Saul Bellow: That suffering joker

Rooting around my makeshift suitcase-library I came across an Oxfam acquisition which I had long-forgotten about. I snubbed the introduction and read the inception to what promised to be a very interesting story then spent the rest of the morning reading Herzog. The book, perhaps one of Saul Bellow’s most exoteric, is said to be based, at least in part, on his experience following a love affair between his second wife and one of his friends. The story, an intermingled binary account of monologue and narrative, chronicles a man’s lapse into psychasthenia in the wake of a traumatic divorce with acutely perspicacious, sometimes plangent and often humorous results.

Herzog’s eponymous narrator is an embittered, but likable, vagabond Professor whose introspective, self-divided, ironical voice – enriched with European literary and philosophical tradition – quickly wins the reader over. Like most of Bellow’s creations Moses Herzog is an acutely cerebral character, raging against the inanity of modern day world through the medium of writing epistles loaded with multifarious arguments, explanations and methodological approaches. Yet Herzog can’t quite find a suitable value system by which to define his own life, thus says: “Go through the comprehensible and you conclude that only the incomprehensible gives any light.” Herzog is physically inert for most of the novel, either collapsed on the sofa of his New York apartment or supine on a mattress or hammock in his Ludeyville retreat, which only highlights the hyperactivity of his mind as he writes to various people, including fellow academics, clergymen, his estranged wife, her mother, the president and even God, to whom he confesses: “How many a mind has struggled to make coherent sense…I have not been too good at it.” His variegated observations, comparable to Friedrich Nietzsche’s acidulous aphorisms, vary from the profound to the absurd. A few in a way of example: “Hitch your agony to a star,” he says to himself, and then dejectedly, “Looking for happiness – ought to be prepared for bad results.” And of himself, “A strange heart. I myself cannot account for it.” Or when expatiating ruefully about connubial discord, his second wife Madeleine and woman-kind in general, who to his mind are factious and implacable creatures, Herzog muses: “Will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood,” before concluding plaintively, “Bitches.”

Herzog, like many of Bellow’s heroes, stands alone, a man at odds with the culture he lives in. He is an anachronistic remnant with existential problems, two broken marriages and a sense of innate anxiety. Baffled by his own intellectual vigour and burdened by self-knowledge, he struggles against social isolation and the pallid, orderly and easy existence which he shared with his first wife Daisy, a “childishly systematic” and provincial woman with whom he led a “perfectly ordinary life of an assistant Professor” consisting of “stability, symmetry, order, containment”. Herzog, however, had always preferred a life of uncertainty and disquiet mirrored by his own “irregularity and turbulence of spirit”. It has been said that Herzog’s second wife, Madeleine, is one of the most important of all of Bellow’s female characters. Although often alluded to as the morganatic wife, Madeleine is of “considerable intellectual power” who has “the will of a demon” and is a direct opposite of Daisy. She constitutes the most turbulent element of Herzog’s life, but also leaves him in awe and feeling inferior and ineffectual, to the point of emasculation. Herzog speaks of Madeleine in almost deifying terms, juxtaposing himself as the antithesis of her “great charm”, beauty and “brilliant mind”. This view of himself is contradicted by two other women in Herzog’s life, first a young  Japanese girl by the name of Sono who is loving, subservient, admiring and has a “tender heart” and sees Herzog with “eyes of love” irrespective of his diffidence and  “morose, depressed” moods which he ponders sitting in his “Morris chair”. Speaking of his life with Sono, Herzog says: “To tell the truth I never had it so good. But I lacked the strength of character to bear such joy.” In the end, Herzog concludes that his relationship with Sono was “not serious enough”, focusing primarily on the sensual, and that she did not fulfil his “purpose”.  In fact, Herzog deplores the idea of self actualisation through sex, attributing it mainly to women by saying: “To look for fulfilment in another, in interpersonal relationships, was a feminine game. And the man who shops from woman to woman, though his heart aches with idealism, with the desire for pure love, has entered the female realm.” The submergence into the “female realm” is a pathological fear for Herzog, who has “endured a frigid, middlebrow, castrating female [Madeleine] in his bed” that “had treated him with contempt and cruelty as if to punish him for lowering and cheapening himself, for lying himself into love with her and betraying the promise of his soul.”

The other notable woman in Herzog’s life is his mistress Ramona who tries to dispel his self-regarding abjection by assuring him he is a better man than he knows, “a deep man, beautiful (he could not help wincing when she said this) but sad, unable to take what his heart really desired, a man tempted by God, longing for grace, but escaping headlong from his salvation, often close at hand.” Herzog is all of the above but also a man on the verge of losing his mind, and a good mind at that – one that holds its own with intellectual heavyweight such as Spinoza, Marin Heidegger, Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower to whom Herzog writes to air some of his grievances. Bellow’s prose is supple, adapt to fine emotional nuance and the painterly objective with which he limns the external world but his narrative is that of a detailed realist which can at times be both ponderous and overwritten. Yet Moses Herzog is superb and for all his faults a likable fellow, a tutelary artisan with tragicomic loser-charm and intensity, a “suffering joker” as he himself sees it. But it is his multitudinous missives – interchangeably timorous, pugnacious, haughty and indignant – that make for truly compulsive reading. He writes obsessively to everyone in a manic whirl of spontaneity, derision and candour. The letters are never dispatched to their designated recipients, nor do we get to meet them but rather learn about them through Herzog’s own skewed reveries and recollections.

This particular of Bellow’s books is an immensely enjoyable read, made so by the variable kinks of its title character who, like Bellow himself, has the “blind self-acceptance of the eccentric who can’t conceive that his eccentricities are not clearly understood”. But “his intelligence, his charm, his education” and even his folly is both palpable and intriguing, and has a dash of veracity to it, like one of Herzog’s theories which deems “civilised intelligence” somewhat peculiar in the way it “makes fun of its own ideas.” It is a theory which Herzog comes to believe toward the end of his own frenetic wrestling with chaos which becomes substituted by “tranquil fullness of heart” when he says: “I’ve had all the monstrosity I want.” The book is a brilliant, insightful, humorous and slightly sad culmination of narrative which is occasionally but never unbearably made wearisome by Bellow’s characteristically prolix manner. Thus I think The Nobel Prize committee was on to something when they described Bellow’s work as nonpareil in the way it comprises “drastic and tragic episodes in quick succession… exuberant ideas, flashing irony, hilarious comedy and burning compassion.” Herzog certainly attests to that and is therefore one of the best books that Bellow’s extensive body of work has to offer.