Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which I finished yesterday, was written four years before I was born. I can almost recall its time–or at least relive it vicariously through my parents, who were, like the characters in the novel, a Jewish historian of European ideas and his wife, living in an old house a few hundred miles from Manhattan. It was a decade when Freud and Marx still reigned, when readers wrestled with metaphysical issues by constructing grand accounts of cultural history, stories that had Christianity, Romanticism, idealism, and nihilism as their protagonists. Like Herzog, you might buy paperback Schopenhauers and Spenglers in the bargain bin at Walgreens and try to put them into some kind of order. You didn’t worry much about jobs, tenure, or publication, but intellectual work seemed consequential when the old mores were collapsing, East and West were divided by ideology, and the Shoah was still a memory, even for the young.
It was the end of the Modern period, post-modernism just beginning to stir in France. Bellow has the Modernist’s disdain for novelistic conventions. Quite a bit happens in Herzog–two divorces, a rape, a car crash, an arrest–but Bellow refuses to tell it in a linear way that might build suspense. To withhold information about the conclusion until the end of the story would be like using the sonata form in music: old-fashioned. Instead, Bellow’s narrator strives for pure description, voice, character, and ideas.
The novel is also a period piece in its problematic attitudes toward women, Blacks, and Puerto-Ricans. Of course, we don’t know if those are Bellow’s views or the narrator’s. In fact, my biggest question about Herzog is whether we are dealing with an unreliable narrative voice. The back cover of my copy tells me that Herzog is “truly an Everyman for our time.” Everyman is a sympathetic figure, and one might like the cuckolded, naive, high-strung and sensitive Moses E. Herzog. Or one might doubt his self-presentation. Consider this rather typical passage:
Then he ran the water in the sink. The crude oval of the basin was smooth and beautiful in the gray light. He touched the almost homogeneous whiteness with his fngertips and breathed in the water odors and the subtle stink rising from the waste pipe. Unexpected intrusions of beauty. This is what life is ….
As he was doing this, it occurred to him that this going into the bathroom to pull himself together was one of his habits. He seemed to feel that he was more effective, more master of himself. In fact, he remembered, for a few weeks in Ludeyville he required Madeleine to make love on the bathroom floor. She complied, but he could see when he lay down on the old tiles that she was in a rage. Much good could come of that. This is how the all-powerful human intellect employs itself when it has no real occupation. And now he pictured the November rain dropping from the sky on the half-painted house in Ludeyville. The sumacs spilled the red Chinese paper of their leaves ….
I draw attention to the sentence about the bathroom floor, almost hidden near the beginning of a long paragraph of nostalgia and reverie. Madeleine is the ex-wife whom Herzog hates and fears. Here is a hint that he abused her cruelly in the rustic house to which he had dragged her. By the end of the novel, I found myself caring about Herzog and hoping that he would not harm himself. But if we view him as neither good nor reliable, the text becomes considerably more interesting. (By the way, I know a little about Saul Bellow the man and do not particularly like what I know; but that ought to be irrelevant to our judgment of Moses Herzog.)