Thursday, July 3, 2014

On reading Herzog with and without assumptions (Books - Herzog by Saul Bellow)

There are books one has read, or believes one has, but they are read too soon or too late and so carry no weight. No emotional frame in which to fit them exists...During a recent conversation about life after a long marriage, in what at a stretch may still be called middle age, a friend said of my unanchored state, “Yeah, Herzog.” I was sure I had read the novel, I had my Saul Bellow season long ago, but his comment lodged in my mind. A few days later, on a whim, I bought “Herzog”
So wrote Roger Cohen in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, Hezog at 50, on his reread of Saul Bellow's novel. Odd thing, my book club had just opted for Herzog (Avon Books, 1976), and I was in the middle of it.  Must be something in the New York water.  Cohen experienced the novel as apropos to his own life, full of resonance.  On the contrary, although I truly admired the writing, I experienced the story as dated, not in the sense of being irrelevant, but in being of another time.

When we meet Herzog, he is alone in a house in the Berkshires, eating beans from the can.  He sleeps
on a mattress without sheets - it was his abandoned marriage bed...
If that image isn't pregnant with the ravagement of Herzog's life, I don't know what is.  Herzog is in the throes of a divorce from his second wife, Madeleine, a demanding academic who recently took up with Herzog's close friend Valentine Gersbach.
...a charming man,...though in a heavier, brutal style.  He had a thick chin, flaming copper hair that literally gushed from his head (no Thomas Scalp Specialists for him), and he walked on a wooden leg, gracefully bending and straightening like a gondolier.  Herzog himself had no small amount of charm.  But his sexual powers had been damaged by Madeleine.  And without the ability to attract women, how was he to recover?
Some fault Bellow for misogyny, and looking at his female characters across the novels that I have read, I must consider that interpretation seriously.  But Herzog's behavior seems colored by a loss of mental stability stemming from two failed marriages and his giving up an unspectacular if  "respected and stable" career as a college professor at Madeleine's behest.  Having neither his emotional/sexual nor his professional identity to center him as he confronts the very middle of middle age, he freaks-out, adopting a grandiose delusion of himself to shield his ego.
The progress of civilization - indeed, the survival of civilization - depended on the successes of Moses E Herzog.  And in treating him as she did, Madeleine injured a great project.  This was, in the eyes of Moses E. Herzog, what was so grotesque and deplorable about the experience of Moses E. Herzog. 
Bellow's ridiculing of Herzog's state belies the idea that Herzog acts as he does towards Madeleine because women don't deserve respect.  But Herzog's relationship with his first wife, Daisy, and his relationship post-Madeleine with Ramona, betray a paternalism in relating to women that both Herzog and Bellow appear to takes for granted. My reading suggests that such behavior is a less common subject in English language novels today without at least framing the point-of-view as disrespectful or socially unaccepted.  Many sigh about political correctness, but given the much reported achievement gap between women and men in such areas as compensation and representations in certain jobs, paternalism is not dead.  Is it preferable that we should like a novel more because no character expresses an unattractive point-of-view, or does writing/reading about such a character help us gain insight? But my tussle with Bellow's treatment of women in this novel is resolved by the fact that he fails to depict a female character with likeable attributes who is not having sex with Herzog.  One could argue that this is an expression of the protagonist's hermetic experience of the world, but the paragraph excerpted above suggests that Bellow is willing to lean out of his omniscient cloud from time to time and wink at his reader.  The idea that likeable women are unserious little things who are there when you need them and who need taking care of, would seem to be Bellow's and this seriously dates the novel, for all the elegance of his writing, his probing search for meaning of his character, and the accomplishment of sustaining what feels like a 400 page interior monologue (even though this is an illusion, since the book is written in third person).

Herzog's grandiosity is most often expressed in his writing fanatical letters to anyone and every one.  The letters occupy perhaps a third of Bellow's novel.  The narrative weaves in and out of the protagonist's interior point-of-view and letters written by Herzog.  While the interior narrative is shared by Bellow with his reader unbeknownst to Herzog, the letters, intended for named recipients, will never be read. Bellow creates a multi-layered work in which the act of writing is itself a consideration.  Here is the second way in which Herzog read as dated, and in this case, I welcomed it.  Bellow wrote of a world in which creating literature and the academic pursuit of understanding it was a worthy profession and widely relevant.  His education rested on the foundation of a literary canon. There are many examples of Bellow's narrative reflecting his security that this was a shared foundation with his reader:
For he was not a quixote, was he?  A quixote imitated great models. What models did he imitate?  A quixote was a Christian, and Moses E. Herzog was no Christian.  This was the post-quixotic, post-Copernican U.S.A., where a mind freely poised in space might discover relationships utterly unsuspected by a seventeenth-century man sealed in his smaller universe.  There lay his twentieth-century advantage.
Thus contemplates Herzog, as he walks, gun in hand, toward the possible victim of his indignation.  Today, readers are as likely to have read Marilyn French and Chinua Achebe in a college humanities course as they would have Cervantes or Faulkner, and the world is certainly not the poorer for it.  But perhaps the dated feeling of Herzog comes from Bellow's inhabiting a world with a more circumscribed idea about where an educated person's opinions came from. Reading Herzog again in 2014, for all it literary prowess, it felt like an artifact from a more limited world.

Looking at the 1976 cover of the paperback edition novel - a lifelike color drawing of a rugged, graying man, gazes off into the distance.  This could have been a scene from the made-for-tv-movie of Herzog. While the newer Peguin Edition features a photograph of a waded-up ball of paper with handwriting on it.  While the older cover shows us a something resembling true life, the more recent one shows us a disembodied image of discarded text.  A letter without a reader.

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