Understanding Bellow's masterpiece (National Post, April 13, 2005)

In idle moments, I write limericks about famous writers. The challenge is to capture the broad strokes in four short lines. When Saul Bellow died last week at the age of 89, I pulled up his:

Noble Saul's a Nobel Bellow,

Brainy heroes dames make blue;

Schemers scam this trusting fellow,

Chicago's mellow, wordy Jew

I dedicate this limerick to those who have "meant" to read Saul Bellow's chef-d'oeuvre, Herzog, but haven't quite gotten around to it. Yes, you and you and you too! Indeed, I was surprised, when Robert Fulford recently published a representative sample of the world's Greatest Unread literature in these pages, and cited Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost, but inexplicably failed to include Herzog, surely one of the greatest of the 20th century's least-read American novels.

Happily, critical appreciation for writers does not depend on how many people read his books. Writing on the noblest of themes -- "How is one to be human?" -- Bellow was early on recognized as an academic and artistic luminary, to whom homage was routinely paid by fellow alpha writers. Cynthia Ozick, a writer of rather formidable intellect herself (also widely unread), said of Bellow, "If the soul is the mind at its purest, best, clearest, busiest, profoundest, then Bellow's charge has been to restore the soul to American literature." So gird your loins and read Herzog. Yes, it's "heavy," but you'll find comedy always lurks amidst the cerebral thickets.

Bellow was the first Jewish American writer to break out of the immigrant mould and become an unhyphenated American success. But unhyphenated or not, Jewish writers lack the essentially Hellenic playfulness of gentile writers. Riddled with the stern, moralistic Hebraism of their heritage, their funny characters sometimes read as depressives. Moses Herzog is a comic Jewish archetype: funny-lugubrious, funny-annoying, funny-ardent, funny-neurotic, funny-brilliant, like so many Jewish fictional creations, but funny nonetheless.

Almost all of Bellow's heroes are more or less modelled on himself. And Moses Herzog was his most fully realized character, his fictional masterpiece. Like Bellow, Herzog is an academic of extraordinary intellect with astonishing referential depth of knowledge, a professor -- and in the spiritual sense a student -- of "humane studies."

His academic subject is Romanticism, but away from the ivory tower he is something of a romantic idiot. He has an uncanny knack for choosing the wrong mate, for which he pays a high price. (Bellow himself had five wives, so he knew whereof he spoke.) Herzog is an upscale schlemiel. His particular neuroses attract managerial women, in whose manipulative hands he is too-trusting putty.

The plot revolves around custody issues surrounding Herzog's young daughter from his first wife, Daisy, as well as the anguish arising from being cuckolded by his second wife, Madeleine, with his best friend, Valentine. Herzog's erotic, marital and paternal life is further complicated by the ever more pressing claims on his heart by Ramona, a lush and brainy marriage-minded European businesswoman with high-culture yearnings.

The crisis provokes in Moses a kind of ambulatory nervous breakdown, sparking bizarre behaviour, as well as intense intellectual and nostalgic introspection that forms the novel's scaffolding.

Careening between mental acuity and emotional disarray, Herzog embarks on a series of compulsively dashed-off -- but never sent -- notes and letters to public figures, pop stars, writers living and dead, ordinary and renowned (not to mention God, with whom he argues from time to time in the Abrahamic tradition). They are passionate missives of rebuttal and self-pity, query and anguish, hope and judgmentalism. These trepverter -- a Yiddish word meaning "retorts that came too late, when you were already on your way down the stairs" -- are the Jewish ironist's substitute for violent action.

His style in these letters is ... Bellovian: intellectual and colloquial at the same time, dense with unpretentiously tossed off scholarly allusion (de Tocqueville, Dewey, Heidegger, Barth, Sombart, Nietzsche, Buber, Pound, Eliot, Valery, Hobbes, Ruskin, Pope, Dryden, to name but a sample), and pregnant with the vitality of Chicago's vulgar streets. They're Jewishly comic letters: The ironic disparity between their enormous erudition and the nullity of their effect outside Herzog's mind recalls the sweet ineptitude of the Wise Men of Chelm.

In these letters Herzog is attempting to articulate guidelines for a meaningful life in an era and society that have repudiated ancient wisdom and traditional sources of values. His intellect, his knowledge, and his sprawling 800-page in-progress treatise on Romanticism cannot help him. His great bursting heart (in Yiddish, Herz-zug means "Heart, speak") clamours for moral direction.

Although essentially an urbanite, Herzog spends a good deal of his time -- alone, brooding and writing his fevered letters -- at the rambling old country house in Ludeyville, Massachusetts he and Madeleine thought would be their love nest.

Here, as the novel winds down, emotionally wrung out after some near-disastrous initiatives involving physical jeopardy to his daughter and himself, Herzog finds surcease from his suffering and philosophical closure. In a final letter to God, he says, "How my mind has struggled to make coherent sense. I have not been too good at it. But have desired to do your unknowable will, taking it, and you, without symbols." He is hopeful at the end, and persuasively so.

Feeling writers make us weep;

With those who think, we laugh;

Bellow's books o'er boundaries leap--

Like coffee cream, they're half and half.

© National Post 2005