Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

THE BIG ONE

Kevin Stevens

Herzog was first published by the Viking Press in 1964.

“If I’m out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.”

So begins Saul Bellow’s Herzog, a half-century in print and still funny, intense, personal, and contradictory from its opening sentence. Still contemporary. Imbued with two thousand years of learning yet crackling with wiseass Chicago wit. Cerebral and earthy, dense and free-flowing, brilliant, imaginative, hilarious. Thoroughly Jewish yet thoroughly American. And, though many might argue otherwise, the great postwar American novel.

Great works of literature are both representative and unique. Representative because, at least in the Western mimetic tradition, they depict, via genre, rhetoric, and habit of thought, the cultural and political realities of their time. And while full of the detail of the historical moment, the best works also transcend the moment, giving narrative or lyric the scope and depth of the timeless, so that meaning and relevance persist as history fades.

Uniqueness is mediated by language – not simply as style, though that is important, but as the medium through which idea, image, and narrative are captured and conveyed. Language, as Richard Ford puts it, is what happens in literature. It is both the field of action for literary genius and the play of the author’s vision. Without the brilliance of their language, Moby-Dick’s symbolism would be heavy-handed, Henry V’s speechmaking jingoistic, The Waste Land’s imagery hollow.

Herzog captures the reality of mid-twentieth-century America like no other novel. The churning, prosperous, philistine landscape of the late fifties, rushing headlong and heedless into its most profound period of social change, is the backdrop for a book where the concentric circles of self, family, tribe, and city pulse outward into the atmosphere of a rich and powerful nation at odds in so many ways with its own idealism. For a book brimming with ideas, Herzog has tremendous physical texture. More than any other Bellow novel, it benefits from the author’s great talent for remembering and recreating: the book is a faithful portrait of the people and streets of Chicago and New York, of immigrant Jewish life, of sex, infidelity and divorce, of politics and commerce and the tension between the sensitive man’s need to think and wonder and the great American imperatives: explain, act, master.

And this great swirl of personal and national life is presented in language that is unique on many levels: the famous Bellovian diction that melds the highbrow and the racy; sentences that hang before the reader’s eye like pictures at an exhibition; passages of thought and action that surge with the range and energy required for such an immense subject without sacrificing subtlety or irony:

For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you yourself enjoyed old-fashioned Values? You – you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot. There, Herzog, thought Herzog, since you ask for the instance, is the way it runs.

“The way it runs” – a wonderful, slangy summation of the challenges of post-industrial life and thought. Of the uncertainty of a sentient man in crisis. But also an apt phrase for the novel’s language, which, as in this paragraph, moves with such verve and staccato power that it gives the impression of being the spontaneous outpouring of a mind both engaged and frenetic. Yet it is a gathering of finely wrought balances: its rhetoric, its ideas, its tone. It is Bellow’s stylistic power filtered through the consciousness of Moses Herzog, a hero who, though Bellow called him “a chump, a failed intellectual and at bottom a sentimentalist”, possesses a forceful, tenacious mind that, as Philip Roth describes it, teems “with the best that has been thought and said, a mind elegantly turning out the most informed generalizations about a lot of the world and its history”.

Herzog’s central conceit is simple but powerful: a middle-aged academic, in the midst of emotional turmoil, takes to writing letters: “He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun … Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.” These letters, and the thoughts that surround them, constitute the linguistic flesh of the novel. Shifting expertly between first- and third-person limited points of view, Bellow, the supreme realist, creates a new form, what Jeffrey Eugenides calls “the self-reflexive epistolary novel”, which allows him to channel currents of thought from the Western tradition into the frantic flow of American big-city life without sounding pretentious or alienating those readers (most of us, let’s face it) who don’t share Bellow’s intellectual sweep.

Here is Moses in full flight, as he readies himself for an evening of deep pleasure with his friend Ramona Donsell:

In the bathroom, Herzog turned his tie to the back of his neck to keep it from drooping into the basin. This was a luxurious little room, with indirect lighting (kindness to haggard faces). The long tap glittered, the water rushed forth. He sniffed the soap. Muguet. The water felt very cold on his nails. He recalled the old Jewish ritual of nail water, and the word in the Haggadah, Rachatz! “Thou shalt wash.” It was obligatory also to wash when you returned from the cemetery (Beth Olam – the Dwelling of the Multitude). But why think of cemeteries, of funerals, now? Unless ... the old joke about the Shakespearean actor in the brothel. When he took off his pants, the whore in bed gave a whistle. He said, “Madam, we come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” How schoolboy jokes clung to you!
He opened his mouth under the tap and let the current run also into his shut eyes, gasping with satisfaction. Broad disks of iridescent brightness swam under his lids. He wrote to Spinoza, Thoughts not causally connected were said by you to cause pain. I find that is indeed the case. Random association, when the intellect is passive, is a form of bondage. Or rather, every form of bondage is possible then. It may interest you to know that in the twentieth century random association is believed to yield up the deepest secrets of the psyche. He realized he was writing to the dead. To bring the shades of great philosophers up to date.

The grand ideas (and associated ironies) that flow through Herzog’s head are suspended in a skein of ordinary life and memory – sex, sophomoric humour, self-deprecation, quotidian ritual, trivial observation. And the past, of course, the long, deep past. What appears a jumble is actually a carefully wrought juxtaposition of details that helps Bellow examine a society which, though wealthy and democratic, denies the individual his full sense of value, while at the same time poking fun at those ideas as the ramblings of a mind at the edge of dissolution. It is a delicate literary balancing act, and Bellow manages it without a misstep.

Herzog begins where it will end, with Moses lying in a hammock, chin on his breast, in the overgrown garden of his ramshackle, abandoned house in the Berkshires. He is resting after a manic week that has brought him from  New York to Martha’s Vineyard to Chicago to this pastoral retreat in western Massachusetts, writing (or thinking) along the way his funny, serious, offbeat letters as he casts his mind over the recent and distant past. This odyssey forms the novel’s plot, such as it is. Cuckolded by a close friend, smothered by his ex-wife and her lawyers, unable to focus on his increasingly less-promising career as a scholar, pursued by a sexy woman he can’t resist but also can’t bring himself to trust, Moses free-falls through a series of encounters with friends and family, randomly on the run, afraid for his sanity. He bottoms out in Chicago, where he is arrested after a traffic accident, in the company of his daughter, for possession of a handgun, and has one last humiliating scene in the police station with Madeleine, his ex-wife and the mother of his little girl.

But the real drama of the book happens in his head, where the aimless physical action is amplified and filtered by memory, analysis, and humour. Memory becomes flashback as Herzog considers how he has arrived at his present state. Bellow was always wonderful at blending timeframes, sifting detail and juxtaposing the distant and the current for purposes of irony and epiphany. And in Herzog he mines his own background without reserve. It is well documented how the most crucial periods in Bellow’s life to that point – his immigrant childhood in Montreal and Chicago, the death of his mother, his double-edged relationship with his worldly father and brothers, the infidelity of his second wife, Sondra Tschacbasov, and their subsequent divorce – are the driving emotional forces behind his protagonist’s crisis. Bellow used his own traumas to energise his writing and generate raw material. And he made no effort to disguise the models for his characters. Sondra became Madeleine, the splendid bitch-goddess who pushes Bellow to some of his finest physical description:

Herzog said, “I do love you, Madeleine.”
Step by step, Madeleine rose in distinction, in brilliance, in insight. Her color grew very rich, and her brows, and that Byzantine nose of hers, rose, moved; her blue eyes gained by the flush that kept deepening, rising from her chest and her throat. She was in an ecstasy of consciousness. It occurred to Herzog that she had beaten him so badly, her pride was so fully satisfied, that there was an overflow of strength into her intelligence. He realized that he was witnessing one of the very greatest moments of her life.
“You should hold on to that feeling,” she said. “I believe it’s true. You do love me. But I think you also understand what a humiliation it is to me to admit defeat in this marriage. I’ve put all I had into it. I’m crushed by this.”
Crushed? She had never looked more glorious. There was an element of theater in those looks, but much more of passion.

Madeleine had left Moses for Valentine Gersbach, just as Sondra had had an affair with Jack Ludwig, friend and admirer of Bellow since their days as adjunct faculty at Bard five years previously. For Bellow, the affair was public and painful. “Herzog is a sustained exercise in self-vindication,” his biographer, James Atlas, suggests, but transmutation from life to art was gradual. Early drafts of the novel focused on his cuckolding, and the descriptions of sex were unrestrained; Herzog imagines Gersbach “leaping on my wife and smearing himself with the saliva of her open mouth and in her juices”. At one point he considered entitling the book The Fornicator. But as the book took shape, revenge gave way to a larger vision, and the story opened up as Bellow turned the satire on himself: “I was making fun of my own type,” Bellow later said. “I was really taking Herzog at a moment of crisis and putting on and removing the masks he had used throughout his life: the scholar, the Jew, the husband, the father, the lover, the romantic avenger, the intellectual, all the rest of that.”

Probing his central character, Bellow revealed the emotional truth of his own life. Like Herzog, he found psychic sustenance in the contemplation of his past, moving beyond satire to the truths of human fellowship and familial love that, at the end of the book, throw Moses a spiritual lifeline. And the memories of family life and lore that thread through the book are so sensitively observed and beautifully written that they create a kind of moral ballast for Herzog’s stormy shuttle from one present moment to the next:

Mother Herzog had a way of meeting the present with a partly averted face. She encountered it on the left but sometimes seemed to avoid it on the right. On this withdrawn side she often had a dreaming look, melancholy, and seemed to be seeing the Old World – her father the famous misnagid, her tragic mother, her brothers living and dead, her sister, and her linens and servants in Petersburg, the dacha in Finland (all founded on Egyptian onions). Now she was cook, washerwoman, seamstress on Napoleon Street in the slum. Her hair turned gray, and she lost her teeth, her very fingernails wrinkled. Her hands smelled of the sink.
Herzog was thinking, however, how she found the strength to spoil her children. She certainly spoiled me. Once, at nightfall, she was pulling me on the sled, over crusty ice, the tiny glitter of snow, perhaps four o’clock of a short day in January. Near the grocery we met an old baba in a shawl who said, “Why are you pulling him, daughter!” Mama, dark under the eyes. Her slender cold face. She was breathing hard. She wore the torn seal coat and a red pointed wool cap and thin button boots. Clusters of dry fish hung in the shop, a rancid sugar smell, cheese, soap – a terrible dust of nutrition came from the open door. The bell on a coil of wire was bobbing, ringing. “Daughter, don't sacrifice your strength to children,” said the shawled crone in the freezing dusk of the street. I wouldn’t get off the sled. I pretended not to understand. One of life’s hardest jobs, to make a quick understanding slow. I think I succeeded, thought Herzog.

When writing about family, Bellow was prone to sentimentality (“potato love”, as Moses calls it). But in Herzog, awareness of this tendency – by both author and hero – allows nostalgia to bubble up without muddying the clarity of the narrative. As in the passage above, the past is recalled not just as a contrast with present conditions, but as a way of explaining and understanding patterns of behaviour. Can it be overindulgent? Perhaps. Self-regard is part of the package with Bellow. So is the overwhelmingly male sexual perspective. If family prompts the swell of potato love, then women are there to spark Herzog’s sexual reflex, “the old quack-quack at the fragrance of perfumed, feminine skin”:

It was odd that Ramona should sometimes carry on like one of those broads in a girlie magazine. For which she advanced the most high-minded reasons. An educated woman, she quoted him Catullus and the great love poets of all times. And the classics of psychology. And finally the Mystical Body. And so she was in the next room, joyously preparing, stripping, perfuming. She wanted to please. He had only to be pleased and to let her know it, and then she would grow simpler. How glad she would be to change! How it would relieve her if he said, “Ramona, what's all this for?” But then, would I have to marry her?

Bellow has been deservedly brought to task over the years for his portrayal of women. As well-drawn as they are, they tend to fall into two types: the emasculating ex-wives and the sexually rapacious mistresses. He was a man of his time, of course, and the Mad Men attitudes have not aged well. After the turmoil of the sixties, he lost his status as a rebel and grew more and more embattled for increasingly conservative views, many of them less sympathetic to American minority cultures than enlightenment demanded. In this respect, Herzog was a turning point: it marked the end of Bellow as the voice of at least one anti-establishment strain. From then on, he was mainstream, one of the great figures of American letters, a man very much in the public eye. In 1969 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A year later he was appointed chairman of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. And of course he won the Nobel Prize in 1976.

Herzog was also a departure in other respects. Upon publication, it was an unreserved success. The American literary establishment loved it: Alfred Kazin reported that the novel was Bellow’s “best book, and incidentally the book of his generation and mine”. The New York Times pronounced it “a masterpiece”. Good reviews fell like confetti. VS Pritchett, Philip Rahv, Theodore Solotaroff and many others praised its style, its energy and its genius for the details of daily life.

More surprisingly, the book caught the public imagination. Within a month of publication it had gone to a third printing and surpassed The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to become number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Bellow became a star. His picture graced not just the Times, but the Herald Tribune, Vogue and the tabloids. Viking forwarded him thousands of fan letters. He was recognised on the streets of Manhattan. Demand for his earlier works grew and suddenly, after years of scraping a living from temporary teaching posts, Bellow was a wealthy man.

The success would be a mixed blessing. A serial marrier, Bellow would for the rest of his life (and a long life it was) be in and out of court dealing with issues of alimony, child support, and claims on his substantial income. In the public sphere, as the cultural landscape radicalised, he became a target – not just of feminists, but of the New Left, of black nationalism, of those who took issue with his wariness of multiculturalism or his support for Israel. In the late sixties, there were some nasty confrontations when Bellow spoke on college campuses, one of which would become a central scene in his 1969 book Mr. Sammler’s Planet, a dense, cranky novel that has none of the exuberance of Herzog and which Kazin, a great Bellow booster, called “didactic to a fault”.

But in the long light of history – and we have already had fifty years to create perspective – Bellow will be judged a great novelist, and Herzog his masterpiece. Representative in the best sense, unique in so many ways, it will always be read by those who love language. “I judged all modern prose by his,” James Wood said when Bellow died, “its music, its high lyricism, its firm but luxurious pleasure in language itself.” And who wouldn’t when confronted, page after page, by passages like this:

The wheels of the cars stormed underneath. Woods and pastures ran up and receded, the rails of sidings sheathed in rust, the dipping racing wires, and on the right the blue of the Sound, deeper, stronger than before. Then the enameled shells of the commuters’ cars, and the heaped bodies of junk cars, the shapes of old New England mills with narrow, austere windows; villages, convents; tugboats moving in the swelling fabric-like water; and then plantations of pine, the needles on the ground of a life-giving russet color. So, thought Herzog, acknowledging that his imagination of the universe was elementary, the novae bursting and the worlds coming into being, the invisible magnetic spokes by means of which bodies kept one another in orbit. Astronomers made it all sound as though the gases were shaken up inside a flask. Then after many billions of years, light-years, this childlike but far from innocent creature, a straw hat on his head, and a heart in his breast, part pure, part wicked, who would try to form his own shaky picture of this magnificent web.

The splendid writing, so enjoyable in itself, is brought to bear on Bellow’s greatest theme: that a writer’s duty is to proclaim, in spite of the prevailing nihilism and the overwhelming pressure of modern science, that a man’s heart is at the centre of the universe. Moses Herzog, for all his faults, is brought to this belief by the evidence of the world around him, of learning, of the past. And in this he is his creator’s spokesman. As Bellow put it in his Nobel address, invoking Conrad, “art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential”.

Herzog is the finest example we have of Bellow’s success at such an attempt.
16/12/2013

Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz.

Categories