Thursday 4 July 2013

Herzog by Saul Bellow

“Unexpected intrusions of beauty. This is what life is.”

It seems much easier for me to write negative reviews as opposed to highly praising a piece of literature--Herzog by Saul Bellow falls into the latter category, which helps to partially explain why it has taken me so long to write anything about it. Not to make more excuses for procrastinating but right now I do not feel confident in my abilities to do this magnificent novel justice. Not to mention, I was completely enraptured while reading on the subway and ended up losing my extensive notes that contained many important page references, quotes and ideas explored in the novel that I was planning to use in my critical analysis. They must have fallen on the ground without me noticing (I really need to stop writing on tiny scraps of paper) and ever since that fateful day, I have been discouraged from writing a review because every time my mind goes blank! Therefore, similar to my other "neglected reviews" this entry will contain mostly haphazard thoughts rather than an insightful formal review. 

First off, this is one of best novels that I have ever read in my entire life and Saul Bellow is now one of my favorite authors. Do you know that wonderful sensation when reading a book where the first sentence instantly grabs your attention and soon afterwards there exists a feeling that it was written just for you? For me, Herzog is that special kind of novel, one that affected me on a deeply personal level--a profound, philosophical, life-affirming, emotional powerhouse and stylistic tour-de-force that left me in complete awe. Just wow. This novel establishes Bellow as one of the preeminent writers of the mid 20th century. Where has this guy been hiding all my life and why have I not read anything by him until now? There may have been a time when people used to read his works but he seems to have fallen into obscurity. Rarely do I ever hear his name or his novels come up during discussions of great 'modern fiction.' I plan to read everything he has ever written and hope to encourage others to seek out his works (perhaps a Saul Bellow reading week is in order). 

Saul Bellow has a very unique style that is difficult to describe although others have labeled it as being part of the "Jewish new-wave" but for me, his prose comes across as a mix between Virginia Woolf and Woody Allen. Perhaps this is a loose comparison that lacks substantial merit, but let me try to clarify this inference. Although Saul Bellow does employ stream-of-consciousness, it is not as intense or experimental as usually found in the writings of Virginia Woolf. Although much of the novel takes place in the protagonist's mind, Bellow much like Woolf, also has the tendency to pack so much emotional and intellectual material into his sentences with incredible virtuosity--the words just dance on the page. Perhaps some might find his writing to be all style and no substance but this is not the case. Bellow's sprawling narrative contains such profound beauty that is insightful, funny and just a pleasure to read. In dazzling passages of poetic ecstasy and stark realism, Saul Bellow leaves little doubt that he is one of the most gifted writers to have graced us with his presence on this Earth.

This novel is about big ideas, a complex philosophical exploration that attempts to tackle the big existential questions concerning the nature of man and the constant struggle to achieve a meaningful life. Bellow covers a wide variety of important subjects including religion, epistemology, ethics, sociology, politics, art, personal relationships and many others. No stone is left unturned and similar to Woolf, plot is secondary. I make the Woody Allen connection because although it may seem that this is a 'serious' novel, it also contains a great deal of witty humor and dialogue that one can associate with the films of Woody Allen. Moses Herzog completely embodies the iconic Woody Allen persona of the neurotic Jewish intellectual who has trouble establishing romantic relationships and often suffers through a mid-life crisis. I would not be the least bit surprised if Saul Bellow's writing is an influence on Woody Allen's own creative endeavors. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is that a large portion of the narrative is devoted to Moses Herzog in a dialogue with himself through letter writing. As previously mentioned, much of the novel takes place within the protagonists mind. He is going through a nasty divorce and in order to figure out what exactly went wrong with his marriage, he tries to piece his life together by reflecting on the past and also engages in philosophical discussions in order to achieve some semblance of clarity that might enlighten him about his current situation. For those who have seen the movie Annie Hall by Woody Allen, this similar plot outline should sound familiar: Alvy Singer breaks-up with his girlfriend and then the entire movie is a flashback where he attempts to figure out what exactly went wrong in the relationship. Furthermore, not only does Moses engage in an epistolary dialogue with people he has encountered throughout his life such as former lovers, his psychiatrist, etc, he also engages heavily with great philosophical thinkers such as Heidegger, Jung, Nietzsche, Hegel and Hobbes (to name a few) while the narrative progresses. I am surprised that the Penguin edition does not provide any footnotes regarding the many philosophical and literary references; nor does it offer translations for any of the Jewish and French language used throughout the novel. Thank goodness for Google and Wikipedia. 

Many people seem to find Bellow's aesthetic to be tedious with his verbose ramblings and lengthy philosophical discourses but I find it to be the complete opposite. His writing is mesmerizing with an immersive and accomplished lyricism; ebbing and flowing within a labyrinth of personal, social, political and historical ideas. Moses Herzog may not be the most sympathetic of individuals -- in fact, he can be accurately described as a despicable, selfish ego maniac. However, through Saul Bellow's intense psychosocial case study, Moses Herzog emerges as one of the most fully realized and memorable characters that I have ever encountered in literature.

A masterpiece.

This review is part of my Saul Bellow Project and the Classics Club Project.


  1. Adding to my to-read list.

  2. Yay! I can't recommend this novel enough but I get the feeling that Bellow might be an acquired taste. Hopefully you enjoy it though!

    Oh, I also checked out your reading challenge but I haven't read anything off your list of books. >.<

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