Herzog by Saul Bellow – Review

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“For Christ’s sake don’t cry, you idiot! Live or die, but don’t poison everything.”

Writing negative reviews is difficult for me. I used to wonder why, since many of the most purely entertaining reviews I’d read bordered on mean-spirited. They used sarcasm to cut through bloated novels and reveal the weakness in prose, storytelling and character development underneath the pomp.

The more I read, though, and the more I go back and consider the novels I’ve enjoyed after smart, convincing differing opinions which don’t sway one iota of my love for books others hate, I become less and less convinced of any universally ‘good’ novel. There are only ones which let me feel something that is (I know, barf) true, powerful, affecting.

I have picked up books with stunning prose, well-thought out characters, and exciting dialogue, which for whatever reason never connected with me. Herzog by Saul Bellow is one of these. It’s an honest, erudite, and beautifully written journey with a character I loathe travelling with — and this doesn’t feel by design, like with novels about genuine misanthropics like Notes from Underground.

Herzog explores New York of the 1950s a very particular mind-set: a frustrated, Jewish, middle-class and divorced professor. It feels as though every page of Herzog is stuffed with obscure allusions, metaphysics, ornate descriptions, and even more obscure history. These are stereotypically considered some elements of an “important” book: it wants to encompass a whole world in its pages, its extremely erudite, and it expects you to keep up and not complain. Something in the mixture ruined Herzog’s flavour, however.

I felt pity for Moses Herzog, but not appreciation, because I thought the way he looked at the world — and the way I couldn’t help but feel the novel itself endorsed, through its romanticization of this confused, pathetic man. The revelations and story here certainly feels authentic as a character, but this novel has made me realise that I don’t think authenticity is necessarily a virtue in a writer. For example, Lovecraft was being “authentic” in his portrayal of other races with regard to his own prejudices. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticise those prejudices while still appreciating other aspects of his work.

There were things I liked about the novel, the prose particularly, but some of the views being espoused weren’t just outdated (I read Roth recently and thought he found the humour in his generation’s attitudes to gender) — they were spiteful.

Herzog feels like a satire on misogyny written by someone who didn’t understand his own joke. The presentation of Madeleine (who, had she been a man, would have been twirling her moustache), clearly based on Bellow’s actual ex-wife, is simply bitter to read about in an uncomfortable and uncompelling way. It was like having a stranger on the bus rant about what a monster his ex wife is. Romana, Herzog’s new girlfriend, was kind, but her need to please seemed to come from a place of supplication, as almost an apology for her promiscuity earlier in her life — there was one paragraph where Herzog made that point explicitly. Every female character feels like they have been solely defined by the world around them, and so lack the interesting interior lives afforded to the men.

Bellow once mused that “if you opened up a modern mind with a saw things would tumble out in every direction. You pitch yourself headlong into mental chaos and make your own way from there.” This book is mental chaos, but not in the fascinating, LSD-infused chaos of Pynchon; it’s bitterness and learning in equal measure spurted into the face of the world. But there’s real art here, insightful or funny lines that ultimately failed to move me because of the slog of a novel they were surrounded by:

“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.”

This book was simply so far from my tastes that, despite the strengths of the prose, picking up towards the end filled me with actual dread. It’s strange, though, because even while reading and not enjoying the book at all, I could understand why others might love it. The only novel I’ve had a similar experience with was The Corrections, which was at least self aware about how melodramatic and bombastic it could be. Oh well.

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