29 JANUARY 1965, Page 19

BOOKS The Survivor


y SHOULD come clean. Show my hand right jaway. I think Saul Bellow is the most gifted novelist writing in America today and if we have Waited long and apprehensively for his latest novel—Herzog*—then let me pass on the good news at once: Herzog is clearly the best thing Bellow has written since Seize the Day: that is to say, it is a major work of fiction. A major work. I hope this doesn't sound ponderous or forbidding or, still worse, blutby. For Herzog is not one of those books you are expected to Plough through as a cultural duty. Neither should Bellow be blamed because the novel is riding the top of the American best-seller lists and is a selection of the Literary Guild. Herzog is a joy to read. It can easily support all the American Praise that has been heaped on it. Unfortunately, however, the reaction has already set in. 'Herzog,' Karl E. Meyer wrote in last week's New States- man, 'is an extended anecdote with the interest and limitation of Oblomov. . . (Yes. Of course. And Madame ,Bovary is small-town gossip. And The Great Gatsby is immature.) Mr. Meyer. I think, is justified in attacking such recent cul- tural inflations as Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools and the unreadable By Love Possessed, but he's wrong about Herzog. And Oblomov, tome to think of it. Or does anyone else in the house doubt that Oblomov is one of the great Russian novels? Enough. Herzog is essential reading.

Other novelists may bitch expertly about a chunk of experience, carving unhappy child- hood or social injustice or sexual trouble out but the cake and icing it richly enough for praise, but Bellow is no one-tune fiddler, he is that rare creature, the many-sided vulgarian, the wise fool, and he carts a mountain of love and sadness

1311 his back. Bellow's world is complete. It runs

Wall-to-wall. All at once, more life-ridden and Under sentence of continuing death than any Other contemporary writer's. He has learned, as Auden asked years ago of the novelist, 'how to be Plain and awkward . . . among the Filthy filthy

too, and in his own weak person . . . suffer dully

all the wrongs of Man.' Everything goes into 'know's oven. Not only the squalor and insanity

PI the city, the stench rising from the waste-pipes, the deceits, rumpled suits, moral malingering, oily foreheads, wife-stealing, sour stomachs and ashen looks, but also, the fun in people and the Unexpected intrusions of beauty.' Bellow—as he Writes of his hero Herzog—is sentenced to wit- ness. Witness with eloquence, sweetness, and treuracy. For he sees not only the rot and swindling, the perversity, but also the pratfalls ,444 tender little acts that sometimes redeem even „In ugly or dim-witted. Not for him, for instance, `Qe crabby-minded superiority, the facile angers, young John Osborne's solicitor in Inadmis- sible Evidence. Neither would Bellow ever allow himself the weaseling-out of Wesker or Kerouac Potato-love. Saul Bellow flies without a literary Parachute. He's in it up to his neck, the splendour and the shit, and he knows what it's about.

°Herzog. Who is Moses E. Herzog, PhD? He's.

of us. The contemporary intellectual worker t110, to quote Louis Kronenberger from ,a nerent context, `. . . will be unintimidated by

Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 21s.

fashions in architecture or art or letters: make his own discoveries, reach his own conclusions; speak up for what he believes in and vote for the better man,' but who also knows this is hardly enough, nothing to write home about. Herzog is a brilliant scholar and a cuckold. A comic figure. A lover and a nut. A survivor. In his forties, he can still rise to buying himself a natty straw hat or sucking in his stomach for the girls on the beach, but he has lost one sexual contest too many, he has failed himself or been failed by others twice too often, he is exhausted. Going under. All this, prosaically, an ordinary collapse in a humdrum world of real people, not fringe cases. That is to say, there is no liberal slogan-mongering. no self-indulgent baloney about suburbia or conformity or materialism. Catch-phrases ('the• soul-destroying American machine,' etc. etc.) are out. So is salvation through pot. Herzog is more than merely exas- perated with his time and place, with Richard Nixon, BoOks-of-the-Month, or the more out- landish cars made in Detroit. He is truly despondent. Herzog, supporting all the con- tradictions of Jewish and American tradition on his aching back, is, to quote Bellow, the original lkey-Fishbones, Butterfingers, Fucky-Knuckles' grown up bewildered and more than somewhat appalled by a world that seems too raucous and brutal for him.

As the novel opens, Herzog is living alone in his shattered dream of a country cottage, his crumbling manor in the Berkshires, that repre- sents a double defeat for him. This is where his dream of peace and marriage and honest scholarship went sour. It is also the scene of his mad Jewish attempt to root himself in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America, to own land, stately trees, and vines. 'If I an, out of my mind, it's all right with me,' is how Herzog begins his story. Herzog has only recently been abandoned by his second wife in favour of his best-loved friend, Valentine Gersbach, a cultural poseur and TV-intellectual. He is now generally suspected of being cracked and is given to frenetic letter- writing. Letters to his own precious dead, letters to childhood friends; pleading letters to philo- sophers and politicians; questions for Eisen- hower, Dr. Bhave, Heidegger, and Sir Solly Zuckerman; letters to his cheat of a lawyer, former mistresses, his first wife and his children. Herzog's life is a shambles. a ruin. He has had a child by each of his marriages and is now reduced to being merely a visiting father to his children. He runs into the arms of friends on Long Island only to flee their kindness the same afternoon.

In New York, Herzog is pursued by a juicy lady florist who ladles out sex just as baba, years ago, offered cookies as a cure for everything. But Herzog is actually pursued by much fiercer, sharper-toothed hounds. Failure, the tender past, unfulfilled projects, and death. The terrifying knowledge of his own imminent death, the chanciest of events, and the need to come to some sort of conclusion first. Herzog, gentle Herzog, is a life-long fumbler. 'Some fellows make a nice impression. I never had that ability. Due to my feelings. A passionate heart, a bad credit risk.'

Here, then, is my one quibble. Herzog is so engaging, so quick to tell stories, ostensibly

against himself but actually making him still more appealing, that one begins to suspect that he may also be a cunning man. An asker. Obliquely eating his way into our hearts.

All the same, Herzog is a touching man.

But as soon as he was alone in the rattling cab, he was again the inescapable Moses Elkanah Herzog. Oh. what a thing 1 am—what a thing! His driver raced the fights on Park Avenue, and Herzog considered what matters were like: I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And then? 1 fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And what next? 1 get laid. I take a short holiday, but very soon after I fall upon those same thorns with gratification in pain, or suffering in joy— who knows what the mixture is! What good, what lasting good is there in me? Is there nothing else between birth and death but what I can get out of this perversity—only a favourable balance of disorderly emotions? No freedom? Only impulses? And what about the good I have in my heart—doesn't it mean anything? Is it simply a joke? A false hope that makes a man feel the illusion of worth? And so he goes on with his struggles. But this good is no phony, I know it isn't. I swear it.

We zip freely through time past and present with Herzog, suffering his recalled griefs with him, sharing his tender times, until the man be- comes real for us. Real and entire. Herzog's Montreal childhood---Rachel Market—Roy Street ---the Revenue men pursuing his failed boot- legger of a father—is splendidly evoked. So are Herzog's impulsive flights and his final comic humiliation. After he has failed to murder his wife and Gersbach, Herzog lands in a car acci- dent with his little daughter and is booked by the cops for carrying a loaded gun (his dead father's ancient nickel-plated pistol) and stacks of foreign currency (pre-revolutionary roubles, playthings of his childhood). Now go and ex- plain your life, your own special troubles, to strangers. Try it at a police desk.

Herzog, though first of all a brilliant revela- tion of character, is filled with incident and marvellous inventions, zany characters, and memorable dialogue. The detail is magnificent, sensually exact. Here is America today. From the scribblings in big-city toilets (Phone me, if I like your voice I'll go down on you) to the glorious summer countryside. The novel is a song of praise, chassidic in its intensity and delight in life, but without the traditional corn or hocus-pocus.

Recalling his defeated father, Herzog thinks: I suppose . . . that we heard this talc of the Herzogs ten times a year. Sometimes Mama told it, sometimes he. So we had a great schooling in grief. I still know those cries of the soul. They lie in the breast, and in the throat. The mouth wants to open wide and let them out. But all these are antiquities—yes, Jewish anti- quities originating in the Bible, in a Biblical sense of personal experience and destiny What happened during the War abolished Father Herzog's claim to exceptional suffering. We are on a more brutal standard now, a new terminal standard, indifferent to persons. Part of the program of destruction into which the human spirit has poured itself with energy, even with joy. These personal histories, old tales from old times may not be worth remembering. I remember. I must. But who else—to whom can this matter? So many millions—multitudes—go down in terrible pain. And. at that, moral suffer- ing is denied, these days. Personalities are good only for comic relief. But I am still a slave to Papa's pain. The way Father Herzog spoke of himself! That could make one laugh. His 1 had such dignity.

Moses E. Herzog's 'I' has a terrible dignity, too. His struggles enrich literature. More important, they enrich us.