I’ve been reading Saul Bellow’s ‘Herzog’ (1964) and it’s given me pause for thought, not least because the intensity of the writing is overwhelming; the way Bellow works with the conjunction of improbable partners in misunderstanding and even (imagined?) malice reveals the plight of the creative mind. His prose is aggressive, sharp, staccato daggers as they pierce me with the uncertainty, challenge of life, but tempered, still softened, made conditional, by the salve of familial memory, love, and Moses’ Father Herzog.
And also pause for thought because it has made me, yet again, think about what I write and how I find the ‘right’ form to do that.
The constant commentary provided by the ‘letters’ Herzog writes captures the duality of writing one thing at exactly the same time as thinking about something quite else, of being something, or somewhere, else, evidencing the struggle of setting down the complexity of inner and public life in words, and not, moving images.
And he’s funny! But it’s funny that’s humourless; the bone jolted in your elbow; the ‘humour’ engendered by the latest pogrom – but still funny!
Though it’s a book of its time it feels, somehow, like a work from the nineteenth century set in the twentieth in the USA and not Europe in the ghetto (where it actually feels it’s set) from which it stems. Where does success, self worth, achievement and respect exist?
Bellow, aka Herzog (?), is erudite to a fault. Amidst the ‘academic’ arguments, the endless dropping of names that give Herzog purpose, validity, authenticity, everything, so that every memory and thought and plan collides with every other idea in spontaneous combustion as smoke and flames burst from the page leaving me exhausted and astounded hiding from the heat.
The personal becomes universally crucially relevant so that Herzog’s dilemmas are those we all face in trying to make sense of one existential crisis after another whilst, in Herzog’s case, inflicting yet another upon oneself until the finale.
He asks. Am I this? Am I that? Is it me? Is it her? Is it? Is it real? Is it? What? What is my life? What is the point? What am I? Herzog bellows!
His life unravels, as it must, a tragedy, and it made me weep. Inevitability. Loss. But, also hope. That we, readers, may … do what?
What a writer – that isn’t interrogative (as he might say) but a statement of fact.
When I am, once again, ready, I shall read this book again – unhurriedly, ignoring plot, sustained by the joy of Bellow’s writing, laughing, frustrated, delighted and inspired. That’ll do for me.