ABCs of 1001 Books: Herzog

A – When I attempted to listen to an audiobook version of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, I realized within two minutes that I couldn’t. Bellow’s prose style is dense and complex, deftly weaving the story from threads of Herzog’s inner monologues, detailed flashbacks, letters Herzog writes, and Herzog’s present actions. I needed to have the full concentration of physical book reading to appreciate the book.

B – Bellow is a fun last name for an author. Like a symbol that this author’s words have the dramatic resonance to equal the sonic resonance of a bellowing voice.

C – “Character study” is the brief note I took for this novel when I added to my to-read list from Entertainment Weekly’s 100 Best Novels list. Those two words do encompass it accurately. The novel is narrowly focused on Herzog’s inner thoughts and the world as he experiences it.

D – The plot could be summed up as how Herzog behaves and thinks after his divorce from his second wife, Madelaine. Herzog travels impulsively as a ping pong ball among different cities while his ex remains in Chicago with their daughter, Junie, and Herzog’s former best friend, Valentine, a married man who has been having an affair with Madelaine.

E – I enjoy the physical experience of reading a paperpack from the 1960s with brittle, yellowing pages. But this experience is often marred by the dirt-grabbing plastic on the covers. I’m glad the publishing industry changed its materials.Blog Herzog

F – My friend Jennifer blogs for the Friends of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. I thought of her post on dog-earing as I tried out that method for keeping track of passages to re-read before I blog. It’s a lazier and less effective method than one I’ve developed for studying that uses post-it notes, so I probably won’t use it again.

G – Bellow may have been a fan of Chekhov because he introduces a literal gun early in the narrative that later creates plot tension and a point of reversal for Herzog. (I recommend this TV tropes article for a fun tangent on narrative concepts related to Chekhov’s gun.)

H – I pictured Herzog played by an aging Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman can play characters with charm and whininess, bravado and self-effacement, world-weariness and interpersonal befuddlement.

I – By making his main character a literature professor, Bellow can include some wry commentary on that intellectual type. Here is an example that occurs while Herzog watches a random criminal’s trial. “I fail to … but this is the difficulty with people who spend their lives in humane studies and therefore imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended. Of course he really knew better – understood that human beings would not live so as to be understood by the Herzogs. Why should they?” (238)

J – I found my usual judgement of a novel’s worthiness suspended as I read because I got caught up in Bellow’s style. I instantly understood why this book is on so many “best” lists, so I was able to click off that part of my English-major brain and enjoy the flow.

K – I won’t say if anyone is killed in the course of the novel because the highest point of dramatic tension is the question of whom Herzog might kill, intentionally or accidentally, with that gun of his.

L – I love the narrative technique of using letters the protagonist writes but never sends to develop the protagonists’ character. It’s a technique easily abused, but Bellow, of course, handles it deftly. Each letter reveals something different about Herzog, not just his thoughts but his family, his past, his context within the real historical period, and so much more.

M – Coincidentally, I recently listened to an audiobook of Sharon Owens’ The Tea House on Mulberry Street, a modern novel that also uses the letter-writing narrative technique. I liked Owens’ use of it until the third act when the letters are actually sent and the result is fairy-tale unrealistic, marring what was otherwise an enjoyably realistic story.

N – Coincidentally, the narrator of this novel may be suffering bouts of insanity, just like the narrator of the last novel I read for this project, The Gathering by Anne Enright. A difference in Bellow’s novel is that other characters question Herzog’s mental state and it recurs as a plot point, whereas Veronica has only one fleeting moment of asking herself if she’s “mad” and other characters remain unawares.

O – Herzog’s observations about his friends, family, and acquaintances strike me as relatable, not because I’ve had any thoughts remotely like them but simply because his observations cause him to frequently reassess what he thinks of people as he notices or reinterprets aspects of their dress, speech, or actions.

P – If I were to attempt to write a longer, more literary analysis of this novel, I would probably concentrate on Bellow’s perception of a concept he calls “potato love,” figuring out what type of love he means and what he might be trying to say about all kinds of love. Here are two examples of Herzog thinking of potato love. “Hearts quaking with cheap and feeble charity or oozing potato love have not written history” (77). “Having discovered that everyone must be indulgent with bungling child-men, pure hearts in the burlap of innocence, and willingly accepting the necessary quota of consequent lies, he had set himself up with his emotional goodies – truth, friendship, devotion to children (the regular American worship of kids), and potato love” (266).

Q – I’ve had to resist the urge to put a quote in every letter for this book. Bellow’s prose style is just so lyrical!

R – Ramona is the character I would examine closely if I had to choose one to write about for, say, an English paper. She seems like a woman very much of her time period because she is a woman trying so hard not to be a stereotypical woman of her time period.

S – Bellow employs wonderful similes for everyday things. Here’s an example: “In the rink, the players mixed like hornets – swift, padded, yellow, black, red, rushing, slashing, whirling over the ice. Above the rink the tobacco smoke lay like a cloud of flash powder, explosive” (35).

T – Bharat Tandon wrote the entry for Herzog in 1001 Books. I read it after the novel and agree with Tandon’s final words: “Herzog comes to recognize how life is always bigger than the shapes we impose on it, and, in following him, we may have a parallel experience” (583).

U – I’m glad I waited to read Tandon’s description of Herzog until after I read the novel because the first sentence labels the novel “a comedy of manners and ideas, loss and partial redemption” (583). I might have experienced the novel differently if I went in thinking of it as a comedy.

V – A lesson learned from reading this: if you have a friend named Valentine, don’t let your wife/girlfriend/daughter/mother anywhere near him. Valentine? Might as well be named Romeo, Casanova, Don Juan. Come on.

W – A warning: don’t read the plot summary from Wikipedia. It gives away everything!

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – I enjoy how Herzog’s lengthy intellectual and emotional ruminations often yield to intrusions from his physical environment, which Bellow describes with arresting specificity. An example: “It was a winter of rocklike ice. The pond like a slab of halite – green, white, resonant ice, bitterly ringing underfoot. The trickling mill dam froze in twisting pillars. The elms, giant harp shapes, made cracking noises” (127).

Z – Herzog’s ex-wife has an aunt named Zelda, which is a zippy, fun name that seems to have gone out of style in America sometime after World War II and now may never be brought back because of the popular video game series with that title. Herzog also has an aunt with a melodious Z name, Zipporah.

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