I think I would have probably liked and appreciated Herzog more had I read it a long time ago.

I read Philip Roth’s introduction, and noted his comment that Herzog was like an American Leopold Bloom, except that “in Ulysses, the encyclopedic mind of the author is transmuted into the linguistic flesh of the novel, and Joyce never cedes to Bloom his own great erudition, intellect, and breadth of rhetoric, whereas in Herzog Bellow endows his hero with all of that.”

My “criticism” of the book, I guess, would have been that I’m not sure how much I really value erudition, intellect and breadth of rhetoric, in and of themselves. Sure, when you read a book like Herzog you certainly find instances of interest, and revelation, and illumination, or simply language, which you appreciate – in and of themselves. And sure, you would generally rather read something that includes ideas or passages which are intelligent or insightful or lyrical, than those with observations that are insignificant or dull. But it seems to me that it’s probably not all that difficult for an intelligent and erudite person with an encyclopedic breadth of knowledge and rhetoric to offer pieces of intelligence and erudition. The challenge, it seems to me, is creating or finding or otherwise establishing a structure which in and of itself communicates something, and then fitting ideas or rhetoric or revelation within that construct, and with integrity to that construct; or, stated another way, without breaking the rules.

What is interesting, though, about Herzog, thinking about it more, is that Bellow is not necessarily endowing his hero with these things as gifts, but as burdens.

In an interview with the Paris Review, Bellow talks about “the implicit assumption that existence, quite apart from our judgments, has value.” But what is more interesting, from my point of view, is when he addresses questions about whether the book is “anti-intellectual” or, more precisely, in the way that ideas are, or are not, essential in motivating action. Bellow says, “To call for a dramatic resolution in terms of ideas in an American novel is to demand something for which there is scarcely any precedent. My novel deals with the humiliating sense that results from the American mixture of private concerns and intellectual interests. Many people feel a ‘private life’ to be an affliction. In some sense it is a genuine affliction; it cuts one off from a common life. To me, a significant theme of Herzog is the imprisonment of the individual in a shameful and impotent privacy. He feels humiliated by it; he struggles comically with it; and he comes to realize at last that what he considered to be his intellectual ‘privilege’ has proved to be another form of bondage. Anyone who misses this misses the point of the book. So to say that Herzog is not motivated in his acts by ideas is entirely false. Any many who has rid himself of superfluous ideas in order to take that first step has done something significant.”

If I had been asked to summarize the central arc of the narrative, I doubt I could have put it so succinctly and coherently. In fact, I’m frankly not sure I realized at the end that Herzog had, in fact, “rid himself of superfluous ideas in order to take that first step,” although thinking back on it, that certainly makes sense. I do think, in any event, that I did have some sense of this struggle. In fact, going back to my copy, the four passages I happened to underline while reading are:

Around the middle of the book: “Genius cannot let the world be.”

Then, a little later: “Literate people appropriate all the best things they can find in books, and dress themselves up in them just as certain crabs are supposed to beautify themselves with seaweed.”

Then Phoebe tells Herzog: “It’s not my fault that you refuse to understand the system other people live by. Your ideas get in the way.”

And finally: “Herzog could not say what the significance of such generalities might be. He was only vastly exited…” Which continues [not underlined by me]: “…in a streaming state – and intended mostly to restore order by turning to his habit of thoughtfulness. But then he realized that he did not need to perform elaborate abstract intellectual work – work he had always thrown himself into as if it were the struggle for survival. But thinking is not necessarily fatal.” And then concludes [underlined]: “Did I really believe that I would die when thinking stopped? Now to fear such a thing – that’s really crazy.”

Which would seem to be a testament to Bellow’s dramatization of this evolution within the character.

In terms of Bellow’s general proposition, I think I would probably quibble with the overall idea that people like Herzog are prisoners of intelligence or education. I do believe that people can suffer from an impotence or bondage in which they live largely private lives, within themselves, cut off in many ways from life. But I don’t necessarily see a causal connection between Herzog’s education or intelligence and his inability to function socially. I’m not completely sure that this is what Bellow is suggesting. But it seems to me that the cause lies somewhere else. The ideas are just manifestations.

What I come back to, in terms of the novel, is that there just don’t seem to be any “rules”.

Bellow says that the book was difficult to write, and I believe him. He talks in the Paris Review interview about developing the “readiness to record impressions arising from a source of which we know little. I suppose that all of us” Bellow says, “have primitive prompter or commentator within, who from earliest years has been advising us, telling us what the real world is. There is such a commentator in me. I have to prepare the ground for him.”

And I could see how that takes time and effort and a fair amount of both skill and talent to develop and mold.

But then converting that into a dramatic work of art, everything seems – at least to the outside reader – fairly instinctual.

It’s not just moving freely from first person to third person.

Herzog could have said, or done, or thought, pretty much anything that was consistent with his voice and character.

While it may be easy to imagine Bellow struggling to get the wording of a sentence just right, it’s difficult to imagine him struggling with the plot, the setting, the timing or sequencing, or other types of limitations.

You could almost imagine doing at least the first draft of a book like this in one sitting.

In the Summer Reading issue of the New York Times Book Review, they have a section where they ask noted authors what they are reading, and I saw that Jeffrey Eugenides recently reread it. “I was bowled over” Eugenides says, “as I always am, by this, the best of Bellow’s great novels.”

Maybe I missed something.

It’s good. It’s fine. It’s interesting.

But I just don’t see it.

The same Summer Reading issue of the New York Times Book Review starts with a review of Ian McEwan’s new book, On Chesil Beach. The book apparently starts out: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulty was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.” The reviewer, Jonathan Lethem, talks about how the first sentence is an efficient hook, perhaps even “a first chapter of its own.” But then comes a second thought, Lethem reminds us: “But it is never easy.” These five words, Lethem says, “with startling ease” “deepen and complicate the book. Who speaks, and from what historical vantage?” I don’t know, and frankly have no intention of reading the book to find out, (at least not in the immediate future), but I would suggest that, unless there is a satisfying answer to those questions, (even if perhaps the answer is ultimately unknown), all you have at the end of the day is a few interesting sentences.

Which is good, I guess.

But anyone can sit around and think up good sentences.

The challenge, it seems to me, is thinking up good sentences that fit within a concrete architecture of voice, style, format, character, drama, structure and form. – And in a way that’s never been done before.


[In addition to Herzog by Saul Bellow (1964), see The Paris Review Interviews, vol. I (Picador 2006), pp.86-110; Jonathan Lethem, “Edward’s End” (reviewing On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan) New York Times Book Review, June 3, 2007; and, Philip Roth, “Introduction: Rereading Saul Bellow” Herzog (Penguin Classics 2001), p.xvi.]