intense sensations

Missing the point in a big way

Posted on: December 2, 2014

HerzogHerzog by Saul Bellow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, Philip Roth introduced this to me; Saul Bellow, the God of American letters wrote it; and Martin Amis — dreamy, cultured, super-sexy-son-of-iconic-Kingsley, Martin Amis — warmly recommended it. So how could I not give it 5 stars?

Well, to be honest, it nearly drove me out of my mind.

I have probably missed the point of it. I can sense Mr. Bellow nodding his venerable head and wagging an accusatory finger.

“The mixture of self-obsession and intellectual posturing that you found so dreary was, young lady, the whole point.”

Herzog is trapped and defeated by his own intelligence just as I was nearly trapped and defeated by this florid and extremely intellectual novel.

I have heard Herzog called a daring novel of ideas. I think the really big idea here is that when your (second) wife leaves you for your best friend and you discover that your ideas stink, you start to feel very depressed. Let me tell you, that’s nothing. Herzog didn’t know how lucky he was. Amazon hadn’t even been thought of back then. In the sixties American writers like Herzog had it really good!

Oh, but don’t forget that it’s a comedy. It is, thank goodness, ironic.

Woody Allen, though, it’s not. I saw another of Woody’s films the other day and — I have to be honest, I loved it. Blue Jasmine. Wow! Woody Allen writes sensational dialogue. In Blue Jasmine, even though the story is really depressing, the artistry is uplifting.

I didn’t feel uplifted by Herzog. I just felt, well, depressed.

Yet Herzog recovers. He manages, through the persistence of his irrepressible intelligence, to reforge and revive his sense of his writerly identity.

He learns to accept himself as he is … just a human being.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it’s a really big idea. And it takes Herzog a long time and a lot of dense thinking to get there.

You might not need to go on that journey. If you already accept who you are, that’s fine. You don’t need to read this.

But if you’re a literary young lion and you want to know where you fit in … well, maybe not even then. Not anymore. This was 1964. Life and American letters have moved on.


2 Responses to "Missing the point in a big way"

I (think) I read this back in the sixties, but then it was the sixties so everything was tinged with some sort of substance or other. Herzog was what my dear old Mum used to say “too clever by ‘arf!” and certainly in todays parlance way, way “up his own a..e”, like Will Self is to me. From that era give me Henry Miller, Kerouac, Joseph Heller any day. Herzog is just not an enjoyable read, and sorry Vanessa I’m not a great fan of Woody Allen either. I seem to remember that I wanted to say the equivalent then of “get a f…in’ life”, maybe because that is what, back then, we were doing.

I think Mr Allen may have got himself a life. I can’t say much about it except what I’ve read in the newspapers. My own life probably has more in common with Herzog. Some questionable relationships. Some big ideas. Some failures. And now making do with smaller pleasures. But a small pleasure contains more comfort than a big idea. You learn that when you get older.

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