Chris's Reviews > Herzog

Herzog by Saul Bellow
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M_50x66
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Feb 06, 10


Bellow is a real writer about real people, about their character and lives. I read him first after hearing Salman Rushdie say in a radio interview that The Adventures of Augie March was the best novel in English.

From the book:

He went on taking stock, lying face down on the sofa. Was he a clever man or an idiot? Well, he could not at this time claim to be clever. He might once have had the makings of a clever character, but he had chosen to be dreamy instead, and the sharpies cleaned him out. What more? He was losing his hair. He read the ads of the Thomas Scalp Specialists with the exaggerated scepticism of a man whose craving to believe was deep, desperate. Scalp Experts! So … he was a formerly handsome man. His face revealed what a beating he had taken. But he had asked to be beaten too, and had lent his attackers strength. That brought him to consider his character. What sort of character was it? Well, in the modern vocabulary, it was narcissistic; it was masochistic; it was anachronistic. His clinical picture was depressive — not the severest type; not a manic depressive. There were worse cripples around. If you believed, as everyone nowadays apparently did, that man was the sick animal, then was he even spectacularly sick, exceptionally blind, extraordinarily degraded? No. Was he intelligent? His intellect would have been more effective if he had had an aggressive paranoid character, eager for power. He was jealous but not exceptionally competitive, not a true paranoiac. And what about his learning? — He was obliged to admit, now, that he was not much of a professor, either. Oh, he was earnest, he had a certain large, immature sincerity, but he might never succeed in becoming systematic. He had made a brilliant start in his Ph. D. thesis — The State of nature in 17th and 18th Century English and French Political Philosophy. He had to his credit also several articles and a book, Romanticism and Christianity. But the rest of his ambitious projects had dried up, one after another. On the strength of his early successes he had never had difficulty in finding jobs and obtaining research grants. The Narragansett corporation had paid him fifteen thousand dollars over a number of years to continue his studies in Romanticism. The results lay in the closet, in an old valise — eight hundred pages of chaotic argument which had never found its focus. It was painful to think about.

On the floor beside him were pieces of paper, and he occasionally leaned down to write.

He now set down, Not that long disease, my life, but that long convalescence, my life. The liberal-bourgeois revision, the illusion of improvement, the poison of hope.

He thought awhile of Mithridates, whose system learned to thrive on poison. He cheated his assassins, who made the mistake of using small doses, and was pickled, not destroyed.

Tutto fa brodo.

Resuming his self-examination, he admitted that he had been a bad husband — twice. Daisy, his first wife, he had treated miserably. Madeleine, his second, had tried to do him in. To his son and his daughter he was a loving but bad father. To his own parents he had been an ungrateful child. To his country, an indifferent citizen. To his brothers and his sister, affectionate but remote. With his friends, an egotist. With love, lazy. With brightness, dull. With power, passive. With his own soul, evasive.

Satisfied with his own severity, positively enjoying the hardness and factual rigour of his judgment, he lay on his sofa, his arms rising behind him, his legs extended without aim.

But how charming we remain, nonwithstanding.


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