Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Herzog by Saul Bellow

He realized he was writing to the dead.  To bring the shades of great philosophers up to date.  But then why shouldn't he write the dead?  He lived with them as much as with the living--perhaps more; besides his letters to the living were increasingly mental, and anyway, to the Unconscious, what was death?
Back in January of 2016 I visited an odd bookstore in Edgewood, PA (mere steps outside Pittsburgh) with poet Jason Irwin and purchased a few things, among them a hardcover edition of Saul Bellow's 1964 novel Herzog with a jacket in a lovely blue.  Over the last week or so I read the novel, I believe the sixth novel by Bellow I have read (I have also read several of his short stories.)  Herzog, in my interpretation, is the story of an immature, irresponsible and alienated intellectual who over the course of a week resolves his psychological issues, recognizing his place in society and growing to maturity.

The first 200 pages of the 341 page novel introduce us to Moses Herzog and set the stage.  Herzog is a forty-seven-year-old college professor, an expert on modern intellectual history whose career has not really achieved its early promise--his dissertation on The State of Nature in 17th and 18th Century English and French Political Philosophy and his first book, Romanticism and Christianity, were well received, but since then all his ambitious projects, among them another book on Romanticism, have been aborted, despite the research grants he has received and some progress, in the form of piles of manuscript pages sitting in a closet, made.  Herzog is also a handsome womanizer with a long string of affairs and two failed marriages behind him; his second marriage, to Madeleine, an intellectual of varied and intense interests (ranging from de Maistre and Slavonic languages to murder mysteries and science fiction novels) recently collapsed and she is now shacked up with Valentine Gersbach, a poet and radio and TV personality who was one of Herzog's closest friends.  Depressed and confused, Herzog considers spending time with one of his girlfriends, 30-something Ramona, another intellectual woman and one of his students, but instead decides to stay with a friend out on Martha's Vineyard.

Herzog is a compulsive composer of letters, letters he never sends and many of which never make their way to paper, only ever existing in his mind.  The first one hundred pages of Herzog's 341 pages are taken up by the trip from Manhattan to the Massachusetts sea shore, and almost all of them consist of these letters and the flashbacks and reflections occasioned by these letters.  Thus we learn all about Herzog's life and thought.

An hour after Herzog gets to Martha's Vineyard and greets his friends he sneaks back to New York without saying good-bye--the whole trip itself was meaningless (and perhaps a reflection of Herzog's inability to see anything through)--it was Herzog's letters and memories that mattered to him and should matter to the reader.  The first part of Herzog is thus experienced by the reader as a series of episodes or anecdotes, presented out of chronological order and intersperesed with philosophical asides, in which Herzog deals with a vast panoply of other characters, all of them, like Herzog, members of a rarefied intellectual and cultural elite, most of them, like Herzog, Jewish.  These individual episodes are all readable and entertaining, and are used to show Herzog's starting point, the position and problems he grows out of and leaves behind.

Many of the characters, including Herzog, come across as self-absorbed, self-pitying, unproductive and even parasitic, members of an elite which has contempt for the rest of society.  There are plenty of complaints from the characters about how America is a "mass society" or a "money society," and plenty of bragging about how they have risen from humble beginnings.  One of Herzog's phantom letters is to Adlai Stevenson, and in the letter Herzog laments that the mindless common people had put a career soldier into the White House instead of an intellectual.  A letter that appears almost 100 pages later, addressed to the man who defeated Stevenson, Dwight Eisenhower, self-pityingly claims that it is the intellectuals who are the victims of contempt.  Significantly, Herzog tells Ike that intellectuals suffer not only the contempt of others, but have contempt for themselves: "Intelligent people without influence feel a certain self-contempt...."   Intellectuals may think that they should be telling other people what to do, but Herzog's own life suggests the folly of putting intellectuals in charge: Herzog once thought he could have made a difference to the world with his research on Romanticism, which is silly enough, but then he wasn't even able to finish that work!

As the letter to Ike suggests, the first half or so of the novel has an aura of uselessness and hopelessness.  Herzog, though regularly praised by others as a genius, a good man, a mensch, can't seem to accomplish anything--his academic career peters out, his marriages fail--and these failures cannot be ascribed to outside forces--they are due to his own psychological limitations.  Selfishness is perhaps chief of these limitations; there is a scene in which Herzog takes Marco, his son with his first wife, Daisy, to the zoo, but even though his time with the boy is very limited, instead of focusing on the child, Herzog's mind is occupied with plotting how to dump his current lover, Sono Oguki, a Japanese woman who lived in Paris during WWII, so he can make Madeleine his full-time mistress.

Related to this sense of uselessness and hopelessness (and also reflected in the letter to Eisenhower) is a sense of alienation.  Herzog and many of the other characters are people unsure where they belong, people who don't feel a part of the place they are in and move restlessly from place (be it spiritual, psychological or geographical) to place.  When Herzog first starts his affair with Madeleine, she, in an act of rebellion against her bohemian Jewish leftist parents whom she says taught her the "ABCs" from Lenin's State and Revolution, has been a convert to Catholicism for three months.  She soon abandons Catholicism, and once married to Herzog she convinces him to spend all his money on a country home in the Berkshires, then soon insists they abandon Massachusetts for Chicago.  Sono is a Japanese who has spent her life in Paris and New York.  Herzog is friends with a biologist who feels more kinship with a monkey than with his fellow human beings.  Throughout the period covered in the novel and throughout his life, Herzog himself is always moving, never settling down.  Herzog (like Bellow) was born and spent much of his childhood in Canada, and Herzog's comrades during his brief stint in the Navy perceived him as a foreigner.  Ramona likewise distinguishes him from other Americans: "You're not a true, puritanical American.  You have a talent for sensuality.  Your mouth gives you away."

Starting at around the 200 page mark the actual plot, Herzog's journey from alienation and immaturity to integration with society and maturity, kicks into gear.  For one thing, it starts to look like Herzog may actually marry Ramona.  More importantly, and more immediately, he takes steps to play a larger role in the life of June, his daughter with Madeleine.  Suspecting Madeleine and Gersbach are poor parents, he calls up a lawyer, Simkin (an art collector and epicure as well as a high-powered attorney), and discusses fighting Madeline for custody of June.  Then he rushes to Chicago to spy on Madeleine and Gersbach; he has his father's old gun in his pocket, and Bellow provides the reader some suspense by hinting that Herzog just may go out of his mind and murder Gersbach.  Then he takes June out for the day, getting in a minor traffic accident in which he breaks a rib and comes to the attention of the police, who bring him in because he is carrying the unlicensed and loaded revolver.

Herzog's quest to get closer to June put him in contact with the law enforcement system and expose him to the apparatus of the state, the lower classes, and minority groups.  These may be the scenes of the novel of most immediate interest to 2017 readers, living as we do in an intellectual climate consumed with identity politics.  In Manhattan, Herzog takes a cab downtown to the court to meet Simkin, and his cabby is a voluble Puerto Rican who presents his view of sexual relationships.  Waiting at the courthouse for his meeting with Simkin, Herzog sits in a courtroom audience, watching black drunks and gay prostitutes brought before the judge in mugging and robbery cases.  In Chicago, Herzog himself is brought to the police station by black police officers and spends time in a cell with a drunk and "a Negro boy."  To varying degrees Herzog sympathizes or identifies with these people, perhaps signifying a recognition of a kinship with members of the larger American society and an expansion of Herzog's concern beyond his self and his own small elite community.

Herzog's adventures in Chicago--the recognition (due to his spying) that Madeleine and Gersbach are not such terrible parents, the accident, and his arrest--have the effect of reorganizing Herzog's priorities and resolving his psychological issues; Herzog has matured.  Herzog sets about fixing up the overgrown and somewhat decrepit Berkshires estate, and on the last page of the novel Bellow indicates that Herzog will no longer be compulsively writing all those letters--the letters were a reflection of Herzog's anxiety about his place in the world and a sign of his immaturity.

As the novel has progressed Herzog has spent less time with psychiatrists and lawyers and such parasitic types, and gravitated toward his family--not only his children, but his brothers, who are successful businessmen, and Ramona, a potential member of the family as a prospective wife who also operates a business; should we see Herzog as a Candide who, after a dangerous journey, has learned the value of tending to his own garden and the value of productive work as opposed to sterile intellectualism?

Did I enjoy this novel?  I certainly was affected by the scenes set in New York that mirrored events of my own life--spotting an attractive woman in Grand Central and sadly thinking, "I'll never see her again," and then sitting in an outbound train, writing nonsense in a notebook no other person will ever read--sitting in Verdi Park--being dragged into a church by your Catholic wife and not having any idea what you are supposed to do in there.  The many references to literary and philosophical figures can be fun if you are already familiar with them--I enjoyed spotting references to Proust and Samuel Johnson on page 3, for example, but a lot of stuff went over my head and some of the philosophical asides about the meaning of life and the fate of the individual in a collectivist or mechanical society were rough going, leading my attention to drift.  

The many characters are interesting, if not necessarily likable--Bellow uses them primarily to illustrate his themes.  I haven't read any biography of Bellow or criticism of Herzog, but it is easy to imagine that many of the characters are caricatures of people Bellow knew.  One of the recurring stylistic motifs of the novel that struck me is how people's appearances, especially facial features, reflect their character, histories, or fleeting emotions.  The book has many many characters, and it seems like every other page includes a detailed description of somebody's face and/or body and a line or two like these:
Her downcast look, Moses at first took as agreement or sympathy; but he realized how wrong he was when he observed her nose.  It was full of mistrust.  By the way it moved he realized that she rejected everything he was saying.  (37)
His pale round face was freckled, and his eyes large, fluid, dark, and, for Moses's sake, bitter in their dreaminess.  (43)
Those eyes might be blue, perhaps green, even grey-he would never know.  But they were bitch eyes, that was certain.  They expressed a sort of female arrogance which had an immediate sexual power over him.... (34)
His green eyes were violently clear, his lips were continually tensing.  He must have been convinced that he was cutting the dead weight of deception from Herzog's soul, and his long white fingers, thumbs and forefingers worked nervously.  (84)
She had a smooth, long-suffering countenance, slightly tearful even when she smiled, and most mournful when you met her by chance, as Moses did on Broadway, and saw her face--she was above the average height--coming toward him, are, smooth, kindly, with permanent creases of suffering beside her mouth.  (108)
And on and on.  This idea reaches its acme in two men: Valentine Gersbach, Herzog's former friend and Madeleine's lover, and Herzog and Madeleine's Chicago lawyer, Sandor Himmelstein.  Gersbach has a wooden leg, having been run over by a train as a child, and Himmelstein, who is so short that Herzog thinks of him as a dwarf, was wounded at Omaha Beach, losing part of his chest.  "It made Herzog uneasy, perhaps, that he had been discharged from the Navy owing to his asthma and never saw action.  Whereas this dwarf and hunchback was disabled by a mine near the beachhead.  The wound had made a hunchback of him."  One of the novel's themes seems to be men's wounds, how men are created by their wounds, or how suffering a serious wound is a rite of passage that signals one's achievement of maturity--at the start of the novel Herzog has not suffered such a wound, but he does in Chicago, breaking a rib in that auto accident.

A worthwhile read that, I suspect, offers pleasure proportionate to the amount of work the reader is willing to put in trying to figure it out.


I provide below a scan of the flier the very chatty owner of AF Booksellers gave me the day I bought Herzog from him.  A place worth checking out if you are in the Pittsburgh area.

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