Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Stylistic Payoff in Herzog by Saul Bellow

I picked up a smelly, old paperback copy of Saul Bellow's Herzog at a library book sale. After just finishing Mailer's Harlot's Ghost (all 1308 pages of it), Bellow's depictions of a middle-aged Jewish intellectual and professor felt almost like a breeze, although blustery at times.

As much as the writer reads for pleasure and entertainment, so too should he read opportunistically to learn, steal, or master what others have mastered in their storytelling ability.

Bellow's Herzog is extraordinary in how it shifts perspectives and tone rapidly, and the purpose for doing that becomes even more clear in the novel's final 75-pages.

Moses E. Herzog is a mess. A slob with too much in his brain to know what to do with it. He's abandoned his writing projects, particularly his book about the Romantics and Modernism:
But Herzog worked under different orders -- doing, he trusted, the work of the future. The revolutions of the twentieth century, the liberation of the masses by production, created private life but gave nothing to fill it with. This was where he came in. The progress of civilization -- indeed, the survival of civilization -- depended on the successes of Moses. E. Herzog.
But how passive a man Herzog is. His second ex-wife claimed she was no longer in love with him, and threw him out of the house he purchased, put a restraining order on him, and never let him visit his daughter. He rents an apartment in New York. He has a lover who wants more from him. He has a crumbling house in the Berkshires that he bought for his ex-wife with all his inheritance money. His daughter lives in Chicago with his best friend who is acting as father and husband for his family.

So Moses Herzog has taken to writing letters. To dead philosophers like Nietzsche, to old friends, to the priest who converted his ex-wife to Christianity, and so on. Sometimes Herzog's letters are physical, and sometimes he composes them in his mind. When he's composing, Bellow changes the text into italics.

The result is a protagonist who is hopelessly distraught about life, love, and his own writing project (even a professor from Berkeley had published a book that made much of Herzog's project superfluous).

But for the reader, the mental landscape Bellow creates is rich with perspective and changes in voice. It can also be tedious, but in the calculated way that only a form contrived to match its content can achieve.

Here he sees an old friend, Nachman, who owes him money, but the man flees, so Moses composes a letter:
I felt it would be cheaper in the long run to send you back to New York. In Paris I was stuck with you. You see, I don't pretend that I was altruistic. Perhaps, thought Herzog, the sight of me frightened him. Have I changed even more than he has? Was Nachman horrified to see Moses? But we did play in the street together. I learned the aleph-beth from your father, Reb Shika (163).
The constant shifting from epistle writing or imagining, back to a close third-person narrative, then suddenly a line or two in first-person, and then back to third, is an effective way to whirl around the mind of Herzog awhile. We see him from the author's perspective. We hear his thoughtfulness in one string of considerations after another. We read what is intended as letter, and then what is more carefully left out. This type of polyphonic thought that makes up Herzog is what some say has cemented the book in the so-called postmodern category.

Often a thought of the past produces snippets of a letter, and the beginnings of a letter often take Herzog back to a specific time in his life, so it is through this blustery approach the days in the life of Herzog are populated.

There are no real rules in the book about when a flashback (or "fleshbeck" as John Barth mocks it) occurs, as they are rather sudden affairs, cutting swiftly into whatever Herzog finds himself doing, and then occupying space a short while, before drifting somewhere else.

Many times Herzog's thoughts are at work, chomping away at his would-be groundbreaking book. Thoughts of Rosseau, of science, of modern lackluster life in light of the industrialized fallout, and letters to Dr. Schrodinger and Spinoza to have discourse about their ideas. His mind goes to these rehashed philosophies as easily as it remembers certain anatomical features of his current lover in the city.

By the last hundred pages of the novel, when Herzog once again sees his daughter, June, the perspective solidifies. Because of the earlier controlled whimsy of internal dialogue, brooding, and setting scores mentally with a wide range of people, the solidity of the experience is striking. The barrage of memories and malaise clears up. Herzog holds a hand over his mouth to block the emotion from coming out, as he spies on his daughter with her stepfather and his ex-wife. Suddenly, all of his mental faculties are focused.

How can the use of language, perspective, and tone better reflect the mental state of your main character? What is the effect of your stylistic choices?

Book: Herzog, by Saul Bellow, 416 pages. Fawcett Crest, 1965.

No comments:

Post a Comment