It was once said of Saul Bellow that he was a great writer, but he didn’t write great books. To a certain extent I think that’s churlish, as the thrust of the argument was that none of his novels could match, over the full distance, the power and genius of his best pages or paragraphs, and, well, you could say that of most writers, if not all of them. It’s like saying a footballer isn’t a great one if all his goals aren’t of the quality of one he scored with an overhead kick from 50 yards. However, I do tend to agree in Bellow’s case, that – Augie March aside – he did not write great books despite being a great writer; and it isn’t so much to do with the quality of his writing, word-for-word, idea-for-idea, insight-for-insight, but more to do with the other things that make a book enjoyable, essential things, that his work often lacks.
It’s possible that I’ll get myself caught in a semantic-logical trap here, because isn’t a great writer someone who is able to bring to the table all of the essential things I am going to discuss? And wouldn’t it follow that a great writer will then write great books? Well, yes. But, still, I want to call Bellow a great writer of often not-so-great books. You could say that when calling Bellow a great writer I am referring solely to his prose, but I’m not. I think he was a great writer, and not just a great prose stylist. His work is funny, and intelligent, and perceptive and so on. So, Bellow had many qualities as a writer, but lacked some, and it’s the things that are lacking, in my view, that makes most of his books tough to read [by which I mean a slog, not that they are difficult or challenging].
Herzog, then: what is great about it? Well, first of all it’s a pretty shit-hot idea for a book. I think James Wood once said that what makes Herzog’s central idea so good, so impressive, is that when you hear it you wish you’d thought of it, actually regard yourself as capable of having thought of it. Moses Herzog has gone mad, has had some kind of a mental breakdown precipitated by the breakup of his marriage. As a release, of sorts, he starts to write letters, real and mental, to his friends, acquaintances, the famous, the living and the dead. Not only is that a brilliant, amusing, and ultimately moving, premise, but the letters themselves, which make up part of the text, are also witty and moving, and contain many memorable lines and epigrams.
I said at the start of the review that great prose, in isolation, does not make a great writer or great book, but it is still worth stating just how great the prose in Herzog is. On a purely prose-style level Herzog is, for me, the highpoint of Bellow’s output; not only that, but, again purely on that basis, it is one of the finest novels ever written. There are literally hundreds of examples I could pull from the text, but one that immediately springs to mind was the description of the stars as like yellow drops of fat floating in a soup. How can you not like that? It gives me a throbbing literary hard-on.
One of the things that readers often take issue with in Bellow’s work are the characters, especially the attitudes and behaviour of the central male characters. I think the consensus is that they are well-written, but that they are also all pretty much the same – and that becomes tiresome – and that they are, well, mostly unlikeable. Now, I almost want to punch myself as I type this, but I must confess that I too struggled with Herzog, the man. I have always rolled my eyes at people who insist on likeable characters, who refuse to read things that feature bad [or flawed] people behaving badly, because, let’s face it, no one is asking you to go for a drink with these characters, you don’t have to rely on them for support in hard times. Julien Sorel, for example, is clearly a self-obsessed cunt, and you wouldn’t invite him over for a pizza and movie night, but I don’t read books in order to make friends with imaginary people. Having said that, there is a difference between interesting, but possibly a bastard, and whiny and boring. Whiny and boring isn’t engaging even at a distance. Herzog, I’m afraid to say, just kind of got on my nerves after a while. He spends almost the entire novel whimpering and I found it hard to swallow. So, when I talk about liking a character it is not a moral judgement; what I mean is that I find the character engaging, and in that sense I did not like Moses Herzog.
However, I would say two things in Bellow’s defence. Firstly, people who are under mental duress, who have had a breakdown, are often unable to see outside of themselves; that’s kind of the part of the deal. Also, Bellow did seem to tap into something about the modern mindset, something that I see more and more around me, which is the petulance and self-obsessive nature of relatively privileged people, when they are faced with not getting what they want from life. There is, these days, and it is there in Herzog, not only in the main character but in almost all of them, a sense of entitlement, not for things but for a happy life. Secondly, I read very recently that Bellow intended the book to be a satire, and if that is correct it does alter somewhat how I see it. Bellow said that Herzog was meant to make fun of how intellectuals like himself are incapable of dealing with the nuts and bolts of life, are ill-equipped for the emotional side of life. Well, I really like that, and in light of it maybe I need to re-think the book, because he does capture that idea perfectly.
Before I move on I briefly want to deal with the women in Bellow problem. No, they’re not particularly positive characters on the whole [except those in Augie March], but we often only see them through the eyes of his flawed male characters. Certainly in terms of Herzog, the whole focus of the thing is a man having relationship/marriage problems and ruminating on those problems, so he’s hardly likely to be effusive in his praise towards his ex-wife. In any case, there are plenty of strong positive female characters in literature, so I suggest that you go in search of those and sidestep Bellow, if that is that you want. I do not believe it is the responsibility of every novelist to make sure there are relatable female, or black, or disabled etc characters in their fiction, as though they are filling some kind of quota.
Other than Herzog’s whininess the biggest issue I have with this book is how static the narrative is. You know how people often complain about books in which nothing happens? Well, usually that’s bullshit. Stuff does happen in those books, but it tends to be low-key action; there are simply no train crashes and explosions. However, as much as it hurts me [again!], I want to say the same of Herzog. Nothing happens. Thing is, I am not even particularly big on plot, I prefer style and character, but I, y’know, like a soupcon of plot, just a smidgen. Plot for me is like salting food; I am not mad for salt, I don’t need trucks-full of the stuff dumping on everything I eat, but I like some; it makes the food tastier. Herzog, however, is completely unsalted. There is absolutely no narrative momentum and the framing story couldn’t be more banal; and I can’t help thinking that if there had been just a bit of plot the whining introspection would have gone down a lot easier. Having said all that, there are times when I think the plotlessness might be a strength of the book. In some of Bellow’s other novels the plots are wonky, the books poorly structured, and so instead of doing these things badly Herzog actually avoids them altogether.
In conclusion, Herzog is a tough novel to get a handle on. There a strange tension between the gorgeous, fluid, zesty prose and the stunted title-character. It has numerous extravagantly plumed feathers in its cap, and yet the head underneath the cap is completely bald. In some ways it is the archetypal Bellow novel, perhaps his best novel [although it is certainly not my favourite of his], but only because it makes no play for, takes no interest in, the things in his other novels that usually fail or flounder. I may have given the impression in this review that I didn’t enjoy the book. If so, that is wrong. I did. However, i judge Saul Bellow against the highest standards because aspects of his writing are sensational. With that in mind, I am going to finish with a quote from the text, perhaps my favourite line:
To tell the truth I never had it so good. But I lacked the strength of character to bear such joy.
Check that out.