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His second best?
on 24 August 2015
Herzog, more than any other, reveals James Joyce’s influence over the novels of Saul Bellow. It is for much of its length an internal conversation conducted by Moses Herzog with himself, some of which he occasionally commits to paper as part of a series of notes to personages both dead and alive, ranging from existentialist philosophers to his former sexual partners. He remembers his hardscrabble childhood, with his family’s migration from Canada to Chicago, echoing Bellow’s own, and the struggles of his father in making a living, including his foray into bootlegging which earns him a serious beating.
Occasionally other people intrude. He spends a night with his latest girlfriend, Ramona. He rather creepily stalks his ex-wife Madeleine and her partner at her home one night, watching them through the window. He takes his daughter to the zoo carrying an antique pistol, loaded, wrapped in a blanket of czarist roubles, is involved in a minor car crash and finds himself in the police station charged with possession of an unlicensed weapon. In amongst this he travels around New York, Chicago and his country pile in the Berkshires.
For the reader there is little doubt that Herzog is a little unhinged. How else to explain his resentment at the anger displayed by Madeleine when she collects their daughter from the police station? How else to explain the capricious wanderings by train, plane and automobile? How else to explain the compulsive scribblings?
Some of Herzog’s musings reveal a streak of misogyny. It is not possible to say definitively that this reflected Bellow’s own attitudes, but some of the circumstances in the book reflect Bellow’s own at the time. His musings in particular on his treatment by Madeleine suggest it is she, not him, who is the crazy one; he twists her every action so it appears to him a part of a typical feminine conspiracy effected over a long period of time which somehow included marrying him and having his child just out of spite. In his later novel, Humboldt’s Gift, the protagonist Charlie Citrine finds himself strung along by Madeleine’s alter ego, Renata, who ends up dumping Citrine in favour of an undertaker. Ramona on the other hand ostensibly represents a different side of women, more nurturing, forgiving. But she, too, is able to dump lost causes, and it is possible to see Ramona and Renata, and therefore also Madeleine, as the same woman, just seen from different angles.
Returning to this novel after forty years – my college dissertation addressed the works of Bellow – I was struck by how much it is a novel of its time. Published in 1964, it represents a time before the collapse of the post-second world war boom; the big battles of the Civil Rights struggles of the sixties were yet to come, and the counterculture was still in the wings. It is instructive to read it to acquire a sense of what in those days were common modes of discourse, even in the context of liberal art, on a variety of subjects. More prosaically, it is shocking to find Herzog being questioned in the police station, following his road accident, with an untreated head wound. Surely, it occurred to me, a cop nowadays would ensure somebody involved in such an incident would first receive medical attention to ensure there is no concussion? Different times, different priorities, apparently.
Malcolm Bradbury, in the Introduction, suggests that this is Bellow’s best novel, but I don’t agree: Humboldt’s Gift I would say is better executed, has a more interesting worldview, and is also more amusing. Herzog has its moments, and is certainly a fine piece of literature, but four decades on I was less captivated by rereading this than I was when I reread Humboldt’s Gift a couple of years ago. But all that means is that it’s worth trying both to see if it’s me or Malcolm you agree with.