January 31st, 2010

Saul Bellow, Herzog

Last week, I read Herzog by Saul Bellow for the second time. The first time I read it, I was fifteen, maybe fourteen. I read it then because I had convinced my mother to subscribe to the Book-of-the-Month-Club and Herzog was either the selection of the month or one of the generous premiums the BOMC gave out for joining. I read it this time because I read an article in the New York Times about sex scenes in popular literature and I happen to have registered for a creative writing class on writing love scenes. (What will this sixty year old grandpa do next?)  John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Phillip Roth were held up as authors of pre-women’s liberation sex scenes.

Early quince

I was reminded that Herzog was the first book I read that addressed sex openly. I discount certain scenes in Heinlein and Horatio Hornblower, which were certainly exciting to a fourteen year old in the sixties, but were suggestive cartoons, not passion.

Hyde Park and the University of Chicago play as background to Herzog, and I wonder if reading Bellow had anything to do with the fact that I chose to go off to Chicago for college. I’m not sure. While I was a student at the UC, I did not seek out Bellow, although I met him and his poodle on the street, probably Dorchester Ave, every morning one quarter when his dog walk and my class schedule happened to intersect. After the first few encounters, we began to nod, but our relationship never went farther than a nod. At the time, I am not even sure I connected the man with the poodle to the author of Herzog.

Rereading Herzog, I now realize how funny the novel is. Herzog is a buffoon in a straw boater hat and an unreliable narrator. The sex scenes are suggestive, but not graphic. The bawdiest moment it the entire book is when Herzog recounts an old joke about the Shakespearian actor who, when complimented for his physiognomy, replies “Madame, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” I trotted this chestnut out several times to show off my fifteen year old worldliness, but failed to calibrate the audience properly every time, and got only uncomprehending stares and shaking heads instead of sophisticated laughter.

Now, I wonder what it was that I enjoyed in the novel in 1965? Certainly the character of Herzog, who in some ways foreshadows some of my own intellectuality and passion for history of ideas and I think there is a certain amount of resonance between my own European heritage and Herzog’s Jewishness.

Of course, I missed entirely the bizarre absurdity of Herzog’s life and the preposterousness of twentieth century United States seen as a logical consequence of the enlightenment mixed with Nazi extremism and American materialism. But I can’t say that I understand the book now. I feel there is something I should understand, but it is all unclear.

Consequently, I feel compelled to re-read Saul Bellow’s entire corpus and figure out what it is that I almost understand. Over the years, I have read most of his books, but now I must reread them all.

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