Saul Bellow ‘Herzog’


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.


pigs in heaven

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel ‘PIGS IN HEAVEN’ (1993) is intriguing.

Initially there is something ‘Updike-like’ about Kingsolver’s prose – sharp ironic writing laced with humour. Early on – “Alice wonders if other women in the middle of the night have begun to resent their Formica.” Later – “You might see things better on television, but you’ll never know if you were alive or dead while you watched.” But, unlike Updike there is a sort of inevitability, a preordainedness, here that is quite different from the tension of the Rabbit books. It’s not a tragedy but rather a celebration of love over adversity.

The portrayal of the Cherokee Nation as a haven of familial support, love and joy makes no substantial reference to the impact of significant poverty and racism instead representing an ideal state of oneness in ‘Heaven’ that it would be a joy to be part of (some of the time).

The plot – no spoilers – resolves itself as if by magic – which is what it is – a ‘romance’ in which the best of all possible worlds comes about through (apparent) serendipity aligned with the scheming of Ms Annawake Fourkiller and the finger of god suggesting the inevitability of the victory of good over evil.

This novel feels good and there’s little harm in that right now in the midst of Brexit and the idiocy of Trump. Nothing wrong at all with love winning the day, but … the pain that has been suffered, the legacy of sadness, to get to that ideal ending is but chaff blown away, and almost forgotten, in a gentle breeze from the idyllic world of the Cherokee Nation in Heaven. But rock on – we could do with more of it! I enjoyed it.





News from somewhere

Things have changed.

In a conscious attempt to make it more interesting and provide better navigation – aye, aye Captain! said the gnome. The website now:

  • Is up to date
  • Contains many more of my photographs eg. in Gallery 2 there are 100 images made over the last 50 years.
  • Includes a new piece of writing on Cormac McCarthy
  • Includes information about what I’m up to
  • And much more…

Come have a look at what’s available now. You can follow me using the blue “follow Phil Cosker” button on the homepage (on the right, just under the picture).

Yet more discrimination against those with disabilities

Hi everyone

I’ve just been sent this and wanted to share it with you.

Restore the Access to Elected Office Fund

Emily, David and Simeon are from three different parties. They have joined forces with More United to ask the Government to restore the Access to Elected Office Fund which helps deaf and disabled candidates, of all parties, with the additional costs of standing for election.

Petition to Amber Rudd: Restore the Access to Elected Office Fund

We are writing in support of Emily Brothers, David Buxton and Simeon Hart who are calling on you to restore the Access to Elected Office Fund, which helps deaf and disabled candidates, of all parties, with the additional costs of standing for election.

There are only 5 MPs with a disability. There could be so many more if deaf and disabled candidates could compete on a level playing field.

People with disabilities face huge barriers when standing for election. On top of normal election costs, many face additional costs: for example hiring a British Sign Language interpreter or helping with transport costs.

The Fund was frozen and put “under review” in 2015 but we are still waiting to see the results. Now the ‘review’ has taken longer than the time the Fund was open for.

The Fund is effectively closed. For the sake of equality of opportunity, democratic participation and fairness, we implore you to restore it immediately.

Sign here:

Robin Robertson’s ‘The Long Take’

The new book from the distinguished poet Robin Robertson ‘The Long Take’ is superb; its quality and jaw dropping range make it the most fabulous work I’ve read in a very long time – a bit like when I first discovered Charles Bukowski.
Its subtitle, ‘A Way to Lose More Slowly’, suggests that the central character, the ex GI, sometime newspaper man and alcoholic, Walker, is on a journey and we’re going down there with him all the way. It doesn’t easily fit any category; it’s not a novel, it is & isn’t a poem, it is a many layered narrative, and it’s noir as in film noir. No spoilers, but it refers back to lost love in Nova Scotia before the second world war, is set in California between 1946 & 1953, makes continued use of cinema of the period and locates the origins of Walker’s pain within the horrors of WW2 in Europe. The cities of LA & San Francisco along with their down and out skid row inhabitants are also major players – characters. It feels absolutely authentic and is viscerally thrilling confronting expectations of what to expect next. As with all great writing it not only illuminates the past but informs an understanding of the human condition in the present. Robertson’s research, underpinning his extraordinary imagination, is staggering. It’s hard to single out any lines, paragraphs or stanzas, so I won’t try. It’s beautiful and frightening to read. And perhaps most of all it’s a movie.

As a writer I found this inspiring. I shall read it again. A great book! Do take a look.

Art in hotel bedrooms

Once upon a time ‘art’ on hotel bedroom walls was idiosyncratic. Sometimes a valuable heirloom. Sometimes worthless tat. Sometimes: the photograph of a long-dead beloved animal or a faded out of focus landscape; a drawing made by a child, treasured and proudly presented in double matted frame by doting parents (who had sold the hotel when they retired leaving the relic behind); a sampler suggesting wise ways in a bad world; a foxed watercolour by an unknown hand; an antique regional map; even religious iconography to comfort and assuage guilty souls as they fell asleep; and of course – hay wains, gambolling peasants, cattle (bereft of flies and dung) standing in picturesque slow moving rivers, wagons and dray horses trundling endlessly on, autumn leaves and enigmatic Asian ladies dressed in green cheongsams. Every room was unique – not any more.

Now we have corporate hotel chain art and it has as much resemblance to art as bananas do to fork lift trucks. And why is it there? I’d be happier with some aerosols and marker pens so I could do my own thing and the next occupier could do theirs and so on – there is even wallpaper that you’re supposed to colour in! Why not have that? But no, far too anarchic.

There are two types of ‘hotel bedroom chain art’: ‘reproduction’ and ‘original’. Let us leave aside questions such as: what is a reproduction, and what original, or even – what is art? Trotsky wrote, ‘Art is a hammer and not a mirror’ (the original quote is often incorrectly ascribed to Brecht – an example of revolutionary plagiarism perhaps?) but either would have seen hotel bedroom chain art as a mirror of societies fixated on style over substance, appearance over purpose and conventions devoid of conscious thought.

Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Introduction’ (1936) says: “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible … artifacts (sic) could always be imitated … by pupils … by masters for diffusing their work … by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art … represents something new.’

The bedrooms in hotel chains – from the cheap to the expensive – represent an entirely new universe where chain art exists in a state that not even Benjamin could imagine.

How is it possible for an ‘original’ painting of a sunflower in a field of poppies or golden barley against an azure sky be said to be an original when it will be found in exactly the same condition of originality in one hundred and fifty identical bedrooms? Its/they are obviously original because each canvas (yes they are on canvas) has been signed by the artist as the final part of laboriously painting all one hundred and fifty not quite identical, therefore original, canvases manufactured on a Fordian production line. This is at the top end of the market where such original art is commissioned by an interior decorator.

Lower down the market the hotel chain’s accountant has used catalogues to buy print runs of pastel shaded romances where Bavarian castles, lakes, ladies in crinolines and denizens of Barbara Cartland-like imaginations preen and pout in representations of Panglosian worlds where all is well in this best of all possible worlds and we all know our place. A hotel in Heraklion, Crete, boasted such fantasies – I couldn’t understand why. But then again there is Knossos.

I suppose what bothers me is the confusion between original and reproduction; that chain art is decoration just like wallpaper or those hundreds of bloody useless cushions that now cover hotel bedroom beds (where does one put them when you go to bed?); that it suggests that what is on these walls is art.

The meaning of such objects is not inherent in the work; there is no unity of head, heart and hand (no matter how romantic a notion that might now seem). Chain art signifies someone imagining that we need to be elevated to connoisseurs by being in the presence of art on our bedroom wall thus enhancing our visitor experience.

Bring on bare walls!