Saturday, January 21, 2017

Herzog by Saul Bellow

If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.

Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there.  But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong.  He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun.  He was so stirred by these letters that from the end of June he moved from place to place with a valise full of papers.  He had carried this valise from New York to Martha's Vineyard, but returned from the Vineyard immediately; two days later he flew to Chicago, and from Chicago he went to a village in western Massachusetts.  Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.

Moses Herzog is in crisis.  His wife, cold, beautiful, and shrewd, has left him for his best friend, a boisterous, redheaded man with a wooden leg named Valentine Gersbach.  Together they have evicted him from his own house, and given his picture to the local police.  His lawyer advises him not to sue for custody of his daughter, June--the mother, he says, always wins.  So he bounces aimlessly around New York, Chicago, Western Massachusetts, writing letters to people, some to friends, some to family, some to people he's never met.

The letters Moses writes are frenetic, neurotic, and filled with the heady intellectual musing of an academic.  They are as dense as the book he's written on Romanticism, but they don't help:

All the while his heart is contemptibly aching.  He would like to give this heart a shaking, or put it out of his breast.  Evict it.  Moses hated the humiliating comedy of heartache.  But can thought wake you from the dream of existence?  Not if it becomes a second realm of confusion, another more complicated dream, the dream of intellect, the delusion of total explanations.

In some sense Herzog is a satire of intellectualism, which fails to address Herzog's traumas.  In its place Bellow advocates what he calls, in a tremendous turn of phrase, "potato love"--the sub-verbal kind of love which Herzog has for his daughter, June, and which his wife has denied him.  It's a simple idea, really, dressed up in the incendiary volleys of Bellow's prose.

Nobody writes with the vitality of Bellow.  Herzog is low on plot, but it absolutely bursts with energy.  But Bellow--one of the very best prose stylists in the history of the English language--is never out of control, and the high-octane style of the book never gets tedious.  It helps that Bellow populates the book with a cast of vivid characters, almost all of whom exist only to be vivid.  And Bellow's eye for detail is tremendous:

He remembered that late one afternoon she led him to the front-room window because he asked a question about the Bible: how Adam was created from the dust of the ground.  I was six or seven.  And she was about to give me the proof.  Her dress was brown and gray--thrush-colored.  Her hair was thick and black, the gray already streaming through it.  She had something to show me at the window.  The light came up from the snow in the street, otherwise the day was dark.  Each of the windows had colored borders--yellow, amber, red--and flows and whorls in the cold panes.  At the curbs were the thick brown poles of that time, many-barred at the top, with green glass insulators, and brown sparrows clustered on the crossbars that held up the iced, bowed wires.  Sarah Herzog opened her hand and said, "Look carefully, now, and you'll see what Adam was made of."  She rubbed the palm of her hand with a finger, rubbed until something dark appeared on the deep-lined skin, a particle of what certainly looked to him like earth.  "You see?  It's true."

What a lovely story, I think, but it really lives because of the specificity and particularity of the description of the windows, and the snow in the street, and the light poles.  It's the kind of thing that lesser writers try, and can never seem to do right; for Bellow it never seems extraneous.

Bellow makes Herzog's story a moving reflection on suffering, and on the necessity of love amid great pain.  But the best thing about it is just getting caught in the torrential music of Bellow's writing.

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