Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Herzog by Saul Bellow

Here is a review from the book's publication. It is now considered one of the top 100 novels of all time. Herzog, the protagonist, seems a characteristic member of his generation. Reading novels from this period always gets me thinking about my father's generation. Between the depression, WWII and the expectations placed upon each gender in this period, life could not have been easy. In the end Herzog finds a bit of peace because he is no longer at war with the way things are.

from Time Magazine

Friday, Sep. 25, 1964
Books: The Good Guy

HERZOG by Saul Bellow. 341 pages. Viking. $5.75.

It may be that Saul Bellow is just too nice a guy. He obviously wishes the world well; he wants the world to be pleased with him; and this benevolence, or "potato love," as Bellow calls it, may have damaged the work of a writer who has long been on the threshold of the U.S. literary pantheon but has never quite managed the "big" novel that would put him there permanently.
Bellow's early novel, The Victim, had the tension of tragedy: an eerie encounter between a Jew and an anti-Semite in which the Jew turns out to be as much persecutor as victim. This first succes d'estime was followed by the book that made Bellow a popular success as well: The Adventures of Augie March, a picaresque tale of a Jewish Huck Finn who bounces about the U.S. and Mexico sampling and quickly tiring of all manner of jobs, creeds and persons. But Augie sacrificed the dramatic tension of The Victim and rambled. Bellow's sub sequent novel, Henderson the Rain King, rambled even more; and in Herzog the tension has snapped completely in a flood of good will.
Pet Goose. Few novels have been longer awaited or more often deferred. It has been seven years since the publication of Henderson, during which time Bellow has traveled in Europe on a Ford Foundation grant, then settled down at the University of Chicago as Fellow of the Committee on Social Thought. Lecturing on literature in the afternoons, he has spent his mornings working on Herzog and on his first play, The Last Analysis, about an aging Jewish comedian with a scheme to save humanity, which will open on Broadway this month.
Individual episodes in Herzog are brilliant; Bellow can wring a rare pathos out of the most unlikely, unlovely material: scenes of common, everyday, squalid home life, with the kids sniffling, the wash on the line and mommy savaging daddy. No one, in fact, slices life with a sharper eye than Bellow. But on the whole, the new novel is disappointing. Moses E. Herzog, teacher-scholar, is everybody's door mat. Things happen to him; he does nothing. He is tossed out of his own home by his wife and her lover. He is bullied by lawyers, psychiatrists, cops, a priest and friends. At the beginning of the novel, he is at least dashing off undelivered letters to all sorts of people, living and dead, who have offended him. At the end, he gives up even that. He is unfit for the rough-and-tumble of the world, he acknowledges, because he was "brought up on moral principles as Victorian ladies were on pianoforte and needle point. He had been spared the destruction of certain sentiments as the pet goose is spared the axe."
Herzog, despite his learned jokes and sophisticated dalliances with a series of ladies, is that common figure of today's literature: the anti-hero champion of the ordinary life, whose plain decency is contrasted with the theatricality and contrived cruelties of everyone around him. The novel is an attack on the proud intellectualism of over-ratiocinative Jews (and others). "We love apocalypses too much," Herzog decides, "and crisis ethics and florid extremism with its thrilling language. Excuse me. I am a simple human being, more or less."
All Is Dust. But if Herzog is an emotional deadbeat, other characters have plenty of chutzpah. Herzog's wife Madeleine is the perfect man killer with her cold, carnivorous smile, her facial tic and gnawed nails; she strips Herzog of his bank account during the day, ridicules him into impotence at night; after meals she is in the habit of applying her lipstick while gazing at her reflection in a knife blade. Her lover, Valentine Gersbach, is an ex-disk jockey who loves to "yuk it up" with intellectuals, gives Herzog fatherly lectures on how to get along with his wife.
In keeping with the chief character, Bellow's prose is sometimes pudding-soft, mushy and too sweet; but at other times it is as good as anything he has written. In fact, where the novel does not limp, it moves majestically, as in a grimly tender description of the death of Herzog's mother. It is just that Bellow does not seem to be covering any new ground. Toward the end, Herzog reflects: "I look at myself and see chest, thighs, feet—a head. This strange organization, I know it will die. And inside —something, something, happiness . . . Something produces intensity, a holy feeling . . . 'But what do you want, Herzog?' 'But that's just it—not a solitary thing, I am pretty well satisfied to be, to be just as it is willed, and for as long as I may remain in occupancy.' "
There must be more to say than that.