Saul Bellow – Herzog

hertzog
Feminists got it wrong with the whole ‘strong female character’ thing. Anyone who talked a little about fiction should know that by now. What’s more puzzling is how they got that idea in the first place. When they obsess over the strength of female characters, what are the example of male characters they wish to emulate?

Herzog belongs to the line of books that trap you inside the character’s head. It’s less of a story than a psychoanalysis of a character, which you probably already read in Pornoy’s Complaint and Catcher in the Rye. Like in those novels, a lot of effort is put into developing the main character. Also like these novel, the character is far from strong, independent and beautiful. He’s a wreck. He’s self-destructive. He’s a joke. Like the best characters, we’re encouraged to explore Herzog, not to wish to be with him.

That’s the key to making a great character. Good characters are not ones we wish to be, but ones who have an interesting psychology we want to explore. It’s easy to make a strong, independent women. All you’re actually making is a Clay Golem from Diablo II. Attempting a character like Moses is a harder and more rewarding effort. It’s not a wonder this style gave birth to a lot of acclaimed novels.

Herzog is weaker than those novels though. Bellow is talented, and the writing flows so smoothy it was jarring at first, considering I read Frog Music before it. Bellow has the skills to make enjoyable prose, but he doesn’t use it enough. He fails in the same way that other Jew failed, Bernard Malamud.

Paul Auster saw what was wrong and fixed it. A rambling style is fine. It could even lead to a great work, even if it’s difficult. This style works when all of the ramblings comes clearly from the character’s head. Everything the character says, then, reveals something about it. Even repetition, or copy-pasting paragraphs can have its purpose. The repetition of Something Happened is annoying, but it does wonders to build its character.

Bellow’s ramblings often seem to be outtakes from his essay collection. I understand Bellow was pretty prolific and had a lot to say. If you can’t say it via literary means, then maybe this fiction thing is not for you. Too often there are whole paragraphs which lose contact with the story. It’s not just when the letters Moses writes to others that these paragraphs appear. The novel is written in third person, which may make you want to take drugs. Any character study must be in first-person, because the third-person creates too much distance. When these snippets of essays appear in the mouth of the third-person narrator, the brain turns itself off.

The reason for this is because these snippets are pretty meaningless. There are people who think philosophy is pure bullshit and not worth anyone’s time. These people should have their rights revoked. Reading Herzog, though, you just might think these people may be on to something. What does a phrase like “the hedonistic joke of a mammoth industrial civilization”? It’s a great Marilyn Manson song title, but its meaning is lost. Philosophy should use jargon only when it makes the writing more clear. Piling a lot of big words is a way to cover up the lack of ideas.

Worse, there isn’t any lack to cover up. As a satire of the intellectual, Herzog is pretty good. Bellow is too slack on him, though. As a person that this book makes fun of, I wish I had such a great sex life. Intellectuals are often criticized for not being able to experience life. Yet, Moses is a bit of a pick-up artist.

This is a theme ripe for exploration. Intellectualism, the desire to know shouldn’t distance us from life but to bring us closer. Yet you could easily find yourself reading too much instead of going out to see the weather has changed. Moses can’t enjoy a house out on the country, surrounded by green scenary, animals and quiet.

This intellectualism can easily wreck your relationships with other people. Spend too much time in heavy thinking, and you can become self-absorbed. We should gather new ideas and experiences not just from great dead authors, but with people who we can interact with. Bellow understands that too many books and you forget how to interact with a human being. Moses is a person stuck in his own world of ideas who can’t reach out to others. This causes wrecked relationships and with bad people, sometimes at the same. The reason he chose Madeleine was because of what it said about him. He managed to get a beautiful, intelligent women. Yet, he couldn’t see she was also not right in the head.

If Moses is such a social wreck, how could he have all these affairs? Intelligence is not sexy. Having a lot of sex is always a good thing. It’s a sign you’re well-adjusted socially. Perhaps this was written before people understood that anyone who preached to you how awful sex is was afraid to admit he wasn’t getting any.

There is a great author buried in here, but Herzog is too indulgent. The book fails exactly where its main character fails. It’s too self-absorbed, afraid to reach out to others (in this case, it’s afraid to reach out to its main character) There are wish-fulfillment fantasies and incoherent paragraphs. It doesn’t reach out enough for the reader. Like Moses, though, when it does it’s great. Moses is less coherent than Portnoy or Caulfield, but he’s an enjoyable pinata. Bellow is a good enough writer to not let the pen get away with him too much. Despite the occasional pointless paragraph and weird sexuality, Herzog is a good satire of intellectualism. It’s a must-read for anyone who reads a lot. We all need to laugh at ourselves sometimes.

3 Jews out of 5

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