by JDP

For its many stylistic tools, subtly complex narration, and beautiful hilarity, this book should be required reading for any denizen of American literature.

Saul Bellow / American / 1964 / 371 pages

The Midwest is besieged by snow and (relatedly, in part) I’ve been freed these last six days from any sort of meaningful academic obligations. Via some holiday gifting and my own perusals, I’ve been able to cobble together a few books by Saul Bellow and, in solidarity with our even colder Chicago neighbors to the north, I decided to dedicate my unexpectedly long weekend to the author. It’s an investment that has paid substantial dividends. Herein, I review Herzog, but I also read his shorter novel, Seize the Day and spent several hours leafing through a new collection of Bellow’s personal letters to friends, colleagues, and editors.

It is strange, I think, that my generation of students is so thoroughly acquainted with the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck, but is nearly criminally unaware of other American greats such as Philip Roth (whose fantastic American Pastoral is equally as shattering commentary as anything Steinbeck penned), John O’Hara (whose first novel Appointment in Samarra is at least as mediocre as Tender is the Night), and, yes, Saul Bellow (whose impressive ability to wrack up domestic and international writing awards surely places him as the most decorated of all American authors). Having read two of Bellow’s novels, however, I can understand the negligence: he’s not an easy knot to untie.

I don’t refer to the novel’s physical girth here (Herzog is no War and Peace in this regard) nor its prose stylings (certainly The Crying of Lot 49 proves to be substantially more confusing). But Bellow has written a book that is largely plotless, intensely psychoanalytical, and disarmingly simple in its presentation. There’s a lot going on under the hood and nowhere is this more apparent than in his renderings of complex, multidimensional characters. Moses Herzog, for example, is in a tedious position: two ex-wives, children scattered throughout multiple cities, jobless, and, quite possibly, heading toward a psychological meltdown. But digging deeper than these facades reveals that Herzog is a victim of broader dynamics. He suffers from money problems borne out of an intensely capitalistic environment, hopelessly attempting to spin his academic career into the type of high level profitability netted by his more business-oriented brothers. Herzog is taken advantage of by family members, duplicitous personal acquaintances, and the weight of society’s expectations. His Jewish Canadian background occasionally puts him at odds with American and Catholic sensibilities. And the list grows.

All of this bears down considerably on Herzog’s marked genius and we get the sense that we’re trying to buy spoiled produce. Just a few years before the novel opens, Herzog published a brilliant academic treatise on Romanticism that threatened to revolutionize the field of humanist studies. He had an appointment as a university professor and spent much of his time traveling throughout Europe. All of this has recently evaporated at the novel’s outset, however, and what we get instead are scattered remnants of his thoughts, both in the form of first-person internal monologues as well as in fragmentary letters that he compulsively jots off in a notebook, but never actually posts. These epistles are one of the many techniques Bellow employs to great effect.

I love this book and, I believe, it houses one of the finest 100-page intervals in all of American literature: Herzog is sitting by himself on a train, fleeing into the countryside for an escapist holiday. He mentally discusses with himself his current situation (periods of narration marked by the use of “I”) while the more objective narrator (never identified in the book) also comments on Herzog’s thoughts and surroundings. Some of these thoughts range back to previous periods of his life, where both the “I” and the objective narrator fight it out over interpretation of these past events. All the while, Herzog is writing letters (none of which he actually finishes) in a frenzied state to his relatives (dead and alive), famous scholars (dead and alive), and public health officials, his legal team, his loan officer, the president, the mayor, and on and on. Think about, for a minute, the complexity of this type of writing. Bellow italicizes the text of the letters, but because they are so fragmentary, it is often unclear where one letter begins and another ends. He makes little effort to distinguish between Herzog’s “I” and the narrator’s objectively rendered observations. The train passes through a tunnel while  the narration flashes back to an argument Herzog had with his wife. Both settings are described in detail simultaneously. The fact that Bellow pulls all of this off mechanically makes him incredibly talented; the fact that he also infuses almost every page with laugh-out-loud jokes makes him a genius.

While the letters dominate the first half of the book, I disagree, I think, with the novel’s traditional “epistolary” label. As Herzog passes through the events portrayed in the novel, his epistolary outlet dwindles and there’s some symbolic importance in this. As he lands on firmer psychological soil, he has less need for the frenzied outpouring of ideas that dominated the front half of the novel. Indeed, the end of the novel is so satisfactorily and plausibly redemptive that you begin to appreciate Bellow for reasons completely divorced from the letters he puts in Herzog’s head. The Chicago novelist is also a master of dialogue and the prolonged, huge-paragraphed sections of intense introspection are frequently interrupted with hilarious (but also heartfelt, high stakes) conversations between characters. Additionally, much like Mann’s The Magic Mountain, you get the sense that Bellow is using the novel as a vessel in which to convey his own erudition. Herzog is a treasure trove of cultural and literary references and the scope of Bellow’s knowledge is truly impressive. Humor, regardless of the forum, runs throughout.

Given the somewhat epistolary nature of Herzog, however, you can understand what a treat it was to have access to many of Bellow’s personal letters after completing the novel. From a young age, Bellow wrote letters at a prodigious rate and as he grew older, the recipients of his letters included Ellison, Faulkner, Roth, Cheever, Vargas Llosa, and Alan Bloom. The wit and humor evinced in Herzog’s letters are present here as well and, despite his personal reputation, I think I would have very much liked to have a long conversation with Bellow before he died. He was clearly a mentor of young writers (Roth, in particular), the arts in general (where he assembles a writer’s consortium of famous authors), and foreign intellectuals facing persecution from their home governments (he writes eloquently to the New York Times, for example, in defense of Solzhenitsyn, who was getting roughed up by the Soviets). He also underwent a unique political evolution as a writer and citizen, some of which is captured in his letters to other politically minded compatriots.

What other author is Bellow most like? What is a good point of reference in the American literary landscape? This is a difficult question to answer because I think Bellow is a great deal unlike any other American author I’ve read. The range of his cultural references, the complexity of what readers are likely to find on any given page, the ease with which he builds tension before letting it sink beautifully to the ground — these things are uncommon. Despite my recent six-day bout of Bellow, I think I’m not yet finished exploring the man’s work.

Rating: 9 / 10

[ Wikipedia ]     [ Goodreads ]     [ Tumblr ]     [ Amazon ]     [ NY Times