be a survivor with the responsibility of testifying to the continued existence of values which the Eichmanns had tried to send up in the smoke of burning flesh.

“Herzog” is a great book because it has great characters. First, Herzog himself. He wanders about, distracted, charming and nervy, a kind of intellectual Oblomov on the run, a Pierre Bezhukhov of the thermonuclear century. His mood shifts in great swoops and glides; he revisits imagination the scenes of his broken marriages, his broken career, his childhood. He disappears from New York, turns up in Vineyard Haven, flies to Chicago, where, gun in hand, he spies through a window his ex-wife’s lover bathing Herzog’s own small daughter and realizes he can never seize the swift logic of the assassin.

At the last he comes back to the Massachusetts farmhouse where owls roost on the posts of his former marriage bed and the toilet bowl contains the tiny skeletons of birds. Throughout his mental and physical journeying, he has been composing letters -- to friends and enemies, professional rivals and colleagues, to General Eisenhower and Friedrich Nietzsche, to his second wife Madeleine, to a woman named Wanda with whom he had a brief affair during a foundation- sponsored lecture tour in the Iron Curtain countries.

The letters are cranky, brilliant, poignant and, of course, they are never sent. As the electricity at the farm is switched on by a local handy man, Herzog at last quiets down: “At this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word.” He is written out for the time being, like his creator: he is bare but not barren. The book, composed throughout in the tonality of Herzog’s voice and consciousness goes silent. But we know that the voice, which, for all its wildness and strangeness and foolishness is the voice of a civilization, our civilization, has been recorded for posterity.

Madeleine is a great character. She is beautiful, brilliant, cracked, and is working for a doctorate in Russian church history with the aim of rising like a phoenix from the ashes of her former husband’s scholarly reputation. A slut in the home, she is a bitch in bed, a dazzler in conversations with free-floating intellectuals about Soloviev the younger, and she is very touching because she is so fully and roundly drawn. Herzog is all for justice, while Mady’s passion is for justification: the marriage has been a tragedy and a farce. Her lover, Valentine Gersbach, a red-headed knave who poles himself along on a wooden leg like a Venetian gondolier, is a great character. He is full of schmaltz and spouts the latest stencils of psychology while he takes dishonest advantage of a friend. The author draws this modern Tartuffe with love, hatred and a racy vividness.

The narrative movement of “Herzog” has a beautiful fluidity. Plot, in the skeletal. Aristotelian sense dissolves back into an all-encompassing awareness -- the container becomes the contained -- and the book is structured with great subtlety, by the “whim” of mood and memory.

Two devices in particular are worth mentioning. The narrative line flows to and fro between first and third person report with complete verisimilitude and no typographical fuss whatsoever. Here I think Bellow owes something to J.P. Donleavy, whose peculiar fictional methods and merits still remain a largely unacknowledged influence in American writing, and behind Donleavy stand the Leopold Bloom chapters of “Ulysses.” In “Herzog,” this blending permits the author to combine a kind of passionate autobiography with a more objective “history.” Moses E. Herzog is at once an object lesson called “He” and a suffering self called “I.”

The other device is the letters, which crop up constantly by wholes and by fragments, and which are set in italic type. Anyone who has ever written a novel knows that when the form of a book establishes itself, it immediately becomes impossible to say many things that one wants to say without fouling the esthetic nest. Form channelizes, preventing the dissipation of imaginative energy; but, by the same token, it also constrains or may even eliminate a writer’s opportunity to make direct statements.

Now Bellow is a very intelligent man who has read all the books in all the libraries and has thought hard and bravely about the central problems of our society and culture. “Herzog,” which, incidentally, is also the pay-off for letting creative writers into our university communities over the last couple of decades, uses the letters as a part of the total form to address the intelligence of the reader direct, and it does this without pedantic asides and without inflicting on us the longueurs of Shandean footnotes. After “Herzog” no writer need pretend in his fiction that his education stopped in the eighth grade. Our redskins can wash off the greasepaint and let the pale cast of thought glimmer through without committing esthetic solecisms.

Some of Herzog’s letters are playful, some are pixilated; but all of them are, in the last analysis, responsible. Taken together they compose a credo for the times. Through his nervous and distracted hero Bellow appears to me to be saying this:

The age is full of fearful abysses. If people are to go ahead they must move into and through these abysses. The old definitions of balance and sanity do not help on this journey, but the ideals these terms gesture at remain, even though they require fresh definition. Love still counts, justice still counts, and particularly intellectual and emotional courage still count. The book reserves its sharpest criticism for those people -- and no doubt they are to be found among public men as well as among theologians and artists -- who try to cope homeopathically with the threat of violence under which we all live by cultivating an analogous, imaginative violence or intemperate despair. As Moses E. Herzog says in his manner of “strange diatribe”:

“We love apocalypses too much...and florid extremism with its thrilling language. Excuse me, no, I’ve had all the monstrosity I want.”

And of course laughter still counts. Dr. Strangelove’s cry, “Look, mein fuehrer, I can walk!” has reminded people that a sick joke in a sicker world may act as a healing medicine. So it is with Herzog. He is sick and he makes for health.

What I have given is a crude paraphrase. Bellow’s argument is new and perennial. The book is new and classic, and its publication now, after the past terrible year, suggests that things are looking up for America and its civilization.

Mr. Moynahan, whose reviews appear in publications on both sides of the Atlantic, is the author of “The Deed of Life: The Novels and Tales of D.H. Lawrence.”

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If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog. He had fallen under the spell of writing letters that he never sent. He was alone in the big old house in the Berkshires, overcome by the need to explain, to clarify, to have it out in the kind of effortlessly superior, macho prose that would become the hallmark of his acolytes.

What was his character? Narcissistic, masochistic, too knowingly un-self-aware. Well, that was Bellow. But what of him? He had been a bad husband, a bad father, a bad academic; he had failed at everything. His wife, his ex-wife Madeleine, had made him spend his $20,000 inheritance on moving from the Berkshires to Chicago and then she had left him for his friend, his ex-friend Valentine. Why had he been the last to suspect their affair?

Dear Einstein, Why does everyone hate me? Dear Herzog, Because you are relatively annoying.

He had gone alone to Europe to save the marriage and had only the embarrassment of an infection from Wanda for his trouble. On his return, Madeleine had thrown him out for the one-legged charmer and he had not even put up a fight to get custody of their daughter, Junie.

There was Ramona, of course, but she was merely his sexual reflex. True, she was extremely attractive, in her late 30s and gagging for his balding, unfit late-40s body in the way that balding, unfit late-40s male authors often like to imagine. But he was not ready to get married again.

It was hard to concentrate. You know the feeling.

Dear Martin Luther King, Dear Mr Shapiro, I hope you don't mind if I riff on civil rights, Romanticism and the nature of Soviet communism. Dear Mr Bellow, Your erudition is exemplary, but where exactly is this getting us?

The lawyer had told him he was a mensch, not an egghead. You could have fooled me. He was a good Jew; he was born to suffer. But not to inflict it on the rest of us. He didn't want to die. He would sell up and come to New York, though first he would stay with an old girlfriend, Libbie. The journey would allow him a lot of time to think about death.

Dear Libbie, I have to go. I can't stand the kindness.

Herzog flew back to New York to find a letter from a former student, Geraldine Portnoy. I was walking past the house and noticed Valentine had left Junie locked in the car. Hmm, he thought. As a plot device this was distinctly average, but it was better than anything else on offer and it did allow him an uneasy segue into a lengthy rumination on his first wife Daisy and their son Marco and Madey's brief dalliance with Catholicism. Trust him to get involved with someone more fucked-up than a Jew!

Dear Rousseau, I am crushed by science, polemics, modernism and the id. Dear Herzog, Don't forget the diaspora, the Holocaust, the cold war, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Marx, Kant and Spinoza.

Ramona invited him to flirt with the Orphic. Why was he here? A question not only he was asking by now. "I belong to you," Ramona said while making love. He was good in bed. Very good. They tried to make you think you were old, but you are youthful, Bellow reassured himself.

He dropped her at work and went to see his lawyer. A sense of melancholy swept over him at the courthouse as he saw a mother accused of killing her child. He had to go to Chicago to see Junie. He had to make sense of his own mother's death and the World as Will.

Dear Dr Nobel, I've tried to cover all the bases for The Great Novel. Je n'ai jamais ecrit en français ... Rachatz. And Yiddish. Can I have the prize now? Dear Mr Bellow, Just hang in there.

His body was rotting from the inside. Why were his brothers successful and he was down to $600? Why had he let the bitch torture him? He stopped by Tante Taube's house to collect the old pistol with which his father had threatened to shoot him when he'd asked to borrow money. Reconciliation then death; from madhouse to mausoleum.

Herzog pulled up outside the bitch's house. He saw how tenderly Valentine bathed Junie. Firing the pistol was nothing but an idea of Bergsonian duration. He would take Junie to the aquarium instead. The brakes were stiff and the Falcon careered across the road. Herzog checked to see Junie was OK before remembering how he had crashed in the very road in which he had been sexually abused by a tramp when he was 10.

Dear Mr Bellow, There was no need to throw in the kitchen sink.

"What's with the pistol?" the two negro cops asked.

"It was going to be a paperweight," he replied.

"He was going to kill me," said the Bitch, dripping bitchness.

His brother posted the bail bond and dropped him at the house in the Berkshires. This had to end, Herzog thought. Enough solipsistic kvetching. Too right. He did not need happiness or meaning; history is cruelty; existence is meaning. His house may not be much, but it was enough.

There was just one letter left to write.

Dear Mr Disney, I've always admired your saccharine-sweet, contrived endings.

"Hello," said Ramona. "How about we get married sometime?"

• John Crace's Digested Reads appear in G2 on Tuesdays.

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