Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Herzog, by Saul Bellow
1961, 416 pp.

I tend to take notes when reading non-fiction or large trade paperbacks which can comfortably accommodate a sheet of notepaper as a bookmark, but with smaller mass-market paperbacks I have an annoying half-system: I dogear the bottom corner of a page which has something I want to remember or quote, then at the end of the book I go back through to all the dogeared pages with a notepad. I tend not to mark the specific passage, out of a visceral and terminal distaste for marking up books, so I spend a lot of time re-reading these pages wondering what the hell I wanted to remember. It doesn't help that I mark pages that have both good passages and bad, so when returning to any given page, I have no idea what I'm looking for. By the time I finished Herzog, the book was thick with folded corners, sometimes three or four pages in a row. I was tempted to tally the good passages against the bad. I think it would have come out about equal.

There is little story to speak of in Herzog. The title character is a middle-aged ex-professor undergoing his second acrimonious divorce. The action of the book takes place over a few days or perhaps a week, but is laced with flashbacks and memories, and most notably, Herzog's little letters he writes to people he knows or has read about. Bellow sums it up on the third page: "Late in the spring Herzog had been overcome by the need to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends."

These letters are given in italics, sometimes interspersed with un-italicized passages which seem to be Herzog's own thoughts, although they continue rather than interrupt the flow of the italicized letters. Some of them are fairly amusing: "Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression 'the fall of the quotidian.' When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?"

The narration veers between third-person omniscient and free-indirect style, with no clear distinction between what Herzog is thinking, remembering, or experiencing and the narration. Perhaps this is meant to reflect the fragmented and disoriented state of Herzog's mind. If so, I notice little improvement over the course of the book: indeed, as far as I could tell, Herzog's mood improves, but he does not grow or change as a character, so we are left with 416 pages of whining which goes nowhere and does nothing. It's like reading the script for a four-hour Woody Allen movie without any jokes.

Herzog is a damnably uneven book. There are several sections of about fifty to seventy pages which are magical, inevitably followed by thirty or so pages of unmitigated dreck. A few patterns emerge. Yes, as everyone on earth knows, Bellow is terrific with the precise, unique, lapidary descriptive phrase. Thus we have the "thick brick document" of Queens, and the interesting reversal of the usual order of listed adjectives: "soft big nose" instead of "big soft nose," and so forth. Bellow is excellent at applying bizarre but somehow perfectly applicable adjectives to otherwise banal things, and these phrases stick happily in the memory long after the book has ended. But as near as I can tell, that is his only strength. His dialogue is stilted and false. Try reading this out loud and see if it sounds like actual human beings having a conversation:

"'Phoebe,' he said. 'Admitting you're weak--but how weak are you? Excuse me...I find this pretty funny. You have to deny everything, and keep up a perfect appearance. Can't you admit even a tiny bit?'
'What good would that do you?' she asked sharply. 'And also, what are you prepared to do for me?'
'I? I'd help...' he began."

And sometimes his peculiar phrases go disastrously wrong and it becomes clear that instead of tossing off bits of gleaming, beautiful prose as though it were child's play, it is in fact quite a lot of work which sometimes doesn't succeed. When Herzog notes his lawyer's "long fingers, like a hunchback," the reader is left wondering what the hell kind of hunchbacks Saul Bellow knows. Dexterous ones, apparently.

Careful readers of this platform will recall that some months ago I reviewed Bellow's final novel Ravelstein. I did not like it, though in retrospect the review is harsher than I'd intended. Perhaps I was unfair to an 85-year old man who had just undergone food poisoning of such severity that his entire nervous system had to be effectively rebuilt from scratch. I was at pains to review the book rather than the reputation, though I admit I expected nothing short of excellence from a Nobel laureate and favorite author of everyone from Martin Amis to Roger Ebert. In my review I noted what I took to be a few glaring errors, and I considered them fatal to a book which revolves around the vast intellect of its subject. A music writer for the New York Times caught a couple other mistakes that I missed, but he had a different interpretation. The most egregious error is a reference to a recording of Palestrina "on the original instruments." But Palestrina wrote only vocal music, making "original instruments" a trifle difficult to record on. But the writer suggests a different interpretation: perhaps the error was not Bellow's, but his narrator's, who was meant to be constantly in awe of the far more intellectual title character. "If so," the writer concludes, "the 'error' represents the highest level of literary virtuosity." Of course, it seems like the narrator heard the recording and must have been able to tell five human voices from 16th century musical instruments, and if he was astute enough to learn that it was Palestrina specifically, not just some old recording, surely he would know that Palestrina wrote only a capella music. But how else to explain such a mistake? The other howler is the narrator's placing of General McAuliffe at Remagen, which is well inside Germany and was captured by the 9th Armored Division in 1945 instead of at Bastogne, which is Belgium, and where McAuliffe was in command of the 101st Airborne and famously said "Nuts" to the German demand for surrender in December of 1944. This is the most well-known story about the Battle of the Bulge, and it is impossible that a copy-editor could have missed it. Could it be that Bellow, with his fame and reputation, gets leniency from his copy-editors, or could it be that the mistakes are meant to illustrate the failings of his narrator character and were therefore left in? I don't know, but the other bits of repetition and occasionally awful prose did not inspire me to err on the side of Bellow. It is true that there were occasionally excellent descriptive phrases, but not enough to outweigh the mistakes, just to make it an uneven rather than a bad book.

And I must conclude that Herzog is similar. Take this example. On page 85, in a mental letter concerning a distasteful politician, Herzog writes, "The general won because he expressed low-grade universal potato love." This is a good phrase, and particularly resonant in ways Bellow could not have anticipated: "potato love" has notes of both Dan Quayle (who will forever be associated with tubers) and Bill Clinton's "feel-your-pain-literally-touchy-feely-empathy" and provokes the reflection that yes, all of our politicians exactly peddle low-grade universal potato love. Perfect.

But then the phrase reappears thirty pages later in the midst of a dreadful, interminable stretch of flashback about Herzog's brief stay with his utterly unbelievable, ostentatiously Jewish, frequently incoherent lawyer. Here it is in some context:

"Forming his lips so that the almost invisible mustache thinly appeared, Sandor began to sing, 'Mi pnei chatoenu golino m'artzenu.' And for our sins we were exiled from our land. 'You and me, a pair of old-time Jews.' He held Moses with his dew-green eyes. 'You're my boy. My innocent kind-hearted boy.'
He gave Moses a kiss. Moses felt the potato love. Amorphous, swelling, hungry, indiscriminate, cowardly potato love.
'Oh, you sucker,' Moses cried to himself in the train. 'Sucker!'"

Herzog is staying with this guy at a real low point, just after his wife has left him for his best friend, and we're meant to be feeling (as far as I can tell) some sense of his wrenching, disoriented, betrayed loss. It's given to us in flashback, though, so we have the added counterpoint of his disgust and bitterness at how this lawyer treated him at the time. But I defy anyone to read "He gave Moses a kiss. Moses felt the potato love" and not burst out laughing. In its first incarnation, it was the perfect phrase. When it is dragged out again, it hits exactly the wrong note. The phrase appears four other times that I counted, though never quite so badly. It works as a shorthand, though it increasingly becomes a condescension as the butt of its fatuous posturing shifts from those who peddle it to those who receive it. Clearly in the first mention, and even in the second, it is used to express Herzog's disgust at fraudulent empathy; in the last four uses, he looks down on unnamed passersby for accepting it. The emphasis shifts from one of commiseration to one of superiority.

Bellow is also given to quasi-philosophical rambling, which tends to go on for a page or two, coming from nowhere and leading to nowhere. This happens a lot in Herzog, since the title character is a professor who wrote a book about Romanticism and Christianity, and who (as either a theme or a running joke) hopelessly intellectualizes all of his life's problems. These passages almost never work. Here's an example, using our old friend, Mr. Potato Love:

"Trust her, she'd find comfort while he was away, not be despondent in 'desertion' as he would have been--his childish disorder, that infantile terror of death that had bent and buckled his life into these curious shapes. Having discovered that everyone must be indulgent with bungling child-men, pure hearts in the burlap of innocence, and willingly accepting the necessary quota of consequent lies, he had set himself up with his emotional goodies--truth, friendship, devotion to children (the regular American worship of kids), and potato love."

That just might mean something profound, but it sounds goddamn ridiculous. When he manages to reign himself in, it sounds much better, like this lovely sentence from earlier in the book: "Truth is true only as it brings down more disgrace and dreariness upon human beings, so that if it shows anything except evil it is illusion, and not truth." Better, and it's given in free-indirect style, so we know where to place it amid the other sentences on the page. It is not a pearl of sui generis philosophizing which has dripped at random from Bellow's mind into the midst of Herzog's life and my reading experience.

That's how the book is. There'll be seventy very good pages covering two or three flashbacks and about six philosophical arias which are good, then thirty pages that are nigh unreadable. One of these latter was an extremely distasteful courtroom scene which seemed to exist in order to establish that gay people are absurd sex maniacs and black people have big lips, drive badly, talk funny, and commit crimes. Considering that I noted early on that Moses Herzog seems to be a dear reflection of his creator, and that Herzog's world is populated entirely by upper-middle-class Jewish men, his few encounters with different segments of the population are universally repellent. Perhaps this was more acceptable in 1961. Perhaps it is just a trait of the character, not the author, although Martin Amis teaches us that the difference between the two can be measured by how much contempt the latter has for the former. But Bellow seems to have infinite sympathy for Moses Herzog, and he did not succeed in making me share it. Herzog seems to have a lovely, caring girlfriend (we hear quite a lot about how nice her breasts are, and her shrimp remoulade) and seemed to ignore his children while still married to their respective mothers, so I didn't particularly buy his obsession with his manipulative ex-wife or obtaining custody of their daughter. It seemed to me, much like the entire book, to just be an indulgent exercise in male narcissism. One of Bellow's overarching themes is that all of Moses Herzog's learning and erudition is useless to him when he needs it most, when his life is coming apart. It's a curiously anti-intellectual argument, but it only works insofar as Herzog's learning is useless because he can only relate to the world through the carapace of his narcissicm. Had he actually learned from all the accumulated knowledge and experience of the world, I am quite certain he'd find something useful.

Do the frequent beautiful phrases make up for this? I say that they do not: Bellow's prose is a blunderbuss of hit-and-miss verbiage instead of the precise crafting of les mots justes. A badly organized book with little plot, little character development, terrible dialogue, offensive racial caricatures, a narcissist for a protagonist, and an anti-intellectual argument is not redeemed by an occasional and statistically unreliable ability to produce good descriptive phrases. His gift with words can take him far, but not this far.

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