National Book Award winners, part 20: 1965’s Herzog, by Saul Bellow.

4 Feb

1.

In 1965, Saul Bellow won the National Book Award for Herzog, his novel about an depressed intellectual in a mid-life crisis. All my misgivings around Bellow are gone; he is one of our country’s greatest writers, on the strength of this novel alone. It is a stunning, masterly work, supremely magnificent.

The novel follows its namesake, a weak-willed failure who is lonely, easily tempted. He has three failed marriages. He has two children, both of whom live with their mothers. He is losing more each day to his third wife, who also might be taking his sanity. He’s a professor who’s unraveling, and he knows it. His thoughts drift. He shifts out of present time into memories, impressions. He writes letters, many of them in his head. He writes to his friends and colleagues. He writes to presidents and scientists, to philosophers long dead.

He understands himself enough to be frustrated by his shortcomings. “I fail to understand!” he thinks to himself throughout the novel. He is weary. He wants to change, but can’t quite break out of his self-destructive patterns. He sees his failures approaching, but can’t quite avert them. He is exhausted with himself, and the novel begins with his vacillating over a new girlfriend. The novel follows his disassembly, and then the slow, torturous (and often hilarious) reassembly as a happier person.

An absolute smash.

An absolute smash.

The characters are amazing. Each feels distinct and alive. Each is drawn in quick, masterly comic strokes.

Bellow’s considerable descriptive talents and vast erudition are anchored by a lean, taut narrative. Unlike March, that sort of meanders on and on, Herzog is a controlled, precise work, bursting with life, yes, but also propelled by a not so slow burn. There’s real madness and menace lurking in these pages, too, if you look for it.

The story is simple, following a week in Herzog’s life. The structure and technique are complex, alternating from third to first person, interweaving the letters—many of them incomplete—in and out of the narrative. The results are dazzling. Here’s a taste:

Unemployed consciousness, he wrote in the pantry. I grew up in a time of widespread unemployment, and never believed there might be work for me. Finally, jobs appeared, but somehow my consciousness remained unemployed. And after all, he continued beside the fire, the human intellect is one of the great forces in the universe. It can’t safely remain unused. . . . The soul requires intensity. At the same time virtue bores mankind. Read Confucious again. With vast populations, the world must prepare to turn Chinese.

Through Herzog, Bellow grapples with the major failings of the end of civilization prognosticators. He tackles Freud, Hegel, Marx, plus a whole lot of dudes I don’t know. He accepts their strengths and critiques their shortcomings. His intellect—both Herzog’s and Bellow’s—is ravishing, probing.

Lust, free will, nature versus nurture. The atrocities of the 20th century. The failure of our political systems to bring us happiness. The specter of thermo-nuclear war. The impermanence of a life. The suffering of animals. The burden of ethics. The need for rituals in our post-religious age.

Herzog refuses to be eaten by history. He is a hero. He maintains bravery in spite of species annihilation. Philosophy is in use, in defense of something: the dignity of a single life. If the life in question is selfish, arrogant, diffident, self-rationalizing, vulnerable and unhinged, that same life is also brace, self-sacrificing, searching, generous and wonderful. Bellow does nothing less than redeem humanity.

2.

That’s enough hyperbole. Let’s get to the prose.

Alongside Bellow’s impressive erudition is his storytelling. His immense talents are, in a sense, squandered in his lesser novels.

Page after page of superior prose, crackling, funny, poetic, leaps off the page. Here he is traveling by train, slipping back in time:

The train crossed at the St. Lawrence. Moses pressed the pedal and through the strained funnel of the toilet he saw the river frothing. Then he stood at the window. The water shone and curved on great slabs of rock, spinning into foam at the Lachine Rapids, where it sucked and rumbled. On the other shore was Caughnawaga, where the Indians lived in shacks raised on stilts. Then came the burnt summer fields. The windows were open. The echo of the train came back from the straw like a voice through a beard. The engine sowed cinders and soot over the fiery flowers and the hairy knobs of weed.

But that was forty years behind him. Now the train was ribbed for speed, a segmented tube of brilliant steel.

And again, here, where Herzog is speaking with the aunt of the ex-wife, Madeleine, who just cuckolded him:

“Yes, I was stupid—a blockhead. But that was one of the problems I was working on, you see, that people can be free now but the freedom doesn’t have any content. It’s like a howling emptiness. Madeleine shared my interests, I thought—she’s a studious person.”

“She says you were a dictator, a regular tyrant. You bullied her.”

I do seem to be a broken-down monarch of some kind, he was thinking, like my old man, the princely immigrant and ineffectual bootlegger.
And here, too, as he readies himself for a night with his new girlfriend, who scares him:

. . . Perhaps he had given the impression that he was a little stingy. Or else he had awakened a feeling of protectiveness in her, an effect he often produced. He wondered at times whether he didn’t belong to a class of people secretly convinced they had an arrangement with fate; in return for docility or ingenuous good will they were to be shielded from the worst brutalities in life. Herzog’s mouth formed a soft but twisted smile as he considered whether he really had inwardly decided years ago to set up a deal—a psychic offer—meekness in exchange for preferential treatment. Such a bargain was feminine, or, extended to trees, animals, childlike. None of these self-judgments had any terror for him; no percentage now in quarreling with what one was. There was the thing—the composite, the mystical achievement of natural forces and his own spirit. He opened the paisley Hong Kong robe and looked at his naked body. He was no child. And the house in Ludeyville, a disaster in every other way, had kept him fit. Wrestling with that old ruin in an effort to recover his legacy made his arms muscular. Extended the lease of narcissism for a little while. Gave him strength to carry a heavy-buttocked woman to bed.

I love it.

The writing is dense but thrilling. Writing about Herzog at all feels futile, as with any great work of art it teaches you how to read it as you are reading it, shows you how to enjoy it as you’re enjoying it.

It’s an immaculate, big-hearted novel, and it belongs alongside The Wapshot Chronicle in its poetic intensity, its luminous erudition, its desperate lows and its wondrous joy.

The writing is somehow maximalist, poetic and large, and also spare, elegant and taut.

I wish I could read it again for the first time.

3.

1964 was a great year for American fiction.

Bellow beat out Louis Auchinsloss, John Hawkes, Richard Kim, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Vladimir Nabakov for the top prize. Bellow deserved to win, but there were other, very fine novels released.

Thomas Berger published his fabulous Little Big Man[1]. Richard Brautigan released another oddball novel, A Confederate General at Big Sur.  H.P. Lovecraft, long dead, released the excellent At the Mountains of Madness and Other Stories. Hubert Selby, Jr. published his challenging but influential novel, Last Exit To Brooklyn. Gore Vidal released his excellent (thinly) fictionalized epistolary novel of ancient Rome, Julian[2].  And, Shel Silverstein published The Giving Tree, a near-perfect picture book.

4.

Leaving the book behind, for the last few days, I’ve felt sad. As if a friend has passed.

It’s an astonishing work, one of the finest novels I’ve read in years. I keep thinking, how many more novels are going to catch me in the head and the heart so fully as this one?

It’s also something of a dead-end, the apotheosis of the realistic novel of ideas. There’s nowhere else for the form to go.

The late 1950s had already brought new voices. The 1960s amplified these trends, of irony, inventive wordplay, nihilistic exhaustion. I heard someone say just yesterday that Bellow managed to keep the realistic, literary novel alive, single-handedly. I believe this is true. And I believe with Herzog, this sub-genre found its peak.

And after[3] Herzog, the deluge.

John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs, Donald Barthelme, Joan Didion, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut—some of these had been kicking around for a while, others were fast approaching—were a new wave of American writing, a blurring between genres, between fact and fiction, high and low brow, art and artifice. A sense of cool detachment, or of blasé genius; a love of puzzling wordplay, or a labyrinthine grammatical sense; a mashup of the modernism of Joyce and Faulkner with the destructive creativity and migraine nonsense of Jarry and Beckett—these new wolves romped through American letters.

Meta-textual games, paranoia, distrust in humanity and the arts, a fatal disbelief in the power of stories, an ironic knife blade slicing through anything sincere or heartfelt, deconstruction, postmodernism, an unwinding, madness—after Bellow[4] (or because of him) the novels implodes, resets. The form is exhausted.

New minds auger.


[1] I love this.

[2] I love this, too.

[3] And before. We’ve entered the post-modern way of thinking.

[4] And Malamud, Cheever and Updike, too. Roth was from the beginning collapsing his narratives on himself.

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4 Responses to “National Book Award winners, part 20: 1965’s Herzog, by Saul Bellow.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. National Book Award winners, part 25: 1970′s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow. | simoneandthesilversurfer - April 23, 2014

    […] a masterpiece of American fiction and one of the finest novels of the twentieth century (review here). Sammler falls somewhere between the two, never boring but never quite superb either, didactic at […]

  2. Interlude 3: The academic novel. | simoneandthesilversurfer - May 9, 2014

    […] Malamud’s The Good Life, John Williams’s Stoner, and Saul Bellow’s Herzog form a sort of trilogy on the subject. White Noise is the […]

  3. Books I read in 2014. | simoneandthesilversurfer - January 5, 2015

    […] Sammler’s Planet—A misfire from Saul Bellow, but a fascinating one. Sammler is a Holocaust survivor wandering around New York, seemingly […]

  4. NBAW, part 38: 1975’s The Hair of Harold Roux. | simoneandthesilversurfer - July 29, 2015

    […] with the academic setting, he’s writing in a very specific genre, crowded with masterpieces. Herzog is an academic novel, of sorts, as are John Williams’s Stoner and Bernard Malamud’s The Good […]

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